The Marketplace for Chromium Metal
The production of chromium metal begins with the mining of chromite ore.1 Chromite ore is then converted into either ferrochromium by smelting or sodium dichromate by roasting and leaching. Ferrochromium is converted into chromium metal by the electrolytic method described in Chapter 3.2 Chromic oxide (made from sodium dichromate) is converted into chromium metal by the aluminothermic process described in Chapter 4.
Chromium metal is used to create a variety of alloys. Large quantities of chromium metal are used in stainless steel, some titanium alloys, specialty iron-base alloys, weld rod, coatings or platings, and aluminum alloys (as a strengthening agent). Most of these uses are not addressed in this report because they are not critical for national defense emergencies and because the chromium metal can, in some instances, be substituted with other materials or lower grades of chromium metal. Ultra-pure chromium metal is also used in the electronics industry, but this represents a relatively small quantity of material that is made in small specialty plants.
The vacuum-melted superalloys, which are largely used in the domestic aerospace industry for the construction of aircraft engines described in Chapter 2, annually consume about 2,500 metric tons of the higher-grade, or high-purity, chromium metal, which is the subject of this report. Roughly half of this total is secondarily treated to achieve even higher purity levels.
This chapter examines the marketplace for chromium metal. Specifically, it describes the nature of the market, recent and possible future trends in supply and demand, and the prospects for shortages.
The sources of chromite ore are beyond the scope of this study and not discussed in this report. This information is available in Information Circular 9337 of the Bureau of Mines (1993).
Ferrochromium is also used in the production of other materials (e.g., steel and stainless steel) for other industries (e.g., automotive manufacturers). The additional uses for ferrochromium are not considered in this report.
NATURE OF THE MARKET
Chromium metal is produced by a handful of firms around the world and consumed by a large number of alloy manufacturers. This section examines the heterogeneous nature of the chromium-metal market, the current producers and consumers, and the importance of international trade.
Heterogeneous Nature of the Market
Chromium metal is produced to meet stringent specifications, as described in Chapter 2. Historically, chromium metal produced by the electrolytic method was used for those aerospace superalloys with higher purity specifications, and chromium metal produced by the aluminothermic method for those superalloys with lower purity applications. The quality of the high-grade aluminothermic chromium metal has improved over the past decade, especially with the introduction of the double-degassing treatment described in Chapter 4. Pratt & Whitney certified this material in 1987 for some higher-grade superalloys (Chapter 4; Papp, in press). As a result, the prevalent perception that only electrolytically produced metal is appropriate for high-purity applications is no longer valid. Thus the high-purity chromium-metal market encompasses the aluminothermic as well as the electrolytic producers.
As Figure 1-1 illustrates, the major chromium-metal producing countries are France, Russia, China, and the United Kingdom for aluminothermically produced chromium metal and the United States and Russia for the electrolytically produced chromium metal. World capacity is estimated at 38,300 metric tons per year with aluminothermic accounting for all but 5,100 metric tons of this total. The U.S. Bureau of Mines (Papp, in press) estimates that world production is substantially less than its capacity, averaging only somewhat over 21,000 metric tons per year in recent years.
Elkem Metals Company, located in Marietta, Ohio, is the sole producer of electrolytically manufactured chromium metal in the United States for aerospace applications and produces approximately 2,000 metric tons of high-purity chromium metal each year, in addition to lower-purity chromium metal and other high-purity materials. Despite the termination of government contracts to convert ferrochromium into high-purity chromium metal for the strategic stockpile, Elkem reports growing demand and a high level of capacity utilization
for this material. The company is planning to increase the proportion of its total high-purity chromium-metal production as demand increases. Thus the overall health of the company—and therefore the health of the U.S. industry—seems sound at the present time.
Tosoh in Yamagata, Japan, was the only other Western producer of chromium metal by the electrolytic method and had an annual capacity of about 4,000 metric tons. The Tosoh plant was recently dismantled as part of an urban renewal program, however, and no longer produces chromium metal.
Russia possesses an additional 18,000 metric tons of capacity at two separate facilities, of which some 2,000 metric tons is electrolytically produced and suitable for aerospace applications. The London and Scandinavian Metallurgical Corporation, Limited (LSM), produces chromium metal by the aluminothermic method in Rotherham, United Kingdom, some of which is suitable for aerospace applications. Delachaux Metals Division produces double-degassed, aluminothermically manufactured chromium metal in Pau, France, all of which could be made suitable for aerospace applications. These two firms are reported to possess 5,000 metric tons of capacity each. Gesellschaft für Elektrometallurgie (GfE) produces modest quantities of special grades of aluminothermically manufactured chromium metal at its Nürnberg plant, some of which are used in titanium aerospace alloys. GfE currently has a large unused capacity. Little is known about the production capacity in China.
