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How the mighty are fallen

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In the months since the economy collapsed, it's become something of a bittersweet parlor game to try to pinpoint exactly when the overwhelming confidence of the financial boom tipped over into something closer to hubris.

The bank executives who spent their days on the golf course or at the card table while their companies collapsed? The condo in Florida that was flipped so many times it doubled in value without ever being lived in? The college graduates who earned more in their first year on Wall Street than their parents made in a decade for doing—what exactly?

The metals sector wasn't part of that particular bubble. This industry isn't in the business of hawking sub-prime mortgages or collateralizing debt; we make, consume and trade things, from copper concentrate to hot-rolled coil to aluminum extrusions, and a lot in between. No bailouts needed.

But with the benefit of a healthy dose of hindsight, it's easy to see that metals had its share of hubris moments, too.

Here's one. At a conference early last year, a steel analyst was presenting his outlook for the industry. An audience of mainly mill executives watched as the analyst traced an unbroken path of strong growth in demand that over the next decade would double global steel output to almost 2.5 billion tons a year. In the coming years, $1,000 a ton would emerge as a solid floor for hot band prices. The BRIC nations would keep on building, construction sites in the Middle East would light up the desert nights and developing countries like Vietnam would emerge as the next drivers of sustainable steel demand.

It wasn't just analysts who got it wrong. Many of us operated on the assumption, reinforced by order books and opinionators, that the only way was up. At AMM's Steel Success Strategies conference in June last year, a top industry executive told attendees that the cycle of boom and bust was over—less than three months before the biggest bust in our lifetimes.

We don't mean to be wise after the event, either. The cover of AMM's July 2008 declared boldly Steel Stands Tall. We didn't see this coming, any more than anyone else did.

Many a beautiful theory has been destroyed by an ugly fact, as a scientist once said. The inconvenient truths that got in the way of this kind of scenario are well known. The repercussions are still being felt throughout the industry.

There are plenty of metal consumers who are still smarting at having had to pay $1,000-plus for a ton of plate or $4 for a pound of copper at the market's peak; and plenty of producers who have since had to lay off staff or ask hard-working employees to make cutbacks as a result of bad decisions made in Detroit, Washington or New York.

This isn't about apportioning blame. As summer gets underway, there are indications in the media, the markets and even in some of those industries that continue to make real things that conditions might be improving—or at least not getting any worse.

What's also emerging, slowly and painfully, are the first signs of optimism. It might take three, five or 10 years, but the North American metals industry will recover. What shape the industry will take, and how bumpy the road will be getting there, remains to be seen. After all, if the events of the past year have taught us anything, it's not to pay too much attention to anyone who says they know what the future will look like.


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