Worldsteel predicts lower productivity and an extended production cycle for different geographies


As most countries have been gradually reopening from their lockdowns since mid-May, recovery of economic activities is expected in the third quarter, claims the recently released Short Range Outlook (SRO) report for 2020 and 2021 by Wordsteel.

Even though all steel-using sectors are affected by the lockdown measures, the mechanical machinery and automotive sectors are highly exposed to a prolonged demand shock, as well as to disruption in global supply chains. This change in the working environment will potentially lead to lower productivity and an extended production cycle, the report said.


Coming out of the lockdown ahead of other countries, China’s economic recovery started in late February. Its economy is fast approaching normalisation, except for the hospitality and tourism sectors. The deep freeze in economic activity during February resulted in a decline of 6.8 per cent in GDP and 16.1 per cent in fixed asset investment in the first quarter. Industrial production fell by 8.4 per cent, with the automotive sector showing the worst decline of 44.6 per cent in the first quarter.

By the end of April, all major steel-using sectors were back to near full productivity, even though the full operation of the manufacturing sector is hindered by the collapse in export demand. Following the lifting of the lockdown in Wuhan on 8th April, the construction sector has already reached 100 per cent productivity.

The recovery of steel demand will be more visible in the second half of 2020. It will be driven by construction, especially infrastructure investment, as the government has put forward several new infrastructure initiatives. Recovery in manufacturing will be slower due to a severe recession in the global economy, but the automotive industry will get some support from incentive measures.

Developed economies

Steel demand in the developed economies is expected to decline by 17.1 per cent in 2020. Although the downturn is led by consumer and service sectors, massive dislocations in spending, labour markets, and lack of confidence are fuelling broad-based declines in steel-using sectors.

The European Union  steel demand suffered a contraction of 5.6 per cent in 2019 due to the sustained manufacturing recession. The manufacturing sector, which was forecast to enter a recovery phase in early 2020, was pushed back into a deeper recession as lockdown measures led to a massive fall in orders. The automotive sector is expected to be the worst hit, whilst the construction sector could remain relatively resilient.

In the United States, COVID-19 is causing a sharp manufacturing recession, which is expected to reach its nadir in the second quarter. The fall in oil prices has placed additional downward pressure on energy sector investment, which was already distressed prior to the crisis. Surging unemployment is leading to reduced income and confidence, impairing residential construction. Although non-residential construction is faring relatively better, it is expected to face a decline in 2020 and a slight recovery in 2021.

Japanese steel demand has been weakening since the second half of 2019 and will continue to contract by double digits in 2020 as reduced exports and stalling investments weigh heavily on their automotive and machinery sectors. Despite the halt in some construction projects, construction will see a relatively small contraction due to the continuation of public works.

In Korea, major steel-using sectors are expected to see a double-digit decline because of falling export markets and a weak domestic economy. The shipbuilding sector is expected to be the hardest hit, while the contraction in construction activity will record a milder decrease due to public infrastructure projects.

Developing economies (excluding China)

The developing economies are less well equipped to tackle COVID-19 than the developed economies, with inadequate health capacity leading to stricter lockdown measures in some countries.

India has implemented the most stringent nationwide lockdown measures in the world, bringing industrial operations to a standstill. Construction activity was halted entirely at the end of March, and recovery is expected to remain slow due to the slow return of labour. Supply chain disruption coupled with slower demand recovery will hit the automotive sector hard. The machinery sector is expected to see a continued decline, with weak private investment and supply chain disruption.

Supported by government stimulus, recovery in construction will be led by infrastructure investment such as railways. The government’s support to rural income, as well as expected consumption related to the upcoming festive season, will help a substantial recovery of demand for consumption-driven manufacturing goods in the second half. As a result, India is likely to face an 18.0 per cent decline in steel demand in 2020, which will rebound by 15.0 per cent in 2021.

In the first quarter the ASEAN countries were hit hard by the lockdown in China and are subsequently experiencing extended disruptions in their supply chains and in tourism. Despite the lockdown, some infrastructure projects are continuing, making the fall in steel demand less acute. Growth in Vietnam is foreseen thanks to the early containment of COVID-19. In 2021, a renewed focus on infrastructure investment is expected to boost steel demand.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a perfect storm to Latin America and will undermine the prospect of any recovery in Latin American countries during 2020. Latin America is particularly vulnerable because of its accumulated domestic structural problems, political instability and high exposure to commodity prices. The region is expected to see a substantial decline in steel demand in 2020 and only a weak recovery in 2021.

In the CIS countries, the economy will be slow to come out of recession. Combined with the collapse in oil prices, the COVID-19 crisis will push steel demand into a severe contraction in 2020, with a mild recovery in 2021. The oil-producing countries in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region are among the hardest hit due to the double shock of the COVID-19 outbreak and the plunge in oil prices.

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