The dwindling state of the primary aluminium market has been a topic of news for quite some time now and the market is still volatile despite some upward trends in the LME price in July& August. From the lowest of $1,525 in mid-May, LME has climbed up to $1,672.00 in mid-July, the strongest since May 16. However, the price graph started falling since recording an occasional high in August first week. This was followed by a sharp drop on August 9 to $1,628.00 a ton. However, Aluminium edged 0.7 per cent higher to touch $1,687, the highest since July 15 as dollar slips and and inventory drops in both LME and SHFE.
The impact of falling LME and the rising cost of production is felt the most on the US primary aluminium industry. US primary industry is going through a period of crisis and it has however been more or less established that US primary aluminium industry is badly hit by the cheap Chinese import. Domestic producers have been forced to close down or idle nine out of eleven operating smelters since 2011. By the end of first half of 2016 only two of the remaining smelters are expected to be operating and that too utilizing only 50% or less of their capacity. The current capacity of the domestic primary aluminium industry is less than 25% of the primary aluminium capacity and it is expected to be reduced to less than 18%. Survival is becoming tougher in a market where primary aluminium prices have gone below full costs of production and imports have grown rapidly. Imports have increased by over 19 per cent since 2011 with a speedup in growth in the first two months of 2016, and the global prices of these imports collapsed by nearly 30 per cent over the course of 2015. These series of events culminated in eliminating more than 6,500 plus jobs since 2011 through mid-2016.
The China Syndrome
Under such situation, US aluminium industry is blaming China for its cheap imports and fake semis flooding the US market. The issue was first highlighted by Aluminum Association in the month of October when the Association along with representatives from Alcoa, Kaiser, Noranda, Novelis and Scepter called for a series of common sense measures on the part of the U.S. and Chinese governments to create a level playing field to facilitate a fair competition among global aluminium producers.
The Aluminum Association urged the US International Trade Commission and US Trade Representative to probe China’s unethical exports. US producers argue that aluminium is exported as semi-fabricated to avoid an export tax on primary aluminium and then it is re-melted into primary by the consumer. Heidi Brock, President & CEO of the Aluminum Association said imports of semi-finished products have grown 115% between 2012 and 2014.
Meanwhile, the Aluminum Extruders Council (AEC) has led the U.S. aluminium extrusion industry in achieving level competition by winning tariff protection that offsets unfair trade practices of extruders/importers of aluminium profiles produced in China. U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) initiated an anti-circumvention investigation to determine whether imports of 5050 alloyed extrusions from China have been circumventing the AD/CVD duties.
Subsequently, a group of leading U.S. trade associations has announced the formation of a new coalition, Manufacturers for Trade Enforcement (MTE), to oppose China’s designation as a market economy at the end of 2016.
Demand vs Supply
While the primary aluminium industry is suffering, the demand situation is improving. The automotive and packaging sectors are driving steady demands inviting more and more import. Under such situation, US aluminium industry is blaming China for its cheap imports. Though a number of organizations are pushing for a blanket ban and extra duties on Chinese import, it would not be beneficial for the US downstream industry that is buying semi-finished aluminium and supplying aluminium products to automotive, aerospace, packaging and construction sector.
Continuous capacity cut by the aluminium majors and also by some of the major primary producers in China is however tightening the global supply. In 2016 the aluminium inventory with LME-registered warehouses has declined by more than 660,000 tons to 2.2 million tons in the first eight months, according to the latest LME data. Aluminium inventories in Shanghai Futures Exchange warehouses fell to the lowest in August 1st week since 2011. This will be the first year where Chinese annual aluminium output declines if Chinese smelters don’t restart idled capacity.
According to a Shanghai Metal Market report China exported 390,000 metric tons of unwrought aluminium in July, down 9.3 per cent from July 2015. Lower Chinese aluminium exports suggest stronger aluminium demand in China coupled with some supply cuts.
