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US stainless sheet prices jump on mill hikes, surcharge gains

Pittsburgh — US cold-rolled stainless sheet transaction prices moved up to start 2017 as both smaller mill discounts and higher raw material levies pushed up pricing for January deliveries, sources said Tuesday.

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US stainless producers in early December announced increases on cold-rolled stainless sheet prices for January deliveries, with ATI Allegheny Ludlum, AK Steel, North American Stainless and Outokumpu each stating they would achieve the rise by reducing the functional discount applied to stainless sheet base prices by 2 percentage points.

"The increase is sticking, and I don't think we're going to see the mills pull back and allow for steeper discounts," a service center source said.

The increase, which covers 200, 300 and 400 series-cold rolled stainless sheet, marks the first for series 300 sheet base prices since April, and domestic mills are holding firm. Service center sources said they saw a strong uptick in demand during December as customers looked to get orders in before higher base prices took effect.

"We probably had the busiest December we've ever seen with everyone looking to buy ahead of the increase," a second service center source said.

Inventory levels are low among both mills and service centers and current lead times from US producers are in the range of five to six weeks, buy-side sources said. Additionally, the import market for commodity-grade stainless continued to be scarce throughout December, with offers for imported material dropping off toward the end of 2016, sources said. "I think everyone is waiting to see what happens with [President-elect Donald] Trump and the incoming administration when it comes to trade," the second service center source said. "Right now people seem a bit leery."

In addition to less competition from imports, rising raw material surcharges are driving up US domestic pricing, sources said. US mills published cold-rolled sheet surcharges for January with Types 304 and 316 stainless at 62.82-62.84 cents/lb and 75.66-75.7 cents/lb, respectively. Type 304 stainless is up 47% from 46.95-46.98 cents/lb in December, while Type 316 is up 25% from 60.55-60.59 cents/lb, as the chrome portion of the benchmark jumped month on month.

Given the sharp increase in surcharges, another base price hike is not expected in the near term, sources said. The mill-announced increase, combined with higher surcharges, marks the largest month-on-month increase that one service center source said they have seen in 30 years of working in the industry.

"I think the market will ride the wave of surcharges and wait to see how January plays out," another buy-side source said.

Demand throughout January is expected to be less robust than December, as many customers bought early to avoid higher pricing, sources said.

"You end up borrowing business from the next month when a sharp increase like this happens," the second service center source said.

On Tuesday, S&P Global Platts raised its monthly transaction price assessments for Types 304 and 316 CR stainless sheets to 119-121 cents/lb and 151-153 cents/lb, respectively. This compares with December transaction prices of 100-102 cents/lb and 132-133 cents/lb, respectively. Type 430 stainless sheet transaction prices rose to 88-89 cents/lb, up from 73-74 cents/lb.

--Justine Coyne,

--Edited by Lisa Miller,