Major Steel Trader Stemcor Warns Tariff Benefits May Soon Fade

(Bloomberg) -- One of the world’s biggest steel traders is getting an extra boost from global trade battles, but warns that things could soon turn sour.

The steel industry is enjoying some of its best conditions in years, with demand growing in most major economies and cut-price exports, particularly from China, being curtailed. In addition, U.S. tariffs and protectionist trade policies in Europe have helped boost prices and profits in those regions.

Even so, steel usage is ultimately dependent on economic growth, which is at risk from a spiraling trade war, according to Stemcor Global Holdings Ltd.

“These are corrective measures for a world that got out of balance, they shouldn’t be in place forever,” said Steve Graf, chief executive officer of Jersey, U.K.-based Stemcor. “Today it’s good for our business. If it goes on for too long it probably becomes a negative, not just for us but for the entire world.”

Major Steel Trader Stemcor Warns Tariff Benefits May Soon Fade

Stemcor has emerged as a smaller business after its near collapse in 2013. It’s now focusing on the crucial link between steelmakers and end users, turning its back on physical assets and more speculative trades.

The change of tack helped the company last year post its first profit since almost going under. Stemcor will on Thursday report that first-half earnings rose 14 percent to $20.6 million, with sales increasing 7 percent to $977 million.

It’s been a sizable turnaround for Stemcor, which was founded in 1951 and became arguably the top independent steel trader in the early 2000s. Hurt by the financial crisis, it defaulted on an $850 million loan in 2013 and was forced to make deals with creditors and hive off many of its assets. The Oppenheimer family lost control of the company, which is now majority owned by private equity firm Apollo Global Management LLC.

The global steel industry has also had a wild decade. After suffering from the economic downturn, the sector was slowly recovering just when the 2015 commodity crisis hit. As demand slowed, China flooded the market with cheap exports, undercutting producers around the world and causing political spats from Europe to the U.S.

The market has since recovered, with China slowing exports amid international pressure and to cut pollution, while global demand improved. President Donald Trump also slapped 25 percent tariffs on imports into the U.S. to protect local producers. That’s led to American prices surging more than elsewhere and plants restarting, but brought complaints from buyers over higher costs.

Major Steel Trader Stemcor Warns Tariff Benefits May Soon Fade

While the market recovery has been good news for traders like Stemcor, risks still remain.

“If you take the most impacted markets on trade restrictions, you would see our services being in even greater demand, and the the spread and the pricing giving us better margin opportunities,” Graf said. “There will be probably be a peaking, a plateauing and a correction in pricing that will shrink those ranges of disparity that you see between the U.S. and the rest of the world.”

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