China's Baosteel will raise prices of its major steel products by 9 to 13 percent next month, more than expected, a move that may suggest mills have effectively given up their battle for lower iron ore prices.
Baoshan Iron and Steel Co Ltd, the listed unit of China's largest steel mill, will increase hot- and cold-rolled steel products by 9 to 13 percent compared to July, trade sources said on Monday, double expectations and the biggest one-off increase since Baosteel moved from quarterly to monthly prices last May.
For those following every twist and turn in this year's marathon negotiations over annual iron ore prices, the main input cost for mills, the latest deal appeared to be an effort to pass along higher-than-expected costs to its customers.
I think it could mean that Baosteel has agreed to follow the price cut that Rio Tinto and Japanese steel mills signed, said Cui Jingyi, analyst at Guotai & Junan Securities.
Rio in May agreed to a 33 percent cut in its annual selling price to most of its major Asian customers outside China, but China's mills have been arguing for a return to 2007 prices, implying a cut of at least 40 percent on purchases from Rio, BHP Billiton and Vale.
But earlier this month a Shanghai-based newspaper, citing unnamed informed sources, said the China Iron and Steel Association had agreed to the 33 percent price cut. Steel executives and Rio denied a deal, but most analysts still say that the price is all but inevitable.
Previously some some steel mills held back the price hikes to prevent any negative influences on the iron ore price negotiation, and now the picture is clear for them to make their price adjustments, Guotai & Junan's Cui said.
The price talks have now blown up into a spying row after China detained four Rio executives, including one Australian, and accused them of getting state secrets in the form of inside information on the Chinese position in iron ore negotiations.
Baosteel officials declined to comment on the steel prices or iron ore negotiations.
REAL DEMAND IN DOUBT
Baosteel's August price rises will be the third monthly increase in a row, taking prices to their highest since November, when the scale of the collapse in global demand was becoming clear.
It raised the price of straight-carbon hot-rolled steel coil by 350 yuan ($51.23) per tonne, while increasing the price of low-carbon hot-rolled steel coil by 500 yuan a tonne.
The company also raised the price of cold-rolled steel coil by 500 yuan a tonne, trade sources said, adding that they were surprised by the price hikes.
Some analysts said Baosteel's sharp price hikes were supported by a recovery in demand and exports, but others said prices were driven up by speculation, doubting the impact of real demand.
China's crude steel output reached 45.39 million tonnes in June, data from the China Iron and Steel Association showed, equivalent to annual production of 552.2 million tonnes, more than 10 percent above 2008 output of 500 million tonnes.
The production boost reflected improved earnings among Chinese steel mills, which said they started to be profitable in May after seven straight months in the red.
But I do not think demand has improved a lot. As far as I know many orders were from merchants, not directly from users, said a trader at one of the major iron ore miners, who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Many merchants are building up stockpiles now, as they foresee another wave of inflation and rapid steel price rises in the remainder of the year, the trader said.
Prices in China have been falling at the consumer and producer level for several months, but a lending spree in China and excessive liquidity globally were intensifying some concerns that inflation might revive.
(Editing by Michael Urquhart)