NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Steel stocks were mostly higher Friday as a hectic week for the industry came to a close.On Thursday, top executives of American steelmaking companies made their case to members of the U.S. House of Representative's Steel Caucus, arguing that a carbon-emissions bill on the legislative docket would do lasting harm to their bottom lines and lead to even more layoffs in an industry hit hard by the recession but staging an apparent, and fragile, rebound. Leading the lobbying were the CEOs of U.S. Steel ( X), Nucor ( NUE) and AK Steel ( AKS), among others. They also criticized the federal government's stimulus package, for being weak on infrastructure spending. Many had expected the stimulus bill to fund large-scale projects like road and bridge building, which would consume substantial amounts of steel. Meanwhile, the drama continued to escalate this week between China's behemoth steelmaking industry and the big-three producers of seaborne iron ore, steel's most crucial ingredient. The miners -- Rio Tinto ( RTP), BHP Billiton ( BHP) and Vale ( VALE) -- want to hike prices by as much as 100% from the benchmark set in 2009, erasing the 48% drop in price suffered by the minors in recession-bound 2009. The miners also want to switch from annual contract prices -- through which 90% of the world's iron ore has historically been traded -- to short-term settlements linked to the spot market. China, by far the world's largest manufacturer of steel products, has balked at any shift in a pricing-regime status quo that has existed for the last 40 years. Until this week, that is. On Wednesday, the head of Chinese steelmaker Baosteel, which is serving as point-man in price negotiations with the miners, suggested that his company may be open to moving away from annual contracts. "Since the benchmark pricing system was introduced 40 years ago, the steel industry ... and the world have changed a lot," said Baosteel's chairman, Xu Leijang, as quoted by the Financial Times. (As a backdrop to all this, four China-based Rio Tinto executives remain embroiled in a trial in Shanghai, waiting on a verdict for charges of bribery and industrial espionage.)
Despite making more than half the steel produced globally each year, the bargaining leverage of the Chinese steel industry, which imports almost all of its ore, appears to have slipped. Because those steelmakers have a difficult time moving from one iron-ore vender to another, the raw material is a "reverse commodity," wrote steel-industry analyst Michelle Applebaum earlier this week. Instead of high-volume customers paying less, when it comes to iron-ore importers, they'll have to pay more, Applebaum surmises. Steelmakers the world over have voiced their displeasure with the iron-ore price inflation. They've directed their attention at the Australian miners especially, who are attempting to create a joint venture, sharing costs at mines they own in Western Australia. Earlier in March, the European steel trade group, Eurofer, urged the European Union's competition regulators to have a good hard look at the proposed Rio Tinto-BHP link-up. Back stateside, however, the price hike is viewed a little differently. The conventional wisdom holds that the higher prices go for seaborne iron ore, the more globally competitive it makes those steelmakers (read U.S. Steel ( X) and ArcelorMittal ( MT)) who either own their own iron-ore mines in North America or buy it from the one major producer left on the continent, Cliffs Natural Resources ( CLF). Late in Friday's session, shares of U.S. Steel were trading at $63.68, up 2%, while the American depositary receipts of ArcelorMittal were changing hands at $43.82, up 1.4%. AK Steel shares were rising 1.8% to $22.90. Shares of Nucor, which makes its steel out of recycled scrap, were moving at $45.55, up 1.5%. -- Written by Scott Eden in New York
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