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China's record daily steel output bodes ill for world rivals

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China's record daily output in April bodes ill for an embattled global steel industry already reeling from a deluge of exports from the world's top producer.

[BEIJING] China's record daily output in April bodes ill for an embattled global steel industry already reeling from a deluge of exports from the world's top producer.

Crude steel output over the month rose 0.5 per cent to 69.42 million metric tons from a year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Saturday. The gains came after mills ramped up production to take advantage of a spurt higher in prices that has given them the best profits this decade.

While below March's record monthly figure of 70.65 million tons, the daily rate of 2.314 million tons was higher due to fewer producing days and surpassed the previous best set in June 2014.

"Given how high margins went, we've been expecting to see a supply response like this," Ian Roper, Singapore-based analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd, said in a WeChat message.

"Chinese mills will likely look back to the export market as domestic oversupply reappears." China's overseas sales in the first four months were already running 7.6 per cent higher than a year earlier, piling on the pressure after the nation shipped a record 112 million tons in 2015.

Output remaining at such elevated levels "definitely adds to oversupply risks and exports may continue to rise," said Helen Lau, Hong Kong-based analyst at Argonaut Securities Asia Ltd.

In a sign that China is recommitting to the reform of its bloated state sector, its top producer, Hebei Iron & Steel Group Co, said Friday it'll cut 5.02 million tons of capacity. That still leaves a way to go.

Japan's biggest mill, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp, also said Friday that it would take control of a smaller domestic steelmaker in a bid to weather a "rapid deterioration of the business environment" caused in part by overcapacity in China of some 400 million tons.

China is exporting its steel surplus as domestic growth slows. Last year's surge in shipments sparked a rise in trade tensions and battered profits across the world.

Casualties of the glut include Australia's Arrium Ltd, forced into administration, and the loss-making UK operations of India's Tata Steel Ltd, which are up for sale.

On Friday, Baoshan Iron & Steel Co, China's second-largest steelmaker, urged the US to reject a complaint filed by US Steel Corp. that seeks to block its exports. The European Union has also launched an anti-subsidy review of Chinese steel, while India has already set up barriers to the flood of cheap Chinese metal.

Steel prices in China rebounded in the first four months after five years of losses, lifted by credit easing and an improvement in the property market as the government sought to shore up growth.

Speculators fueled the bonanza in the belief that economic stimulus and industrial reforms would drive up demand and curb supply. At the end of April, regulators and exchanges moved to cool the frenzy and prices have since receded.

April's figure takes production in the first four months to 261.4 million tons, still down 2.3 per cent on a year ago. China accounts for about half of global supply for the metal used in everything from cars to skyscrapers. Other data released Saturday showed China's economy may be in need of further stimulus as industrial production, retail sales and fixed-asset investment all missed expectations.

China's steel output shrank last year for the first time since 1981 as demand contracted. As much as 50 million tons of idled capacity has since been brought back into production, according to Mysteel Research.

"Chinese steel mills haven't had such good profits since the financial crisis, and have therefore wasted no time in firing up," Xu Xiangchun, chief analyst at Mysteel, said before the data was released.

Still, steel prices have flipped from bull to bear market in recent weeks. A 25 per cent slump in the Shanghai benchmark since April 21 has stoked concerns that "recent price surges are driven more by capital inflows from new investors than fundamentals such as a recovery in demand or cuts in supply," according to Yi Zhu, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Tomas Gutierrez, China analyst at Kallanish Commodities Ltd in Shanghai, said that output should moderate from here as prices and margins have peaked.

"There has been a boost in buying of steel for infrastructure and real estate, driven by mass approvals of projects since last October and a rush of credit in March," he said in an e-mail. 

"Much of this demand however has been dragged forward from later in the year, meaning it's likely downhill from here. Especially as credit looks set to be a little more controlled from now on."

China's steel output has peaked, Chen Derong, general manager at Shanghai Baosteel Group Corp, Baoshan's parent, said at an industry conference on Monday. Chinese mills will increasingly make investments overseas as domestic demand is saturated, he said.

BLOOMBERG