When I meet with Deloitte member firm clients around the world, I often get asked about the state of the steel industry in North America. From my perspective, I have never witnessed such dynamic times in the history of the global industry, and North America is currently one of the hotspots of change.
There are three important trends leading the way and driving these paramount times in the industry. First, there appears to be a pick-up in mergers and acquisition activity in North America this year as steel producers execute much needed consolidation strategies. In the first nine months of 2014, there were 66 deals reported (up 20 percent in volume from last year) with a total transaction value of US$8.9 billion. A significant recently-completed deal was the sale by ArcelorMittal and Gerdau of their respective 50 percent interests in Gallatin Steel Company ("Gallatin") to Nucor Corporation. For Nucor, the strategic acquisition expands the company’s position serving flat-rolled customers in the growing pipe and tube segment.
Second, there is a continued focus on operational improvements, reducing structural costs, and improving financial performance. For example, U.S. Steel is implementing a strategic focus it calls “The Carnegie Way” to create value, strengthen its balance sheet, and improve core business process capabilities, including supply chain, manufacturing, and procurement. The company is also seeking to be leaner and recently announced the closure of some production facilities in both the U.S. and Canada.
The third trend is focused on capital raising. Russian producer, Evraz has filed a registration statement to raise capital through an initial public offering (IPO) of ordinal shares in its North American operations. The funds will help the company acquire assets in the region, as well as help to pay down debt.
As we approach 2015, steel demand growth in North America is likely to decrease to around 2 percent from stronger levels in 2014. In markets such as the U.S. and Mexico, apparent steel use is forecasted to increase by 6.7 percent and 6.9 percent respectively this year but plateau to a 1.9 percent and 3.5 percent growth in 2015. Where will the demand come from? Senior leaders attending the 2014 Steel Success Strategies Conference in New York in June indicated that the oil and gas industry and the automotive sector are expected to be the leading drivers of medium-term growth in North America. I was fortunate enough to attend this event and hear top global metals industry executives discuss the demand realities.
Regional production, however, is not keeping up with demand, attracting imports of steel products to fill the gap. Crude steel production in North America increased by 2.3 percent in the first nine months of 2014 with volumes at 91 million tonnes, representing just over 7 percent of global production. Recently released data indicates that imports of steel products in markets like the U.S. have increased by 35 percent through to August 2014 with more imports coming from Russia, Korea, and China. Furthermore, excess global steel capacity (anywhere from 300 million to 500 million tonnes) will likely continue into 2015 and will put significant downward pressure on steel prices into 2015. Iron ore prices fell to a five-year low in September 2014 by 40 percent to around US$80 per tonne and likely contributed to lower prices in scrap and direct-reduced iron (DRI). Moreover, it is unlikely that overcapacity will be significantly reduced in the short-term in places such as China, where most of the excess capacity is located. Countries with overcapacity will likely continue to look for export markets. Contentious unfair trade complaints around the world will likely be ongoing if the practice of dumping of government-subsidized steel persists.
Sustainable profitable growth and competitiveness of the steel industry will be underscored by the industry’s ability to capture the innovation opportunities from disruptive technologies to meet evolving customer needs. Specifically in advanced manufacturing both from improvements in technologies and materials advancements. Innovation efforts by the steel industry are not often in the spotlight, but many initiatives are yielding new solutions that warrant attention. For example, ArcelorMittal’s spreader beam innovation created the world’s only automated variable-width spreader beam which adjusts to accommodate both scrap bucket and hot metal ladle widths in the electric arc furnace. The award-winning solution provides speed and efficiency in switching between scrap and hot metal charging. The automation took a seven-minute changeover down to 50 seconds, adding the potential for an extra heat of steel per day at the facility.
Another example is in the automotive sector. Steel has advantages over other competing materials including variables associated with cost, strength, and durability. Within the 2015 Honda Fit, weight reductions were achieved in a number of ways including the extensive use of super-high-tensile strength steel that provides increased structural strength with less material. With 27 percent of the body structure made with these high-grade steels – the vehicle body is 44 pounds lighter than the previous model – fuel-efficiency performance was also improved.
For North American steel companies, energy developments around shale gas also offers longer-term prospects to enhance global competitiveness. However, to the advantage of North American countries like the U.S. over the next one to three years, shale gas will continue to be a largely regional resource with only a limited impact on global markets. Although other countries would likely want to replicate the North American shale gas revolution, they must overcome more challenging geology, and gaps in technology, infrastructure, and domestic service capability before commercial production can begin, as well as political and environmental obstacles in some jurisdictions.
In my several decades of involvement with the global steel industry, I can say that this is truly a monumental time for the steel industry filled with disruptive challenges yet also high-potential opportunities. After the sector weathered years of battered performance from the effects of the global economic downturn, steelmakers have struggled to recover and are more than ever resilient. North America is a region to watch as changing customer demands and energy developments will accelerate innovation within the industry as it strives to remain competitive.
Sources: Thomson Reuters. Nucor, Press release. United States Steel 2013 Annual report. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. CBC. Evraz. Press release. World Steel Association. American Metals Market, Steel Success Strategies infographic. The United States Census Bureau. Bloomberg. Deloitte Global Energy Resources.
Nicholas (Nick) Sowar is the Deloitte Global Metals Sector Leader. He has over 37 years of experience with Deloitte, including over 30 years serving leading steel companies worldwide. Nick currently serves as the global lead client service partner or industry advisory partner for several Deloitte member firm global steel clients.