NEW YORK Domestic steel mills have successfully pushed carbon plate prices back up to early January levels as stable demand and expectations of further seasonal improvement have allowed suppliers to capture much of the $60-a-ton price hikes announced during the first quarter.
"The mills look to be holding firm on the recent $60-per-ton increase that they announced over the month of March," said one Midwest service center source. "Im not confident that itll all stick throughout April ... but the mills have gotten sick of losing money and I cant blame them."
Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor Corp. and Lisle, Ill.-based SSAB Americas both hiked plate prices some $30 per ton in early March following increases of the same amount announced at the end of February (amm.com, March 8). Chicago-based ArcelorMittal USA LLC had earlier increased its published plate prices by $60 per ton in a single move (amm.com, Feb. 22).
And according to mill and buyer sources, much of that announced increase is starting to gain traction. This past week, AMMs average transacted carbon plate price increased slightly to $740 per ton ($37 per hundredweight) f.o.b. Midwest mill from $720 per ton ($36 per cwt) the previous week, with some citing transactions in recent days as high as $760 per ton ($38 per cwt).
Sources pointed to mill outages, including SSABs planned outage in Montpelier, Iowa, as one factor lending strength to the hike. Additionally, buyers reported that business activity has picked up, with many saying that increased quoting activity from end-users has resulted in more bookings.
"March was a good booking month for us. Weve added more hours in the shop. Demand has been good," said a second Midwest service center source.
"Were busy and quoting a lot. There seems to be a lot happening," a third Midwest service center source agreed. "Overall, business in general seems to have picked up."
Lead times were generally reported to be steady this past week, with most mills in the five- to six-week range. Although one mill was said to be still rolling narrower-width material for shipment at the end of April, the overall sentiment was that things were pointing in a positive direction.
But while the market looks to be on the incline, uncertainty over future demand continued to loom. "Of course, Im not sure whats going to happen in the second half, so Im not getting overly optimistic," the second Midwest source said.
Some also questioned whether that strength will hold after a number of Midwest cities saw scrap prices settle down some $20 per gross ton in April (amm.com, April 4).
At the same time, hot-rolled sheet prices, which at times have mirrored plate tags, have seen slippage in recent weeks on the back of oversupply in the sector, which caused some to think twice about the direction of the plate market is headed in coming weeks.
"Business has been fair, and having some mills out of commission has helped," said one mill source. "At the same time, the firmness (in prices) is a limited-period feeling. Every week, HRC (hot-rolled coil) is falling. The plate market is different, but often, theyve run parallel. Will things change? No one can predict."
On the import side, sales of foreign plate have been less than robust, particularly as foreign plate prices have not been attractive enough to sell in the first quarter. Although preliminary data for February from the U.S. Census Bureau shows 86,319 tonnes of foreign cut-to-length plate arrived in the U.S. during that monthmarking a return to highs last reported in Octobersources said much of that volume was slated for specific, one-off projects. March license applications fell to 53,186 tonnes according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerces Import Administration