LSM and GfE are both subsidiaries of the U.S. chromium-metal company Metallurg, Incorporated. Another subsidiary of Metallurg, Incorporated, is Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corporation, which produced aluminothermic chromium metal and chromium oxide in New Jersey until 1991, when environmental consideration led to the closure of those activities.
World consumption of all chromium metal approximates world production, which, as noted earlier, the U.S. Bureau of Mines estimates at somewhat over 21,000 metric tons per year in recent years. The United States is the largest user, with reported consumption at approximately 4,000 metric tons per year. This is less than actual consumption because not all U.S. consumers elect to report their consumption. With net chromium-metal imports into the United States fluctuating between 2,000 and 6,000 metric tons during the 1982-1992 time period and with domestic production averaging about 2,000 metric tons, actual U.S. consumption is more likely to be approximately 6,000 metric tons per year, or about 30 percent of total world consumption. Other significant consuming countries include Japan, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China.
As noted earlier, chromium metal is used to produce a large number of different nickel, cobalt, aluminum, titanium, and copper alloys. Chegwidden (1993) cites a 1990 study by Bob Bebbington of LSM, who estimates that 44 percent of all chromium metal is used for superalloys, 16 percent for aluminum alloys, 15 percent for welding and hard-facing alloys, 9 percent for corrosion-resistant alloys, and 16 percent for other uses. In the United States, superalloys are an even more important source of demand. According to Chegwidden (1993), 62 percent of the chromium metal consumed in this country during 1991 went into superalloys.
As stated above, superalloys require high-purity chromium metal. Figure 1-2 shows the range of products and the major producing companies that comprise this end of the quality spectrum. The castings, forgings, rings, and mill products made by the consumers of high-purity chromium metal (e.g., Howmet, Special Metals, Carpenter Technology, Wyman Gordon, and others) are then used by companies such as GE, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce/Allison, and SNECMA to produce jet engines.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Mines (Papp, in press), 8,000 of the estimated 21,000 metric tons of the world's production of all chromium metal enters international trade, or about 40 percent of the total supply. The United States is by far the biggest importer. As noted earlier, net imports for the United States have varied in recent years from 2,000 to 6,000 metric tons. Germany places a distant second. The major exporting countries are currently Japan, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia, more or less in that order.
Two implications flow from these figures. First, as the Bureau of Mines has noted: "The United States is unique as the largest chromium-metal consuming country and the only major world consumer that clearly consumes in excess of domestic production" (Papp, in press). Second, the large amount of production entering international trade means that the relevant market for chromium metal is global in scope.
RECENT AND PENDING SUPPLY TRENDS
Both the supply and the demand for chromium metal are changing dramatically. The two major developments on the supply side are the closure of a number of Western firms and the integration of Russian and Chinese producers into the international marketplace.
Four chromium-metal producers have closed in Western Europe and North America over the past six years: Continental Alloys, S.A., in Luxembourg in 1989; Metal Alloys Limited in Britain in 1990; Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corporation in the United States also in 1990; and Murex Limited in Britain in 1992. Nippon Denko in Japan is also rumored to have reduced or ceased its production and has begun purchasing metal from China (Chegwidden 1993).
As previously stated, Tosoh, the other Japanese producer, has ceased production over the past year. At the time of its closure, this company accounted for about 20 percent of the world chromium-metal capacity and about 40 percent of world electrolytic chromium-metal capacity. Tosoh's shutdown leaves Elkem in the United States as the only electrolytic producer outside of Russia. Tosoh possessed about 1,500 metric tons of high-purity chromium metal in 1995, which it was negotiating to sell.
Russia and China
The end of the Cold War has led to an increase of chromium-metal exports from Russia and China to the West. Russia began shipping chromium metal to the West in 1988 and has accounted for some 10 percent of the chromium metal entering international trade in recent years (Papp, in press). As noted above, Russia possesses an estimated 18,000 metric tons of capacity, which is the world's largest national production capacity. Of this capacity, 2,000 metric tons is electrolytic and aerospace quality.
Although China has supplied metal to the West for some time, it has sharply increased its shipments in recent years. It accounted for over 10 percent of total world exports in 1991 and for over 20 percent in 1992 (Papp, in press). All of the Chinese material is aluminothermic chromium metal, but none of it is of aerospace quality.
