Steel Manufacturers Set to Endure Period of Low Profits

Despite a rather weak global economic climate, steel and steel products recorded a CAGR of 9% over the 2007-2012 period. Growth was fuelled by the developing markets of China, India, Indonesia and Brazil, where continuous infrastructure development is taking place. However, despite rising demand, the profitability of the steel industry fell in major manufacturing locations.

Profit Margins for 11 Iron and Steel Producers

Source: Euromonitor International

On the demand side, one of the main problems that the industry is facing is overcapacity. With a slow economy and uncertain future, demand in Europe is not sufficient for the number of smelters scattered across the region. We predict that to 2018, metal products in European countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain will achieve moderate inflation-adjusted CAGRs of around 1-4 %, whereas turnover in China, India and South Korea will grow by between 9-12%. Reduced demand for European products will lead to lower profits, therefore suggesting that the industry in this region might enter a period of mergers of even closures.

Demand for iron and steel in emerging markets has moved in the opposite direction. Fuelled by expanding construction and infrastructure, demand for metals has soared. In order to sustain construction growth, China has been expanding its steel production network. Despite the economic slowdown, the number of companies operating in the country’s metals industry has risen by 13% since 2009.

Growth of Chinese Enterprises by Size

Source: Euromonitor International

Dependence on domestic demand retain China’s iron and steel producers profits vulnerable as a possible slowdown in the national housing market could lead to overcapacity and a drop in profit. Nevertheless, in order to avoid this risk, iron and steel producers are focusing on exports. Since 2008, the share of basic iron and steel exports from China increased from 3% to 5% of total output, thus reducing reliance on the domestic market. Products from China are exported at lower prices, which can have a downward influence on overall steel prices, creating a more volatile competitive environment and pushing global profit margins down even further.

On the supply side, the main problem that could affect iron and steel profits is the growth of the average wage in developing markets. The last three years has been the strongest period of growth for the average salary in China and Russia, driven by increasing standards of living and economic development.

Average Salary Growth 2010-2012

Source: Euromonitor International

In addition, according to World Bank data, the price of steel has been increasing since the middle of 2010, by around 6-7%. Increasing raw material prices might push down the profit margins of manufacturers from both developing and developed countries.

Thus, on a global basis, iron and steel producers are facing increasingly volatile operational conditions. The issue of overcapacity in Europe is inevitable and might drive some of the larger manufacturers towards closure, leaving several main players on the continent. In emerging markets like China, Russia and Indonesia, increasing costs pose the biggest threat to profit levels. Similarly, as in Europe, failure to break even might lead to mergers and a more concentrated competitive environment. As no company wants to lose share, the future might entail some interesting partitions.