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Metal Markets – Massive Supply-Chain Shortages

This report takes a look at the situation on the international metal markets and in the supply chain downstream of corporate customers. After two years, is there perhaps finally some easing on the supply side of the markets?

No easing of the situation in sight
The general supply situation in the USA has worsened, in some cases massively, over the past few months, even though many companies were preoccupied with little else in the fourth quarter of last year than replenishing their own inventories as far as possible (this can be seen, among other indications, from the data received for the fourth quarter on gross domestic product in the USA).

Referring to various analysts, we are far from an end to the global supply chain and value creation chaos. Although there have been some bottlenecks on the international metal markets from time to time in the course of the past few years, this is far dwarfed by the current situation.

Unprecedented supply shortages
In many companies, there has not yet been a time that even comes close to the problems that currently exist. In the meantime, the procurement problems extend far beyond the metal markets, which is already noticeable in the area of coatings, for example. The supply and procurement problems began in 2020, with the economic closures attributable to Covid-19, which also affected metal and metallurgical plants in the USA.

A complete overload of metallurgical plants, smelters, and refineries
Various metal and smelting plants are now completely overloaded, especially in the aluminum, copper, and steel sectors.

At the latest since the reopening of the economy in the United States, demand for raw materials and primary products of all kinds had shot through the roof and literally exploded.

It was not long before smelters, steel mills, and refineries had to inform their customers that they themselves were suffering from extreme supply bottlenecks in many areas.

Weeks-long delivery backlog in many sectors
This has led to an unprecedented backlog and delay in deliveries. Analysts do not see any hope for an improvement and easing of the general situation in the near future.

The omnipresent procurement problems, product bottlenecks, and supply chain disruptions have long since had an impact on the price situation. In almost all sectors, prices continue to shoot up.

Anyone who may have looked at recent in-depth inflation data from the United States will not only recognize that officially measured inflation in the U.S. climbed to a 40-year high of 7 percent in December of last year, but also that inflation expectations among consumers remain at stubbornly high levels.

There is concern among numerous companies that they may soon be unable to meet demand from their own customers and consumers due to the ongoing backlog of orders.

No more delivery promises
In the meantime, the average backlog of orders measured in those companies amounts to a period of around sixty days. These are largely raw materials of all kinds which are urgently needed in the processing and production operations.

In the meantime, steel mills and smelters have stopped making promises to their own customers with regard to the materials available, let alone agreeing on fixed delivery dates with their customers.

Chaos on sea freight and transport markets exacerbates the situation
In fact, steel mills and smelters now inform their own customers how much material can be allocated to whom. Nevertheless, there are currently frequent situations in which steel mills and smelters are unable to deliver even when they themselves are desperately waiting for material, which often arrives late, due to the situation on the international sea freight and transport markets.

For this reason, it is warned that price increases in the United States are unlikely to have seen and reached the peak of the situation for a long time to come. In a situation such as the present, it has always been possible in the past for the industry to procure the necessary primary products and raw materials in other parts of the world.

But this has also been the case for some time now. On the entire world market, there are currently no sellers who would be willing to share or sell surplus material to international companies – in most cases simply because these companies are also desperately waiting for the delivery of primary products.

Production capacities in China decline
Due to a glaring shortage of the precursor polyvinylidene chloride, which is required in the manufacture of durable coatings, it is impossible to predict how the situation in the affected markets will develop. The building and construction industries, in particular, are affected by this and have reported supply backlogs.

It is noted that the supply and procurement bottlenecks in the area of polyvinylidene chloride can only partly be attributed to Covid 19 lockdowns. Rather, one of the main problems in this area is a significant reduction in production capacity in the People’s Republic of China.

The reason for this is that companies in the People’s Republic of China have to adapt to new government regulations and the associated environmental requirements. Among other things, polyvinylidene chloride is also needed in the production of electric batteries.

Companies involved in the production of electric vehicles are now buying up the entire market, even though polyvinylidene chloride is only used in small quantities in this area, and are showing a willingness to pay any price asked by the manufacturers of precursors and polyvinylidene chloride.

The entire system is at or well beyond its limit
Most competitors simply cannot keep up. The entire procurement and supply system is, to put it mildly, at or far beyond what this system is capable of.

Looking ahead to the current year, which has only just begun, most companies in the metal sector are not even close to being able to estimate whether demand from their own customers can be adequately met.

At the same time, soaring prices for raw materials and intermediate products are putting immense pressure on the margins of the companies in the sector. Many companies would have no choice at all but to pass on these enormously rising prices to their own customers.

Well, the current situation in the corporate sector can be observed quite well by looking at the producer price index, which has jumped from one high to the next in the United States over the last few months.

Ultimately, these persistent price increases eat their way down to the end consumers, who have to dig much deeper into their pockets when buying the products they need than they did in 2019.

Added to this are price increases, some of them drastic, in packaging and transportation. Analysts are looking at the share that metals, for example in the roofing sector, account for in the private real estate markets.

This share is currently fifteen percent. This market is very likely to face a very tight supply situation over the next few years. It should be added that most of the primary products in this sector are actually produced in the United States itself – and are not imported to a large extent from the People’s Republic of China or Asia.

DepthTrade Outlook

In concrete terms, this means that the first companies are assuming that the supply and procurement bottlenecks will continue for a long time. Since the People’s Republic of China has now also sealed off several seaports again due to Covid restrictions and placed them under lockdown, it is easier to imagine the chaos that currently exists on the procurement markets.

The U.S. dollar always remains to be watched in the current situation. Just taking a breather, it is reasonable to assume that the U.S. dollar is likely to remain in demand in the near term due to both the intensifying geopolitical situation around the globe and from a global debt perspective.

Ben Schaack

Mr. Schaack is a financial analyst, specializing in the commodity, foreign exchange, and crypto markets - with more than 10 years of experience. Besides his business analytics studies, Mr. Schaack works as a journalist - covering finance, economy, and geopolitics. His special interests are focused on inflation hedging and exponential (compound interest) growth. He posts and discusses relevant news on his Twitter account.
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