MB CENTENARY: The 1950s – a golden era

Although Britain’s postwar difficulties were still in evidence in 1950, this was nevertheless the start of a golden era for Metal Bulletin subscriptions.

Although Britain’s postwar difficulties were still in evidence in 1950, this was nevertheless the start of a golden era for subscriptions to Metal Bulletin.

With most modern forms of communication like fax and the internet still in the future, and even painless photocopying absent from most offices, the only practical way to get information fast from the latest issue was to have your own copy of it on your desk.

In trading houses, a personal Metal Bulletin subscription was a kind of badge of rank. The postwar rebound in circulation as communications all over the world were normalised continued apace throughout the 1950s, before peaking in the early 1970s at over 10,000.

It all started when the Japanese trading houses in London would painstakingly re-key prices and even major articles on to telex for rapid transmission to Japan. Thereafter the reproductive facilities that had become common – notably photocopying and fax – militated against the “one man, one sub” regime. This was when advertisers were introduced to the difference between subscriptions and readership.

This was also the era of the final dismantling of wartime controls on metal markets in most non-totalitarian countries (copper in France was an exception). The UK government’s stubborn refusal to relinquish state control of copper trading until 1953 has already been mentioned (for lead it was 1952 and zinc 1953). That same year in the UK, aluminium trading was freed from government control and steel rationing ended, while control over ferro-alloys did not end until the next year.

These moves re-enabled a lot of Metal Bulletin price discovery activity that had been in abeyance since the outbreak of war; this in turn gave a fillip to the service of promptly advising subscribers of changes in metals prices by telephone, cable and, just in the next decade, telex. 1954 saw the biggest Metal Bulletin Special Issue to date. Devoted to aluminium, it was successful by virtue of hitting the market when it was rebounding from the post-war glut.

In conversation with the American Iron & Steel Institute, Metal Bulletin’s Harry Cordero was asked if he knew of a directory of the world’s steel industry. He replied, “No, but we’ll write one.” Thus was launched Iron and Steel Works of the World, Metal Bulletin’s most successful directory, joined later by Metal Traders of the World and Steel Traders of the World; however, the first Non Ferrous Smelters and Refineries had appeared as early as 1940.

The 1950s was also the decade in which the Bureau Internationale de la Récupération accelerated to its present position of importance in the international scrap trade after its formation in 1948.

Healthy circulation
Metal Bulletin’s healthy circulation figures also underpinned a strong growth in advertising. Demand for the solus front cover position, which had been introduced in 1944, was so strong that not only was there a two-year waiting list for space, but sales staff could insist on complementary inside advertising by those who secured a front cover booking. Along with this, a distinctive silver half-border on the front cover made the journal stand out on desks. This livery was continued until the present century.

Another advertiser-led change came in 1957, with a switch to a deeper page size.

All this growth meant corresponding growth in staffing levels, and later in the decade a small satellite office was taken at 44 Albemarle Street, London, when No 27 was bursting at the seams.

Steel coverage began to be dominated, as far as the UK was concerned, by the on-off story of nationalisation of the bulk of the domestic industry (on in 1948, off in 1953 after the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, then on again, after many false starts, in 1967 in the form of what was nearly called the National Steel Corporation, but ended up as the British Steel Corporation).

This led to spats between the nationalised mills and the residue which remained private. The latter, later united in the British Independent Steel Producers’ Association (BISPA), were busy lobbying MPs for a fair crack of the whip. In the USA, union militancy was a permanent feature, but by the mid-1950s steel mills were running at more than 100% of capacity to keep up with demand.

In Europe, largely through the efforts of Robert Schuman, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) formally came into existence in 1952, beginning a process that culminated, via the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957, in the formation of the European Union. Matters like price controls were managed by the modestly-named High Authority.

The 1950s also saw the biggest change in mainstream steelmaking technology for almost 100 years, led by the development of the LD oxygen-blowing process in Austria.

They also saw the introduction of the Imperial Smelting Process for smelting zinc. An ingenious pyrometallurgical process well-suited to mixed lead-zinc ores, it flourished in the sixties, but because of its limitation of producing only gob quality, it faded away in the later years of the century.

War and markets
Less than five years after the end of the second world war, military conflict returned in the Korean peninsula. China’s support for North Korea and that of the USA for South Korea followed the pattern of Cold War confrontation between communism and capitalism established in Europe. The Dutch were expelled from the Netherlands East Indies, which became Indonesia; the British later left Malaya.

Markets such as tin and tungsten were destabilised by these events. Between decolonisation and war, the map of the world was more radically and rapidly re-drawn in the 1950s than in any earlier decade of the 20th century.

Almost every metal and ore, not to mention oil, was affected by the Suez crisis of 1956 when Colonel Nasser expropriated the Canal from the Anglo-French Canal Co and the UK and France took widely condemned military action. The Canal remained totally closed for more than six months until a UN peacekeeping force arrived.

In 1952, the release of the Paley Report in the USA caused alarm, as it forecast exhaustion of global resources of lead and other metals by the millennium. In alloying metals, Climax’s decision to build its own roaster in Rotterdam upset European convertors. With foreign exchange often hard to obtain as market forces ran up against the rigid Bretton Woods parities, barter became a progressively more common form of commerce.

Pricing mechanisms
Fixed – or at any rate less volatile – parities were also the object of moves in 1955 to create a new price series for copper. Led by the Rhodesian Selection Trust, it involved the producer setting its own selling price on the model of US producer prices for domestic business. Its novel feature was a requirement for semifabricators to price their products on the basis of the new price, not the LME. Neither they nor their customers were happy with this ulcerating significant tonnage, unevenly spread among mills according to their purchase history, so the RST price was abandoned in 1957. But the seed it had sown bore fruit in the next decade.

Also linking into that decade came the “Metal Bulletin cif Europe wirebar price”, which the producers asked MB to calculate and publish for them from input data on their sales, which they provided – in other words a European “E&MJ”. Unfortunately, nobody priced on it in the eight years of its existence. Meanwhile, in the UK, the various so-called trade associations for different types of semis – thinly disguised cartels – were anyway being wound up under pressure from the relatively-new Monopolies Commission.

Meanwhile, the tin industry’s longstanding love affair with commodity agreements had never gone away. Endless meetings during and after the war kept the idea on the boil until eventually a five-year International Tin Agreement was signed in 1956 under the auspices of the UN commodity arm Unctad. Like the last of the prewar cartels it used a buffer stock mechanism to set upper and lower limits on the range of price movements on the LME. Unlike the pre-war agreements, this one was intergovernmental, not inter-company. Even within its life, the Agreement’s Buffer Stock ran out of cash despite also introducing production restriction. But it went on to be renewed five times.

At the start of the decade, this is where prices stood:

Trevor Tarring

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