Aluminum orders stall as US buyers fear looming recession

Aluminum ingots. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto).

Aluminum buyers in the U.S. are holding off inking new orders over fears that rising inflation and crumbling supply chains may spark a recession.

Spot deals have taken a breather in recent weeks as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added increased uncertainty in a market already facing long wait times and weakening demand, according to several people who trade the lightweight industrial metal. Buyers continue taking delivery of their contracted metal, but recent economic gauges have people worried enough to hold off purchasing extra for their shipments.

A measure of U.S. manufacturing activity lost steam last month, falling to the lowest level since 2020 as new orders and production slowed, while U.S. consumer prices rose by the most in 40 years as higher gas prices and food inflation ratcheted up pressure on the U.S. Federal Reserve to raise interest rates.

“There is demand destruction happening at different fronts, but since the market is still working on back orders, market participants are not really feeling it yet,” Jorge Vazquez, the managing director at Harbor Intelligence, said in a phone interview. “It’s about shortages of key components, but also it is about demand exhaustion — the people who wanted an RV, boat, bicycle, washing machine or those who remodeled their houses, it’s over.”

A major driver of the slowdown is ongoing semiconductor shortages in the automotive industry, which is preventing carmakers from hitting full capacity. The auto industry accounts for 31% of U.S. aluminum needs, according to data from the Aluminum Association industry group. The cost to ship aluminum to the U.S. Midwest dropped in the last two weeks, indicating quoting activity has slowed.

Demand slowdown

The chief executive officer of Alcoa Corp., the largest U.S. producer, said during last week’s earnings call that chip shortages are making supply-chain disruptions more difficult, creating knock-on impacts for broader economic growth. While Alcoa left its outlook for full-year shipments unchanged, the Pittsburgh-based producer now expects global aluminum demand growth of 2% this year compared to its earlier outlook of 2% to 3% growth.

While automotive has slowed, aluminum still has its bright spots. Aerospace sales and packaging are strong. Packaging, which accounts for one-fifth of U.S. aluminum demand, has seen a surge in recent years as more people drink beverages from cans instead of plastic bottles. And aluminum producers aren’t yet forecasting major declines in shipments.

Much of the hesitation is from buyers and sellers assessing whether inflation, supply-chain bottlenecks and higher energy costs will linger into the second half of the year. The widespread economic impacts of China’s Covid-19 lockdowns also adds to uncertainty.

“We see the Covid situation that’s evolved again in China, and we’ve got the war so it’s hard to see how it will play out,” Hilde Merete Aasheim, the CEO at Norsk Hydro ASA, one of the largest European producers that also does business in the U.S., said in a phone interview. “We are concerned that with the pressure we see now that we could go into a recession, but there are so many things going on.”

(By Joe Deaux)

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