It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted markets across the globe this year, including steel. During this volatile time, the Leeco Steel team has closely watched key indicators and metrics to help our customers make strategic sourcing decisions.

There is no way to know exactly what the future holds, but here are the stories I’m following to better understand the situation and best guide our customers.

Looking Back: A Review of the First Half of 2020

COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 started out as an outbreak of cases in Wuhan, China, and we watched as cases spread across the globe, having a devasting impact on many countries and prompting the WHO to declare COVID-19 as a pandemic.

COVID-19 Timeline


Event or Action Taken


Dec. 31, 2019

China confirmed it was treating several cases of pneumonia caused by a new, unknown virus in Wuhan.


Jan. 20, 2020

Other countries, including the US, confirmed cases of the new virus.


Jan. 30, 2020

WHO declares a global health emergency.


Jan. 31, 2020

US restricts travel from China. Travel restrictions from China currently remain in place.

Mar. 11, 2020

WHO classifies COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Mar. 11, 2020

US restricts travel from Europe.

Mar. 13, 2020

US declares national emergency.


Mar. 19, 2020

States begin declaring stay at home orders in US.


Apr. 2, 2020

Cases top 1 million worldwide. Nearly 10 million Americans are out of work due to virus.

Apr. 24, 2020

States begin reopening in the US.


May 1, 2020

WHO extends its declaration of a global public health emergency.


Jun. 16, 2020

US extends non-essential travel restrictions with Mexico and Canada. These restrictions are expected to run through July 30.

The rapid global spread of COVID-19 prompted many states to declare stay-at-home orders and close businesses deemed non-essential, including restaurants, retailers and some manufacturers. As businesses closed and those that remained open faced weaker demand, we saw weekly unemployment claims skyrocket, peaking at nearly 7 million claims filed at the end of March.

COVID-19 also slowed job growth in the US. We saw the monthly jobs report show negative non-farm payrolls added through April, with a positive number of jobs being added in May as businesses began to reopen.

In addition to negatively impacting the jobs market, we also saw the US GDP contract 5% during the first quarter of 2020, the largest contraction since 2008. While the COVID-19 pandemic did not start prompting widespread shutdowns until about mid-March, the economic impact was great enough to cause contraction during the first quarter.

Steel Plate Prices

Following a soft steel market in 2019, we watched steel plate prices recover at the beginning of 2020. However, prices began falling in March as the growing number of COVID-19 cases prompted manufacturers to close or scale back operations, reducing steel demand.

Despite some manufacturers restarting operations in May, steel plate prices remain volatile. However, many steel mills announced plate price increases at the end of May as raw material costs – including shredded scrap metal – rose. Steel mills also announced a second round of price increases the week of June 8th, which may place upward pressure on plate prices in the near term. Many factors will impact the success of the announcements, not the least of which being the industry’s ability to balance supply needs in a lackluster demand environment. 

Steel Capacity Utilization

While steel capacity utilization at the beginning of 2020 was above 80%, we watched it fall in March as steel mills adjusted production levels to meet lower demand. In April and May, capacity utilization fell further to around 50% and remained at that level through the week ending June 6. Our team expects to see capacity utilization remain relatively low for the next few months until steel demand begins to recover.

2020 Capacity Utilization


Week Ending


Cap. Utilization

Net Tons































Manufacturing Activity

Manufacturing activity was improving at the start of 2020, with an ISM Manufacturing PMI index reading above 50 – the level that indicates expansion – in January. However, we saw PMI begin to fall in March and reach a decade-low reading in April. Activity increased in May as some manufacturers restarted operations, but remains at a level of contraction.

The Leeco team will closely watch manufacturing PMI as reopening continues. The strength of manufacturing activity has a major impact on steel demand and prices, and monitoring PMI allows us to help manufacturing customers make informed purchasing decisions.

2020 Steel Industry Outlooks

Earlier this month, the World Steel Association released an updated Short-Range Outlook Report for 2020 global steel demand. According to this report, we can expect to see global steel demand fall 6.4% to approximately 1,654 Mt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report also states that the steel industry will likely be hardest hit during the second quarter of 2020, with slow recovery beginning in the third quarter. We can also expect the construction, mechanical machinery and automotive sectors – three key industries that use a variety of steel products – to remain soft and not recover to pre-COVID levels until 2021.

Looking Ahead: What We Are Watching for the Remainder of 2020

Economic Reopening

COVID-19 cases started to slow in some areas during April and May, prompting states to allow stay-at-home orders to expire and reopen parts of their economy. As of mid-June, many states reached later stages of reopening, with high-contact businesses such as salons and restaurants opening.

This reopening could help boost economic activity over the next couple of months. The May jobs report showed that a record-high 2.5 million non-farm payrolls were added as employees who were furloughed or laid off due to stay-at-home orders were brought back to work. We also saw May retail sales surge 17.7%, which gives investors hope that consumer confidence and spending will strengthen.  

However, states that reopened early – Arizona, Texas and Florida, in particular – are seeing increased case counts and higher hospitalization rates, which could dampen recovery efforts. In total, 23 states across the US saw increasing COVID-19 cases as of mid-June. While states with increasing case counts have no plans to reimplement stay-at-home orders as of now, many are allowing local governments to implement safety restrictions or require masks in public settings.

If cases continue rising, we could see states reverse reopening or reimplement stay-at-home orders, which could stop or reverse economic recovery.

Crude Oil Prices

Oil prices have been particularly volatile in 2020 as falling oil demand  and price wars between Russia and Saudi Arabia caused prices to soften. While oil prices jumped nearly 90% in May and OPEC members agreed to extend production cuts through July, concerns remain in place over the stability of the US shale oil industry, which has been negatively impacted by falling prices and demand.

Many manufacturers are closely tied to the oil sector, which is why Leeco closely monitors oil sector news and metrics. Our team will continue to watch how the US oil industry is impacted by rapidly changing prices and weak demand stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Infrastructure Bill

The Trump administration announced that it will be preparing a $1 trillion infrastructure package to help boost the US economy. This package, which largely focuses on transportation projects such as roads or bridges, is expected to be unveiled in July.

This infrastructure package could increase demand for steel plate products used in infrastructure applications, and we at Leeco will keep a close eye on its progress to gauge implications for the steel market.

Staying Informed About Market Conditions

During this uncertain time, it is particularly important to stay informed about the latest market conditions to make the most strategic buying decisions for your plate needs. To keep customers informed, Leeco publishes a monthly Steel Snapshot newsletter with the latest news and indicators impacting manufacturing activity and the steel industry. Sign up to receive the report below.