Sanctions on Russia to push Philippines to buy more SE Asia steel billet, sources say

Key Asian markets Taiwan and the Philippines will have to rely more on higher-priced steel billet from Southeast Asia if they can no longer procure Russian material amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, according to sources

Steel billet

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Philippine importers have been dependent on Russia-origin billet in recent years, with Russian producers able to produce sizes such as 100mm, 125mm and 130mm billets of 5sp grade, which is an appealing package to Philippine buyers.

Semi-finished steel imports to the Philippines totaled 2.44 million tonnes in 2021, down by 8.8% year on year from 2.68 million tonnes a year earlier, according to statistics from the country’s customs authority.

But despite the overall imports drop, Russia further cemented itself as the dominant billet supplier to the Philippines last year, with the share of Russian material in the Philippine market moving up to 44.8% in 2021 from 32.4% in 2020.

But the Russia-Philippines trade flow is now under severe threat due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week.

A major South Asian billet trading source told Fastmarkets on Friday, February 25 that he believed that the Philippines will no longer be able to access Russian billet given the economic sanctions applied by their United States allies. He noted that although there were no direct sanctions yet applied on the Russian steel sector, such a decision was likely to take place in the future.

Philippine buyers have largely avoided Iran billet since US sanctions were re-applied to that country in 2018, but importers in other Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia and China have continued to buy such Iranian billets at discount prices.

“Buyers in Manila are now concerned seeing as around 50% of their billets come from Russia. It is a possibility [that Manila will no longer be able to buy Russian billets] and if it were to happen, we would be bullish on steel in the Philippines because buyers would have to very quickly switch to Vietnam for their needs,” a major Singapore steel trader said on Thursday.

He added that in the near term, some mills in Manila saw some positivity in the news from a very short-term standpoint because it meant they have a strong reason to push local steel prices up and can attempt to sell their high stocks of rebar at firmer prices. A second South Asian trading source agreed.

“Russia supplies several million tonnes of billet to export markets every year, and Ukraine is a big exporter too. Russian billet has a big share in the Philippine and Taiwan markets, so if supply is constricted now, then Japan and Vietnam producers have a bigger opportunity to supply,” a Japanese scrap exporter said on Friday.

Further price pressure is being applied in Asia by the rise in global bulk freight rates. Fastmarkets heard this week that freight costs for a 30,000-tonne shipment of billet from the east of India to China had moved up to $48-55 per tonne, up from $45-50 per tonne on February 15.

Prices inch up but demand weak

Despite the predicted cut in supply, demand for billet remains tepid in the Philippines because of high billet stocks in hand at mills, three trading sources told Fastmarkets this week.

Far East Russia-origin 125mm 5sp billet was heard offered at $720-725 per tonne cfr Manila at the start of this week with bids as high as $705 per tonne cfr, but sources said they did not believe this offer was still in the market by the end of the week, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Thursday.

Malaysia-origin 5sp blast furnace (BF) billet was heard to be offered by traders at $720-725 per tonne cfr Manila on Friday, with bids heard at $705-710 per tonne cfr for such material.

Vietnam-origin BF billet was still heard to be available at $705 per tonne fob by the end of the week, which is equal to around $735 per tonne cfr Manila, sources said. Indian induction furnace (IF) billet remains uncompetitive to Philippine importers due to the continued strength of the India local market.

Fastmarkets’ price assessment for standard 5sp 120-150mm steel billet, import, cfr Manila was $705-710 per tonne cfr on Friday, widening upward by $5 per tonne from $705 per tonne cfr a day earlier.

China market weakens

Import prices for steel billet to China have fallen in recent days amid softer demand for long steel, market sources said.

Fastmarkets’ price assessment for 3sp-grade steel billet, import, cfr China was $645-660 per tonne on Friday, down by $10-15 per tonne week on week from $660-670 per tonne.

“The Russia-Ukraine conflict is a very important factor to drive the international billet market to go up again, but it seems like this is not happening in China right now,” a major Chinese importer source said.

“I believe buyers in China can only consider [bidding] around $640 per tonne cfr - that’s why a major Indonesian steelmaker stopped offering to the China market these two days and they need a firm bid to negotiate,” he said.

“The China market is very low now and I think China has left the billet import market - overseas billet prices are higher than China,” a second importer source said. He added that $645 per tonne cfr China would be a workable spot level for buyers on Friday.

A trader in Shanghai said on Friday that most of his customers put off their rebar procurement plans on seeing the sharp decreases in the futures market on Friday and with end-user demand remaining weak.

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