US plate prices flat on Section 232 doubts, volatility fears

Plate prices remain flat amid divergent outlooks and uncertainty over US trade policy.

American Metal Market’s price assessment for cut-to-length plate is unchanged at $46.25 per cwt ($925 per ton).

Lead times average eight to 10 weeks, market participants said.

With lead times stretching into the summer doldrums - a period when activity often slows - prices are likely to hold steady at best, some sources said.

But others said shortages are more likely, especially should Section 232 tariffs and quotas result in a supply squeeze.

Much could hinge on whether the Trump administration extends exemptions for Canada, Mexico and the European Union - among the top suppliers of plate to the US market - beyond a self-imposed June 1 deadline, sources said.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty. I think we’re going to see a shortage” as service centers’ inventories dwindle and buyers return to the market, one West Coast distributor said.

Already, some mills don’t appear interested in taking spot orders because their order books are full, one steel buyer said. And a lack of import offers means that domestic plate prices will probably remain on solid footing, he said.

But such views were not universal. Other sources predicted that demand - after a strong start to the year - would take a breather.

“The super centers bought a lot of inventory and pushed the prices up for the rest of us,” an East Coast distributor said. “They bought 40% more than they needed, and the market demand only went up 10% or 20% - so they are sitting there with 20% or 30% more stock than they want.”

A mill source acknowledged that inventories - including those at mill depots - could be a problem. He also said his company has seen order intake slow recently, perhaps because buyers don’t want to take big positions for tons that might not arrive until August.

“The price has not really softened. But people are a little cautious. … They don’t want to make a decision now,” he said.

Some sources think there is a greater risk of prices falling - and their stocks losing value - than of supplies running short, especially should the June 1 deadline be extended again.

Plate prices are up 36% - or $12.25 per cwt - from $34 per cwt at the start of the year, according to American Metal Market’s Price Tracker. US President Donald Trump was initially expected to make decisions regarding Canada, Mexico and the EU on May 1, but he extended their Section 232 exemptions for 30 days.

That shouldn’t have come as a shock, given that the Section 232 investigation and subsequent remedies have been a work in progress for more than a year, sources said.

It’s no sure thing that June 1 of this year will prove any more meaningful than a self-imposed - and subsequently missed - June deadline for a key Section 232 report last year, a Midwest service center source said.

“That’s just an illustration of how long this has been going on,” he said. “It will be over when it’s over. Until that point, who knows?”

Dom Yanchunas, New York, contributed to this report.

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