North American steel shipments down in December, MSCI says

North American steel shipments took a sharp dip in December, and soft sales have continued into January for nearly every sector except automotive, keeping lead times short and quelling any expectation of a price run-up, market participants said.

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Steel shipments by US distributors totaled 2.5 million tons in December, down 18.1% from November’s totals and off nearly 28% compared with October’s volumes, according to data from the Metals Service Center Institute (MSCI).

Canadian service centers also logged a significant reduction in volumes, shipping 338,600 tons last month, down 31.6% month on month and off some 35.3% compared with the first month of the fourth quarter.

Shipments are always weaker at the end of the year. “Customers don’t like to put steel in their shops [in December]. Instead, they want it the first shipping day of January,” one Mississippi Valley processor said.

Shipments were off sharply in December compared to the same month last year, the data shows, suggesting more than just typical seasonality was at play.

In December, US steel shipments were off 14.4% compared with the same month the previous year, while Canadian shipments were down more than 19% year on year, according to MSCI data.

That weakness has persisted into January, at least in some sectors, according to a number of steel distributors.

“Things are pretty slow,” said a national distributor. “Within the markets we sell, customers are saying things are alright but slow. We are not getting the big [January] pop we got the last four years.”

“We see demand as weak. ... Customers don’t want to buy steel. A lot of October tons are still on customers’ books. But there seems to be a rant, cheerleading the industry into a place that doesn’t exist,” agreed a source at a lower Great Lakes service center that stocks the full range of sheet products.

A sheet distributor said one of his suppliers noted that the January order book was filled. Traditionally, bookings should be four to six weeks out to be perceived as having some strength.

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