Raw Material Pricing – Party like it’s 1999

Remember that old Prince hit?
I was dreamin’ when I wrote this
Forgive me if it goes astray
But when I woke up this mornin’
Coulda sworn it was judgment day

As I was doing the research for this article, that tune kept going through my head. The events of the last 6 months do feel more like a dream than reality. Judgment day? We’ll talk more about that later in the update series.

Raw materials are a large component of costs for metal stampers. So what has happened to the prices of the most commonly used raw materials?

Metal stampers care most about these input costs:
something to make the steel not rust (usually zinc or nickel)

For Copper, Aluminum, Zinc & Nickel, prices are back down to 2004 levels. In a few cases, even below 2004 levels. See these charts, courtesy of Kitcometals.com

Steel prices are down below 2007 levels.

So it’s not 1999, but in a lot of ways, it’s 2004 all over again.

What does this mean for stampers? Well, a major input cost has reverted to 5 years ago levels. Is that enough to ensure a return to profitability? Not usually. Stay tuned for the next part of the puzzle.

Metals tumble on rising LME stocks

Yahoo! Malaysia News

Industrial metals lead, zinc and tin fell sharply on Thursday, hit by waning demand and rising stockpiles in warehouses.

While zinc is certainly down from recent highs (as much as $2 in December/January 06/7) to “only” a buck now, it was 50 cents 5 years ago. So we still have some adjusting to do to get back to historical levels.

The other metals are the same story. Copper was $4 recently, now it’s “only” $3.67. But 5 years ago, less than a buck.

A year ago nickel touched $25 briefly. It’s currently $10, but was $5 5 years ago.

Copper drops, but not as much as you might think (or wish for)

For an amusing hour or so yesterday, Kitco, my favorite metals reporting web site, was claiming that Copper had dropped a dollar to $2 and change. It must have been a reporting glitch, because later the metal went back up to $3 and change. But for a few minutes there I was ready to break out the champagne.

But copper at $3 is a lot better than a year ago, when it was up to $4.

Likewise, zinc is still above “normal” levels, but has subsided recently to a buck (it had been $2 just over a year ago).

Nickel, having been close to $25 a year ago, is down around half that now. For a while, in late 2007, it was actually down under 12

Nickel Pricing forecast for the short and medium term

From: MEPS

Nickel prices moved lower in July as they fell further into their deep descent. The July monthly average is set to be around $US8,500 per tonne lower than June’s figure. Values are now forecast to go below the psychological $US30,000 per tonne in August as stocks on the LME continue to rise. There is still the possibility for another severe drop in the cost of nickel. Stability should return to the market later this year as production cuts from stainless steel producers over the Summer months come to an end. New nickel capacity, due on stream later this year and in 2008, is expected to prevent values rising dramatically before the end of the forecast period.


From MEPS, a steel-supplier-side news service, but important for us steel consumers too.

Western stainless steel producers of strip mill products have temporarily abandoned their traditional basis plus surcharge mechanism for selling their material. Most EU and US mills are now quoting only transaction (effective) figures. This is, principally, to disguise the discounts necessary to obtain orders after the fall in the price of nickel since early June.

Technically, surcharges in July for grade 304 increased by around 5 and 3 percent in the EU and US, respectively. With the prospect of them falling over the next two months by almost €750 and $US1400 per tonne it is not surprising that customers are refusing to pay the current inflated figures. The alloy surcharge is almost meaningless in negotiations at this time.

Mill orders have dried up. Many producers have plans to cut output in the short term but are pushing material into stock and selling at substantially discounted levels to generate the limited business available.

Material Prices

It’s been a while since I reported on material pricing.

At the end of May, there were reports of a fall in copper prices.

Well, yes and no.

Copper hit a high of about $3.75 US at the beginning of May, fell to a low of $3.20 in early June, but is as I write is back up to almost $3.60.

Other materials: zinc got up to $1.85 in the early days of May but is down to $1.55 at the moment.

Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper, so the price of brass will be a blend of the copper and zinc prices.

Nickel (the major component at the moment for stainless steel surcharges) has dropped from $24 in early May to a little over $15 now. However, I haven’t seen the prices change much yet, probably because the service centers still have stock at the old prices. Hopefully that will change soon.


The question becomes, will end use customers accept the new materials? Will they form similarly enough that they can be used with existing tooling? Or will jobs need to be retooled?

Our experience with one these grades (409) was that it was less “stainless”, and that it required different tool steels to cut and form.

The significant investment in new equipment by steel mills implies they believe the run-up in nickel prices is not going to be short-lived. They presumably know – they’re in the business. But re-tooling decisions (if needed) of stamping jobs would be made with people with less experience forecasting the future. So it isn’t clear if customers will be able to switch all that quickly.

The global stainless steel scene is changing rapidly. Customer backlash against the rising cost of nickel has been taken on board by the producers. Mills are now taking seriously market demand for low or non nickel grades.

Posco has launched a nickel free stainless steel into its portfolio. This follows similar actions earlier by Japanese producers. Outokumpu, which has traditionally been mainly a supplier of austenitic grades, is to increase its production of ferritic types. This has involved a significant investment in new equipment. Output of ferritic grades is also to be expanded from the new melting shop at Lianzhong, in China.

Global supplies of 300 series material have in the past formed 75 percent of total stainless deliveries. It is interesting to note that Thyssen Krupp recently announced that it may lift output of nickel free steel from the existing figure of 30 percent up to 35 percent. We have reports that an Arcelor Mittal senior executive sees the potential to push up production of non nickel grades to 70 percent in the long term.

Copper Heads for Largest Weekly Drop in 3 Months


Copper headed for its largest weekly decline in three months in London on speculation that demand growth will slow in China, the world’s biggest user. Nickel and zinc rose.

China’s copper imports probably slowed in April, said analysts including Kevin Norrish at Barclays Capital.

“The Chinese market is suffering temporary indigestion after the amount of material delivered into Shanghai in the first quarter,” Norrish said today by phone from London. “Some people expected them to buy this week when they returned to the market after the holiday, but that hasn’t happened.”

Korean firm introduces nickel-free stainless steel

The Toronto Star

Posco, the world’s fourth-largest steel maker, will raise output of a nickel-free stainless steel fivefold next year as the price of nickel has hit a record.

Posco plans to sell 10,000 tonnes a month of the steel, which it introduced this month, from 2,000 this year, the Pohang-based firm said yesterday. The steel, which uses chromium instead of nickel, is the equivalent of $2,762 (Canadian) a tonne, half the price of so-called 300-series cold-rolled coil steel.

Material Pricing

Here’s a brief update on material pricing.

Zinc has now fallen from the $2 US/lb that it was late last year to about $1.50 US now. However, many platers buy zinc on contract, and so until their contracts run out, higher prices will prevail. By comparison, zinc was $0.50 in June of ’05

Copper is again on the rise. It got down as far as $2.50 in February, but is up around $3.30 now. A year ago it was $4.00, so it’s a bit off the peak, but not enough to feel comfortable.

Nickel is climbing and shows no sign of stopping. It’s currently about $22.75, up from $16 at the year boundary, from $8 a year ago, and $3 five years ago.

Zinc is used in almost every method of rust-proofing steel (except stainless steel). Nickel is used in stainless steel. Brass is a combination of zinc and copper.