Steel volumes being processed through industry are on the rise, which is a good indicator of activity. The statistics show us that after an almost 40% fall due to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) volumes have reached the peak before last which was in 2005 and are close to reaching pre-GFC levels.
The impact of the GFC continues to be felt. Many of the projects being looked at in 2008/9 which would have been coming to fruition now were shelved.
It was like the world of commerce was holding its breath, but now there are signs that they are beginning to breathe again and new projects are being talked about, which means that the trickle in the development pipeline might soon be a more noticeable flow.
The mix of structural versus heavy steel is fairly balanced suggesting activity across both sectors. The recovery in structural steel has been supported by the re-emergence of commercial building activity in Auckland, earthquake rebuild work in Christchurch and building strengthening work throughout the country.
The recovery in heavy engineering is a little more complex. There have been a number of plant upgrades and some catch up on deferred maintenance but many energy related projects are on hold due to the reduced demand for electricity and the resultant lower prices, which do not justify investment at this time.
There has been an increase in building of commercial vessels which has helped some segments of the industry, but the reduced prices being paid for oil in the global market has seen a major contraction in activity in the oil and gas industry. The reducing value of the New Zealand Dollar appears to be starting to reduce the attractiveness of importing for some products and has helped exports.
Export-focused companies, particularly those less dependent on the local market and who have products of their own to sell rather than being straight contractors seem to have good forward orders into 2016 while some general engineering sectors are looking soft. The closure of manufacturing plants such as Golden Bay Cement will have a local impact and put downwards pressure on margins in general engineering in the near term.
However, overall, margins have improved since the 2009-2011 very lean years especially in specialty services and for product manufacturers. The challenge in 2016 is going to be for general engineering companies to find export product niches that they can develop into at a time when cash flow and margins may be constrained. In this way pre-GFC returns can again be a feature of the New Zealand metals industry landscape providing a positive, viable new normal for the future.