Pipe, tube market braces for uncertain 2013

CHICAGO — Pipe and tube market players don’t expect much year-end holiday cheer, with most buyers still sidelined by an uncertain business outlook, low prices and a slowdown in drilling.

While some sources see now as a good time to buy based on announced price increases, others say previous hikes haven’t held, at least not in full.

"If you add up all the price announcements since last year, prices should be up about 50 percent," one distributor source said. "At least on our side of the fence—and I’m not the best buyer in the world—they haven’t really stuck."

The latest round of steel pipe hikes appeared to kick off in mid-November (, Nov. 16). Perhaps reflecting that, domestic hollow structural sections (HSS) have risen to $925 per ton ($46.25 per hundredweight), up 6.3 percent from $870 in October but only 1.6 percent higher than $910 in November 2011, according to AMM data.

"The foot is not off the gas pedal. Yes, we’ve slowed down, but at least we’re not hitting the brakes," the distributor source said.

But fiscal cliff concerns and uncertainty about tax policy and health-care costs have kept projects idled, he and others said.

Meanwhile, energy tubulars—a previously strong market—logged an eighth consecutive monthly decline in November. , according to data from Pipe Logix Inc., Tulsa, Okla. Domestic oil country tubular goods (OCTG) prices averaged $1,759 per ton, down 0.7 percent from $1,771 in October; welded OCTG averaged $1,628 per ton, down 1 percent from $1,644; and seamless OCTG averaged $1,891 per ton, down 0.4 percent from $1,898.

Decreased drilling activity and increased supply, from both new domestic capacity and imports, continue to weigh on prices, market sources said. A host of steel companies, for example, plan to expand seamless and welded OCTG capacity in the United States.

"I’m concerned with all these pipe mills coming on. Maybe they see something we don’t. But if not, it’s going to end up like (large outside-diameter line pipe mills a few years ago)," one trader said.

With an already slow market and traditional year-end inventory trimming, the trader wondered when a rumored energy tubulars trade petition might be brought by domestic mills. "Everyone is waiting to see what happens with this dumping case," he said. "Is the case going to be against South Korea? Vietnam? Will anyone else be included?"

An energy distributor noted that buyers don’t want to stock up on new inventory in December, especially given an uncertain first-half outlook. "We’re all trying to maintain market share. You might hit the occasional home run along the way, but right now (the market) is pretty much treading water," he said.

And going into the first quarter, there’s no reason for energy tubular prices to rise beyond what might be necessary to recoup high raw material costs, barring a cold winter or significant uptick in manufacturing demand, according to the distributor and other market sources. This could drive up both energy prices and demand for OCTG, they noted.

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