The World Steel Association forecast April 15 that steel demand will grow by 5.8% in 2021 to reach 1.874 billion mt, after declining by just 0.2% in 2020, as the overall impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the sector turned out to be less than previously foreseen.
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In 2022, steel demand will see further growth of 2.7% to reach 1.925 billion mt, said worldsteel, which represents around 85% of global steel production.
The recovery has been largely led by China, which produces more than half the world's crude steel. China's steel demand grew 9.1% on year in 2020, but is expected to slow to a 3% growth rate this year and 1% in 2022, as the effect of the 2020 stimulus subsides.
In the rest of the world demand plunged 10% last year and continues to lag in advanced economies, said Al Remeithi, chairman of the worldsteel economics committee, in a short-range outlook statement. The pandemic continues to cause considerable uncertainty for the rest of 2021, he said.
"In these advanced economies, steel demand in 2022 will still fall short of 2019 levels," Remeithi said. "In the coming years, steel demand will recover firmly, both in the developed and developing economies, supported by pent-up demand and governments' recovery programmes. However, for most developed economies a return to the pre-pandemic levels of steel demand will take a few years."
Quicker than expected rebound
Overall, however, the sector's rebound from the impact of production stoppages and lockdowns during COVID-19 "has been greater and sooner than initially expected," worldsteel Director General Edwin Basson said on a call with reporters.
The new short-range outlook revises up the worldsteel's forecast in October 2020, which foresaw a 2.4% demand decline in 2020 and a 4.1% recovery this year to 1.795 billion mt.
The new forecast assumes that the ongoing second or third waves of COVID-19 infections will stabilize in Q2 and that steady progress on vaccinations will be made, allowing a gradual return to normality in major steel-using countries, worldsteel noted.
China's economy quickly rebounded from the lockdown in late February 2020, and its overall economic activity has been largely unaffected by the pandemic, unlike the rest of the world, according to worldsteel. China's GDP growth of 2.3% in 2020 may accelerate to 7.5% this year, before moderating to 5.5% in 2022, the association said.
Work on new Chinese infrastructure projects continues apace following post-COVID stimulus, supporting steel, although for 2021 and onwards, real estate investment growth may decrease due to the government's guidance to slow growth in the sector down, and to focus on more sustainable growth worldsteel said. China's automotive sector – typically the second biggest steel consuming area after construction - reduced production by only 1.4% in 2020, it said.
"China is beginning to stabilize," Basson said, referring to China's intention that its economy should in future be driven more by consumer rather than investment demand. "There are strong signals from the Chinese government the market is at the level it should be. But even if China grows 2%-3% this still has a huge impact on steel demand."
No overall change is currently foreseen in China's role in the global steel industry, nor in typical global steel trade levels of around 400 million mt annually, he said.
The developed world's steel demand recorded a double-digit decline of 12.7% in 2020, worldsteel said.
"We will see substantial recovery in 2021 and 2022, with growth of 8.2% and 4.2% respectively. However, steel demand in 2022 will still fall short of 2019 levels," the association said.
In the US, where a major infrastructure budget will be considered by Congress, steel demand recovery will be constrained in the short term by a weak rebound in the non-residential construction and energy sectors. The automotive sector is expected to recover strongly.
In the EU, recovery in 2021 and 2022 is expected to be healthy, driven by recovery in all steel-using sectors, especially automotive, and public construction initiatives. "So far, the EU's recovery momentum has not been derailed by the ongoing third waves, but it remains fragile," worldsteel said.
Japan, where the pandemic dealt a severe blow to the economy, will see only a moderate recovery in steel demand this year
Steel demand in the developing economies excluding China declined by 7.8% in 2020. Worldsteel expects these economies, including in India, MENA, Latin America, ASEAN, Turkey and Russia to show a relatively quick rebound in 2021 and 2022, with growth of 10.2% and 5.2% respectively. Accumulation of debts, no recovery in international tourism, and slow vaccination will prevent a faster recovery, it said.
Global construction -- the biggest steel-consuming sector -- is expected to reach its 2019 level again in 2022, worldsteel predicts. This follows a 3.9% fall of global construction output in 2020, a substantially bigger fall than the 1.9% recorded in 2009 after the global financial crisis, it said.
Globally, automotive saw the most profound decline among steel-using sectors, typically on a double-digit scale, worldsteel said. However, the automotive sector is expected to recover strongly in 2021, due in part to pent-up demand, particularly in the US. The global automotive industry should also return to its 2019 level in 2022, it said.