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2017 could be a huge year for the European steel industry

Profits, market share and mergers

Europe is a diminishing industrial power and its steel sector has reflected that, declining to just 10% of global production in 2016. Major producers are often heavily indebted, struggling with low EBITDA margins, and suffering from fierce competition in a fragmented market that is now increasingly vulnerable to imports. Yet 2017 could be a significant turning point with a combination of anti-dumping measures, major mergers and a weakened euro combining to go a long way to solving the problems.

Most of the major European steel companies are back in profit after a revival in steel prices in 2016. The likes of ArcelorMittal, ThyssenKrupp and Tata Steel are expected to see those profits grow as with sources suggesting annual contracts for 2017 were set at levels 70% higher than for 2016.

The timing is perfect as 2017 could be the year when major capital intensive mergers and acquisitions finally take place. ArcelorMittal has been focusing on deleveraging, and its improved financial position strengthens its bid for the stricken Italian mill Ilva. In partnership with Italian re-roller Marcegaglia, ArcelorMittal made its final bid for Europe’s largest steel production site this week unveiling a €2.3 billion investment plan to improve the capacity utilization and environmental performance.

An analyst note from Jefferies suggested the acquisition would increase the company’s flat steel market share to 40% from 33% currently, while eliminating a competitor that often acted as an anchor to the region’s price level.

The second and third biggest actors in the European flat steel sector are engaged in discussions of their own regarding a potential merger. Germany’s ThyssenKrupp and Tata Steel have officially been in discussions since last June, and in the last couple of weeks cleared a number of hurdles.

ThyssenKrupp has also offloaded its slab making unit in Brazil finalizing a €1.5 billion sale to Ternium in late February, while Tata Steel has closed the British Steel pension scheme to future accruals having reached agreement with the UK union. ThyssenKrupp’s own pension liabilities and discord from German and Dutch unions remain an issue, but analysts suggest a deal to merge the two businesses could be achieved by September.

The industry is eagerly awaiting the release of the January import figures to see if the official figures reflect the widely held speculation that import activity has been more muted. As of January, arrivals of Russian and Brazilian hot rolled coil are subject to registration and can be hit with retroactive duties.

The two countries exported 2.5 million mt of HRC to Europe last year, 30% of total EU HRC imports. Further measures could also be applied to material from Ukraine, Serbia and Iran when the provisional duties are announced in April.

The total imports figures for Chinese hot dip galvanized coil may also begin to decline in the January numbers, and are likely to drop sharply throughout the year with the last arrivals expected for April. Not only are preliminary duties later in the year an issue, the price stopped being attractive anyway some time ago.

As a result many in the market suggest the real impact of anti-dumping measures is yet to be felt with 2017 likely to be an inflection point when import volumes fall, relieving pressure from domestic mills.

Do prices have further to go?

As of early March, the European coil markets seem on the surface to be rather dull. Prices are largely flat with mills insistent on higher offers and buyers equally insistent that their stocks are high enough to avoid major purchasing. But in reality March discussions are the phony war, with negotiations for the second half of the year the key battle.

Many buy side sources say current spot prices levels are not justified as raw material costs have weakened and steel demand is unremarkable. However, mills argue that the correlation between spot EU HRC and production costs such as coking coal has broken down. Anti-dumping duties have regionalized markets and the reality is that European mills have long lead times and are in no rush to cut prices.

End users are keen to avoid a repeat of the price shock they received in the discussion for Q1 contracts, and many will say the same raw material cost argument mills used at the end of last year, similarly holds now that those costs have eased. But the reality appears that for the first year in a long time, 2017 is a seller’s market. Further structural changes could make this a more common occurrence.