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Flat-rolled steel imports slow to trickle

Keywords: Tags  steel prices, traders, steel imports, Port of Houston, plate, cold-rolled steel, hot-rolled steel, Catherine Ngai

NEW YORK — The flat-rolled steel import market continued to drag its feet this past week as would-be buyers showed little interest in foreign material in a declining domestic market.

"Business has been really slow. We’re booking a little bit on the West Coast, but buyers are unwilling to buy (foreign) when the domestics are near or at the bottom," one trader said. "It’s been difficult."

Domestic flat-rolled prices have fallen steadily in recent weeks as many customers continue to buy on an as-needed basis as they await a pricing floor. As a result, traders have reported little interest and even fewer sales for foreign steel now available for October delivery.

"The last three months have been slow for sheet (imports). It hasn’t tanked, but it’s not getting any better," the trader said.

As a result, import offers have fallen across the board, traders said, although few actual sales have been transacted.

Hot-rolled coil was offered at the Port of Houston for $610 to $620 per short ton ($30.50 to $31 per hundredweight) this past week, down from early June offers of $620 to $650 per ton ($31 to $32.50 per cwt). This compares with domestic prices of about $600 per ton ($30 per cwt).

Cold-rolled sheet was sold at $700 to $710 per ton ($35 to $35.50 per cwt) to the Port of Houston this past week, down from offers of $730 to $750 per ton ($36.50 to $37.50 per cwt) in early June, while domestic cold-rolled prices were at $710 per ton.

Plate prices have also lost ground. Medium-plate import prices dropped to $760 to $780 per ton ($38 to $39 per cwt) at the Port of Houston this past week vs. offers of $820 to $850 per ton ($41 to $42.50 per cwt) in early June. Those import prices are still cheaper than domestic prices of about $860 per ton ($43 per cwt), but that doesn’t necessarily mean buyers are willing to take a chance.

"Plate is falling apart, too. On a relative basis, prices have come down a great deal. It’s no longer described as a strong market," a second trader said. "I’m not drawing any interest on plate. There are no bright spots."

An influx of plate hit shores earlier this quarter, contributing to the domestic oversupply and related pricing drop, sources said. In May, some 106,782 tonnes of cut-to-length plate entered the country, led by gains from South Korea, Turkey and Brazil, according to U.S. Census Bureau data (see related story, page 1).

"There’s too much plate right now. Demand is better for plate, generally, because of the oil and transportation business. But it’s not as big as the hot-rolled (market) and way too much product came in (during May)," a third trader said.

A number of steel traders and industry sources said they expect a near-term pricing bottom, which could mean an upswing in the third quarter.

"We’re beginning to see some activity on some products. Some folks recognize that we may be at the bottom, and it could be a good opportunity to lock in some numbers," a fourth trader said.

But others aren’t holding their breath.

"There’s so much uncertainty out there. We hope it’ll get better, but you know, the U.S. economy isn’t growing as fast as it should and it’s actually slowing," the third trader said. "Based on historical facts, the third quarter should be better with more buying activity. But we still have too much production here."

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