MRC Global InSight

Stainless Steel & Alloy Pipe, Fittings & Flanges

Market conditions for stainless and alloy PFF remain volatile and are generally inflationary. London Metal Exchange (LME) nickel values have seen an upward trend since early January 2019, which subsequently affects the finished products.

At the end of February 2019, three-month nickel closed at $5.97/lb. Indicators show three-month nickel trading approximately $0.03/lb. higher than the previous three-month period. The average price of LME-traded nickel in 2018 was $5.95/lb., in comparison to 2017 at $4.73/lb. and 2016 at $4.36/lb.

China is still the leading producing country of stainless steel and ferrochrome with South Africa being the leader in chromite ore. From August 2017 to August 2018, ferrochrome prices did not change for charge grade but increased slightly for high carbon. Prices have remained relatively high compared to previous years.

In recent years, production of refined nickel decreased as stainless steel producers, primarily in Asia, preferred lower cost nickel pig iron. Mine production in countries that supply direct shipping ore to nickel pig iron operations increased, while mine production supplying refineries tended to decrease. China remains the world’s largest producer by far with a total tonnage of 657,900 in 2018, followed by Japan at 81,405 tons and the Russian Federation at 49,000 tons.

Compared with the previous year, U.S. production of molybdenum in 2018 increased by 3% to 42,000 tons. Global molybdenum production in 2018 increased slighted compared to 2017. In descending order of production: China, U.S., Peru and Mexico provided 93% of total global production. The price of molybdenum was approximately $11.61/lb. in February 2019.

These increases in raw material costs have resulted in price increases for finished products. From a global perspective, European manufacturers have not yet increased prices, but Asian manufacturers have. Chinese prices increased in February. Stainless steel producers in South Korea and Taiwan also made moderate increases in February. Japanese pricing has been stable for many months.

Chinese steel demand growth is expected to slow down in the absence of stimulus measures. Both downside and upside risks exist for China. The downside is the trade friction with the U.S. and a decelerating economy. If the Chinese government decides to use stimulus measures to try to contain the potential slowdown, steel demand could be increased. In the emerging economies, steel demand is expected to grow 3.9% in 2019, and developing Asia (not including China) is expected to increase by 6.8% in 2019.

Generally, steel demand in the developed world remains healthy but the growth will be moderate. The demand in developed economies is expected to increase by 1.2% to 1.4% in 2019. There is uncertainty around the Brexit impact that could change the dynamic in Europe.