Changing Strategies of the Aluminium Majors
The solution to resurrect the US aluminium industry lies not in putting a ban on imports or levying more tariffs and trade restrictions but in developing a cost effective value added segment that can cater to the growing automotive, aerospace and packaging demands. Aluminium biggies are still positive about the turnover in aluminium as the Global demand for aluminium will continue to remain strong as worldwide supply tightens.
Looking at the demand from the automotive, aerospace and packaging sector, major aluminium companies are shifting their focus to the value added segment. Aluminium leader Alcoa has separated its upstream and downstream business and the process is going to be complete by H2 2016. The separation seems promising for the company as its Arconic (Value-Add) segments grew year-over-year significantly and Alcoa Corporation (upstream) segment grew sequentially.
The Company is forecasting improvement in the second half of 2016 as the new value added platforms ramp up, and a strong 2017. In global aerospace and automotive market, Alcoa continues to forecast a substantial growth. For the year 2016, Alcoa projects an approximately 775 thousand metric ton global aluminium deficit as 5 per cent global aluminium demand growth outweighs 2.5 per cent global aluminium supply growth.
Companies like Century Aluminium, despite incurring a net loss of US$9.5 million, agrees that the end user demand is stable and Chinese export is catering to the boom.
Constellium is of the view that as a downstream company, they have limited exposure to the metal price as this is mainly on a pass-through basis. And a low LME price actually makes aluminium more competitive compared to other materials such as steel, cooper, glass, plastic, etc.
They said their business model focuses on products with high added-value and significant growth opportunities- the automotive and aerospace business, while relying on a highly resilient business – packaging.
Even in a country like India where per capita aluminium consumption is just 2.2kgs; the aluminium majors are shifting their focus towards value added segments. Hindalco has already been operating a strong value added segment. Now, both Nalco and Vedanta are focusing on building a strong value added portfolio to cater to the growing demands in aerospace, defence and construction sector. The upcoming Aluminium parks are a significant step towards this.
Shift from Upstream to Downstream
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. aluminium market has shifted from upstream production to the downstream markets and it is a kind of natural progression that the emphasis will eventually shift to downstream sector and the primary section needs to evolve accordingly.
According to a recent report by UNO International Trade Strategy, blaming China completely for the decline in US primary aluminium industry ignores the complexities of a global market. The rise of the Chinese aluminium industry in last one decade has actually highlighted and the existing vulnerabilities experienced by U.S. primary producers who are caught up with higher energy costs and a higher US dollar that raises the total cost of production. On top of that, very strict environment regulations make the industry more cost sensitive.
“While the upstream producers of primary aluminium in the United States are facing significant challenges, the downstream industry – consisting of producers specializing in value-added aluminium products – is experiencing robust growth and profitability,” the report says.
The growing demand for downstream products can actually offset the struggles of the U.S. primary aluminium sector.
US primary producers are struggling because of the high cost of production made worse by lower LME price. Compared to the traditional production technology in US, producers in China, Canada, Russia and the Middle East have come a long way in improving their production process, making it much more cost effective.
The Bottom Line
It is commendable that aluminium associations in US are working strong to create a level playing field in global market and are trying to safeguard the domestic aluminium industry. An issue like Chinese oversupply needs global attention as it is disrupting the demand supply balance in the aluminium market. Similarly, the argument whether Chinese economy should get Market Economy Status or not needs proper discussion among the policy makers. China must meet the basic environmental and fair trade benchmarks set forth by U.S. statutes and the Department of Commerce for a functioning market economy.
However, if U.S. policymakers succumb completely to the convenient anti-China argument and develop policies – such as trade barriers and extra tariffs – to protect a declining segment which has been incurring loss for long, it will affect the growing downstream business of the industry. The policymakers can take this bottleneck as an opportunity to implement policies that motivate aluminium producers to undertake the strategic shift towards developing a competitive and profitable downstream segment so that it can leverage upon the boom in the end-user demand.