Metal markets predict auto demand recovery in second half of 2021

Many aluminium and steel market participants are increasingly optimistic that automotive production will bounce back in the second half of the year and hopeful that the semiconductor chip shortage will be resolved by 2022.

The chip shortage has disrupted automotive production worldwide this year, with many automotive plants globally still offline while automakers scramble to secure chips, including in North America.

Some market participants expect major improvement in vehicle production and demand during the second half of 2021. 

In the United States, aluminium market participants expect strong automotive demand in the second half of the year, with an aluminium producer telling Fastmarkets that his buyers see the automotive industry recovering in the second half of 2021.

“Customers are saying auto manufacturers want to keep the lines going because they think the chip shortage is going to subside. They’re predicting very robust [third quarter] and [fourth quarter] car sales… Most are saying [the second quarter] will be the worst and [the third and fourth quarters] will be very strong,” he said.

Further downstream, a US consumer expects vehicle production to recover in the second half of 2021, but doesn’t expect the chip shortage to be fully sorted out until 2022.

“In the second half it’s expected to improve. But the supply chain issue won’t be over until [the first quarter] of next year at the earliest,” the buyer said.

The consumer added that aluminium demand will likely recover in the second half because automakers will prioritize the production of higher-margin vehicles, which tend to be more aluminium-intensive.

“If you have a limited number of chips, you’ll produce the [vehicles] that give you the best return. I think car production should be heading up in the second half. The benefit is more likely to be derived by aluminium first because of the high value-added nature of those vehicles,” the consumer said

Automakers’ focus on higher-margin vehicles is also why the chip shortage only started to meaningfully weigh on aluminium demand in recent months, he said.

Meanwhile, US primary aluminium traders reportedly have had little to no impact to demand from their automotive customers.

Additionally, the chip shortage has not impacted US aluminium prices, which are at record highs.

Fastmarkets assessed the aluminium P1020A premium, ddp Midwest US at 27-28 cents per lb on Friday June 11, unchanged since the start of the month when it rose to this all-time high.

Meanwhile, secondary aluminium alloy producers have only recently reported sizably weaker demand from automotive casters.

Despite the drop in demand, prices have been supported by capacity constraints at secondary aluminium ingot smelters caused by labor issues, high raw material costs and increased trucking rates.

Fastmarkets assessed the aluminium alloy A380.1, delivered Midwest at $1.17-1.18 per lb on June 11, unchanged since May 20 at its highest level in almost a decade.

In Europe, secondary aluminium alloy producers were mixed on the demand impact. Some said parts manufacturers were still producing despite cuts at automotive lines in Europe. Other producers don’t expect demand to recover until 2022.

“This issue we have [with semiconductors]… we’ll see it until the end of the year, we’ll see some shortages and stop of automotive production, but the demand, in my opinion, will still be on a good level. I hope over the next year, the situation will be better,” a European secondary ingot producer said. “On one hand you have construction of the cars and on the other, foundries where the parts are produced, they’re not always parallel. Some customers are postponing deliveries, but I have bigger consumers asking for 20% more material. The demand is very good for cars, but you’ll have to wait.”

Fastmarkets assessed the aluminium pressure diecasting ingot DIN226/A380, delivered Europe price at €1,970-2,000 ($2,398-2,434) per tonne on Friday June 4, down 0.50% week on week from $€1,970-2,020 per tonne, but nearly unchanged from €1,950-2,020 per tonne at the start of the year.

“[The fall in the DIN226 price] is connected with the semiconductor shortage and problems with the car production program,” a second European secondary aluminium alloy producer.

In the US, some steel market participants said automotive production has improved already and they expect production to continue to increase.

The price for hot-rolled coil also continues to break record highs.

Fastmarkets’ daily steel hot-rolled coil index, fob mill US was calculated at $83.78 per hundredweight on June 10, an all-time high for the index.

“Both GM and Ford have a scheduled uptick in production, so it doesn’t seem like there’s a chip shortage anymore. Production should be heading higher in about a month and remain through the end of the year,” according to a distributor in the US’ Great Lakes region.

One producer said some steelmakers had received letters from automakers telling them to prepare their inventories for increased demand in the next two to three months.

As soon as the automakers ramp up production again, “it’s gonna be go,” the producer said. “If you run [the automakers] out of parts, they’ll definitely be fining people. There will not be any ‘it’s not my fault’ going on. They expect people to keep making parts.”

A US steel producer said demand is pent-up because of the lack of cars on lots.

“There’s very few cars on the lots. That’s a strong metric. Another one is rental car fleets are depleted. We think this has legs into 2022, simply for that reason,” that producer said.

In Asia, the chip shortage has had little impact on automotive steel demand in India.

“The reduced demand for automobiles due to the Covid-19 pandemic offset the semiconductor chip shortage faced by automotive producers, which had lowered their production rates,” a seller said.

A trader handling automotive coil shipments to Asia said there has been an increase in volumes to some of the major automotive producing countries in east and southeast Asia.

“Many automotive producers are seeing record production volumes, especially in places like China,” the trader said.

According to a report from the major Japanese automotive producer Toyota, the company produced 761,459 units worldwide in April, which is double from the same period last year. Production in Japan increased 22.7% to 267,605 units the same month, and tripled to 493,854 units outside of Japan.

The Japanese carmaker Honda also reported record production volumes in April, with almost all of its plants around the world producing double or triple the volumes compared with the same period last year. Production in Japan doubled to 65,794 units, and production in China also doubled to 171,149 units. Overall production volumes in Asia more than doubled to 209,156 units.

Nissan and Mitsubishi also reported higher production figures year on year.

The Detroit Big Three automakers, which sources say have been the most impacted by the chip shortage, expect the situation to start improving in the third quarter, the companies said during first quarter earnings results.

Stellantis said it is “continuously monitoring [the] global semiconductor shortage, resulting in loss of ~11% of planned production, or ~190k units” and that it has “limited visibility of full year impact, but expected that Q2 2021 will be worse than Q1 2021, with some improvement in H2 2021.”

General Motors said it expects “Q2 will be the weakest quarter of the year as we increase plant downtime and continue to build vehicles without modules, impacting Q2 [earnings before interest and taxes] adjusted and working capital as we hold vehicles in inventory to wholesale later in the year once the semiconductors are received.”

Ford said, “While we expect the flow of chips from Renesas to be restored in July, we and many in the industry now believe the global shortage may not be fully resolved until 2022. So our outlook now assumes we lose roughly 10% of planned second half production,” adding that the second quarter will be the “trough” of the year.

Grace Asenov, Mark Shenk and Orla O’Sullivan in New York, Justin Yang and Imogen Dudman in London and Paul Lim in Singapore contributed to this report.

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