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Steel plate tags rise but market still ‘fragile’

Keywords: Tags  steel plate, Nucor, ArcelorMittal USA, SSAB Americas, steel prices, discrete plate, steel, plate Catherine Ngai

NEW YORK — Following months of downward pressure thanks to lackluster demand and plenty of supply, carbon steel plate prices seem to have reversed course on the back of a recent uptick in scrap prices and increased seasonal activity.

"We’ve continued to see strong booking weeks across the board," one mill source said, noting that nonetheless, the market isn’t out of the woods just yet. "We recognize that things are pretty fragile right now, and it doesn’t take much to break it. ... (So) we’re watching closely."

Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor Corp. and Lisle, Ill.-based SSAB Americas both hiked plate prices some $30 per ton last week following increases of the same amount announced at the end of February (, March 8). Chicago-based ArcelorMittal USA LLC had earlier boosted plate prices by $60 per ton in a single move (, Feb. 22).

As a result, actual transaction prices have been reported at slightly higher levels this week, particularly as some market participants said they recognized that a turnaround seemed to be in the works.

Sources pegged the average price of discrete plate at $720 per ton ($36 per hundredweight) f.o.b. Midwest mill, up 1.4 percent from last week’s price of $710 per ton ($35.50 per cwt).

"Talking to other service centers, we’ve all seen an uptick in prices," one Midwest plate buyer said. "The mills have gotten marching orders to get their prices up."

Others agreed, noting that business appears to have strengthened.

"Activity is good, and things are going well," a second Midwest buyer said. "It’s been a crazy week trying to get a handle on everything. The mills, however, seem like they’re hungry. And it looks like orders are arriving quicker than what they’ve quoted."

Oversupply has been a cause of concern in recent months, as domestic mills were said to have put down warehouse depots to displace imports, supplying both commodity and value-added material. But much of that extra material seems to have now disappeared, some sources said.

"What is particularly interesting is the lack of time that it took to eat up the inventory," the first buyer said. "I guess people thought they were at the bottom, saw scrap going up, had their inventories depleted and ordered more. They took advantage of all the inventory on the ground."

But some sources added that a variety of problems could potentially cause the market to fall back down again, such as rising import volumes.

Others remained skeptical about the possibility that prices could rise further, arguing that the trend may be more of a matter of widespread inventory replenishment than a response to market fundamentals.

"Business has picked up this week, definitely. We’ve sold more, and the pricing increases (are) sticking," a second mill source said. "But talking to a number of people (makes me realize that) it’s not really demand, since demand levels are trudging along. It’s that people have been spurred into making purchasing decisions based on scrap."

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