China's Steel Majors March To Beijing's Call, Including The Bao-Wu Merger

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By Stuart Burns

Much is being made of a megamerger between the publicly traded arm of Shanghai Baosteel Group Corp., the second-biggest Chinese steel mill by output, and the listed unit of Wuhan Iron & Steel Group Corp., its No. 6 steelmaker.

Profitable Baosteel will issue new shares to swap with the loss-making smaller firm. The Chinese press is full of the deal, saying it will rival ArcelorMittal (NYSE:MT) in size and hailing it as an example of Beijing's drive to consolidate the steel industry and tackle overcapacity.

Why the Urge to Merge?

ArcelorMittal produced 97 million metric tons of steel last year and has a market value of $17.2 billion. Baoshan and Wuhan were worth $16.3 billion combined as of the June 24 close and produced about 60 mmt last year. Baoshan is a profitable enterprise and generally acknowledged to be well run. Wuhan, on the other hand, is loss-making, carries too much debt and, probably in the newly combined group, ripe for plant closures and rationalization.

With 1.2 billion mt of crude steelmaking capacity but 803 mmt of steel production, China clearly has a massive overhang of unproductive capacity, causing some firms to be heavy loss makers. Estimates put combined losses for the industry at $10 billion last year.

But, for Beijing, it is as much a desire to clear up these loss-making companies before the market pulls them down into bankruptcy than it is to cut excess steel capacity. There is little doubt it has taken Beijing's arm-twisting on profitable firms like Baoshan to take over loss makers like Wuhan that they would probably otherwise steer well clear of.

Beijing wants to avoid a domino collapse of lesser steel firms, like Dongbei Special Steel Group, owned by the Liaoning state government that finally filed for bankruptcy this month after eight, yes eight, defaults.

"If they can merge with others, they merge," Li Hongmei, an analyst at S&P Global Platts is quoted in the Financial Times as saying. "If not, they will ask the banks if they can change debt for equity. If that fails, then they will choose the last resort - that will be bankruptcy."

But bankruptcy is bad for publicity, bad for workers, bad for the banks left holding the debt. Better, in a state-directed world, to have a profitable firm swallow them up and quietly rationalize the loss-making operations.

What's China's Real Plan for Loss-Making Steel?

The Economist reports on the wider trend, saying China aims to establish two major steel groups, one in the north and one in the south. The northern union of Hebei Iron & Steel Group with Shougang Group would be the nation's biggest producer, with output of 76 mmt last year for a share of national production at 10%, topping Baosteel-Wuhan's 8% share in the south, according to 2015 figures.

Meanwhile, there are rumors Ansteel Group Corp., the country's fourth-biggest producer, could merge with regional peer Benxi Steel Group Corp. But, apparently, the firms are not confirming discussions are ongoing.

What About Those Steel Closures?

The aim is to close 150 mmt of capacity by 2025 but that will hardly put a dent in the 400 mmt of excess capacity in the country; more importantly for Beijing, it may take the worst of the basket cases out of the public eye swallowed up by larger, state-directed groups.

The FT, though, offers a cautionary note: The drive to preserve and promote high-end, coastal steel production capacity while cutting off low-end, inland capacity is present throughout the restructuring plans, including the headline Bao-Wu merger.

"Coastal capacity is growing, and that's the main trend of the next two years," the FT reports. "Baosteel has a plant in Guangdong. Wisco has one in Guangxi, and they are ramping up to just under 10 mmt of capacity a year each by the end of 2017. What international steel producers really should be asking is what's happening with the extra 50 mmt of capacity being commissioned on the Chinese coast in the next two years."

That new capacity is better placed to service export markets than the plants being closed inland, how much of this drive is really to address overcapacity and how much is it to improve profitability and avoid the trauma of bankruptcies.