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The hottest commodity in China may start to cool before long

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These are great times for China's gargantuan steel industry as product prices soar to multi-year highs, mills' profits swell and speculators stake out record positions in futures markets in the country that makes half of global supply. They could be over soon.

[SHANGHAI] These are great times for China's gargantuan steel industry as product prices soar to multi-year highs, mills' profits swell and speculators stake out record positions in futures markets in the country that makes half of global supply. They could be over soon.

While demand in Asia's top economy has remained strong, "as the property market cools and investment growth slows, steel prices will start to fall," Xu Ke, an analyst at Huatai Futures, said by phone from Shanghai. "We've seen many times in the past that when prices fall, they can fall very quickly." Prices sagged on Friday. Reinforcement-bar futures retreated as much as 3.5 per cent to 3,528 yuan (S$715.80) a metric ton on the Shanghai Futures Exchange. The drop takes the most-active contract down from the highest close since 2013 on Thursday, when open interest was at a record, and pares a fifth weekly advance that's the best run this year.

China's old-economy steel industry is booming even as the central government seeks to rein in its more unruly elements and combat overcapacity. State-ordered closures of induction-furnaces have spawned a shortage of reinforcement bar, a basic product used in construction. That's hoisted prices and attracted speculative interest. Still, with slower growth seen this half, and other mills expected to boost output, the rally may be set to falter.

"There are fundamental factors underpinning the price surge," said Mr Xu, citing the tighter supply after the government efforts to cut steel capacity. He added: "I'm generally more bearish about the second half than most." There are plenty of warnings that China's property market may cool, partly on government curbs designed to curb buyers' enthusiasm and avoid a bubble. Academia Capital, a commodities and emerging markets-focused hedge fund, said in June steel demand from real estate is likely to weaken over the second half, and even more in 2018, on the tightening measures and slowing sales.

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For now, mills are showcasing impressive second-quarter figures after profitability surged. Angang Steel Co, the listed unit of China's fourth-biggest steelmaker by output, said on Thursday it expects first-half net profit of 1.82 billion yuan compared with 300 million yuan a year ago. On Monday, Hesteel Co, the listed unit of China's No 2 producer, said first-half profit could triple.

The rally in steel and robust levels of profitability at mills have helped boost demand for iron ore imports, and prices of the raw material in the top user. This week, China said it shipped in 539 million tons of ore in the first half, 9.3 per cent more than in 2016. Benchmark prices are back in a bull market, and were last at US$65.91 a dry ton, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd.

In June, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd, the Australian iron miner, highlighted the shortage of rebar and higher steel prices. At the same time, Chief Executive Officer Nev Power forecast rebar makers' margins aren't long-term, "and as new production comes in, we'll see those margins come back to normal."

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