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Chinese steel mills plan maintenance shutdowns

11 Sep 2017 08:16 (+01:00 GMT)
Chinese steel mills plan maintenance shutdowns

Singapore, 11 September (Argus) — Chinese steel mills are planning to undergo delayed maintenance work at blast furnaces and other equipment in September and October, potentially tightening steel supply and further supporting prices.

Steelmakers typically conduct maintenance in the May-July summer months, when hot weather and rains disrupt construction activity and slow steel demand. But steel prices were strong this summer, which boosted mill profits and prompted many producers to delay the maintenance checks.

An environmental crackdown in north China during the autumn and winter, especially ahead of China's 19th party congress starting on 18 October, has encouraged mills to plan maintenance in the coming weeks. Any producers that do not comply with the environmental standards will try to rectify the issues to avoid hefty fines being imposed.

"Steel mills have been running at a high level. The pursuit of high profits had made them postpone maintenance, but recent accidents, such as the one in Bengang Steel, have made mills opt to undergo maintenance," said a Shanghai-based trader.

A blast furnace at Benxi Steel's Bengang Steel operations in Liaoning caught fire on 1 September, putting the unit out of commission indefinitely.

"Many hot-rolled coil producers are planning to conduct equipment maintenance this month because of some fire-related incidents at mills recently," said a Shanghai-based trader. "Supply of hot-rolled coil will tighten due to these restrictions and support prices in September and October."

Demand from the construction and manufacturing sectors is expected to remain stable amid the mill shutdowns, boosting prices.

The Argus assessment for Chinese export rebar rose by 2.2pc from 4-8 September to $552/t fob China, while the HRC export assessment increased by 2.1pc over the period to $590/t fob China. Argus launched daily price assessments for rebar and HRC on a fob China export and cfr Asean basis on 4 September.

Stronger domestic demand for steel in the autumn months is likely to further erode China's steel exports, while higher export prices are restricted by buyers in southeast Asia.

Chinese mills typically do not announce their maintenance schedules. Some producers have confirmed their maintenance plans to Argus but requested they not be named.

A north China-based steel mill plans to start maintenance later this month or in early October, as it looks to meet the stringent environmental conditions to be imposed in the autumn and winter.

All steelmakers in north China must obtain emissions licences by 31 October to continue to operate, while some producers in regional cities such as Tangshan and Handan must cut blast furnace output by 50pc in the winter heating season, which will start in either October or November.

A Hebei-based mill with 1,080m³, 1,380³ and two 500m³ capacity blast furnaces will conduct maintenance on one blast furnace at a time, starting in early October. A south China-based steel mill is planning maintenance on its pellet plant next month.

A large, state-controlled steel producer in central China may undertake maintenance at its four blast furnaces from next month. But the company is considering waiting to see how the restrictions play out before taking a final decision.

The shutdown plans have already begun to weigh on demand for feedstocks.

"The maintenance will support the steel market but it will pressure demand for iron ore, and prices may fall quite sharply in the October-December quarter," said a Singapore-based iron ore trader.

But other market participants said iron ore prices may not fall by much, because strength in the steel market will curb losses.

The Argus ICX price for 62pc imported fines has fallen by over 5pc this month, and was assessed at $74.30/t at the end of last week.