RECENT AND PENDING DEMAND TRENDS
Three important developments are reducing the demand for chromium metal: the decline in military spending, the recession in the commercial airline industry, and the ongoing changes in U.S. government stockpiling policy.
In addition to allowing Russian producers to participate in the international chromium-metal marketplace for the first time, the end of the Cold War has led to a reduction in military spending in the United States and the former Soviet Union. This, in turn, has resulted in a drop in both the new orders for military aircraft and the demand for high-purity chromium metal.
The Commercial Airline Industry
The commercial airline industry has experienced poor growth in passenger traffic and depressed profits throughout much of the world for the past several years. As a result, expansion plans have been curtailed, and new aircraft orders have been cut back or cancelled. This situation has caused a slump in the production of new aircraft engines and a further decline in the worldwide demand for chromium metal.
A review in the mid-1980s of the U.S. strategic stockpile found that none of the available chromium metal met the most stringent purity specifications. To rectify this situation, the government began a program in 1989 to convert ferrochromium to electrolytic chromium metal. This conversion was undertaken by Elkem, the only U.S. producer of electrolytic chromium metal, and required about 40 percent of the company's capacity over the past five years. This program is scheduled to be completed by October 1995.
PROSPECTS FOR SHORTAGES
On balance, the recent changes occurring in the supply and demand for chromium metal have resulted in excess capacity and depressed prices. As noted earlier, the recent annual production over the past several years of about 21,000 metric tons requires only 55 percent of the 38,300 metric tons of available world capacity. Yet some of these changes (e.g., the continuing closure of capacity and the growing reliance on Russian and Chinese producers) may be sowing the seeds for shortages 5 or 10 years in the future. This section examines the prospects for shortages but not the appropriate policy responses. The latter are considered in Chapter 6 of this report.
Nature of Shortages
There are different concepts of a shortage, although all imply that there is not enough of a commodity. One common and rather narrow definition requires that the market demand at the prevailing price exceeds the available supply. Rent controls, for example, often give rise to a shortage of apartments in the sense that the available supply at the rent the government allows does not satisfy the market demand. This type of shortage may be referred to as a "price-control-induced shortage." Such a shortage could also arise as a result of price-fixing by a monopoly that wishes to keep supplying its loyal customers at the previous price as it engages in expansion of capacity to satisfy a rise in demand.
In markets where the government does not impose price controls and where there is enough competition to prevent firms from maintaining stable producer prices, price-control-induced shortages will not arise. Instead, prices will rise until the available supply is sufficient to satisfy the market demand. In such situations, however, a very large increase in price may be required once
output approaches the limit imposed by existing capacity. This outcome is likely to be the case for many metals in the short run once production approaches capacity for two reasons. First, metal demand does not change much as price changes—that is, demand is price-inelastic—both because the substitution of alternative materials takes time and because metal prices typically account for only a small percentage of the total cost of the final product. Second, the construction of new metal capacity often requires several years and is not possible in the short run.
The steep slope of the short-run demand curve DD in Figure 1-3 reflects the unresponsiveness of demand to changes in prices in the short run. The steep slope of the short-run supply curve SS as it approaches the initial capacity constraint reflects the impossibility of expanding capacity in the short run. The figure illustrates that an increase in demand (a shift to the right of the demand curve from DD to D'D') will cause a dramatic rise in the market-clearing price, from point A (where DD and SS intersect) to point B (where D'D' and SS intersect). Once the rise in price brings about an increase in capacity, a new short-run supply curve SS' comes into effect (which is also the long-run supply curve relative to the previous capacity). The new equilibrium will be at point C where D'D' and SS' intersect. Assuming the supply curve SS' to be flat at and to the left of C (reflecting constant long-run unit costs), prior to the addition of the new capacity one might say that there is a shortage equal to the distance AC, in the sense that it will be made up for in the long run when the new capacity is installed. This concept of shortage may be referred to as "short-run capacity-constrained shortage." A similar dramatic rise in price could be caused by a decrease in supply (a shift to the left of the supply curve from SS' to SS) caused, say, by a producer ceasing its operations and closing its plant for environmental or other reasons, resulting in a movement from point C (where DD and SS' intersect) to point B (where DD and SS intersect).
Thus a broader definition of shortages, and the one that is used here, includes not only price-control-induced shortages but also short-run capacity-constrained shortages that are typically characterized by the market price rising rapidly and sufficiently to cause serious dislocations. These dislocations can arise for three reasons: a surge in world demand, a contraction in world production (and capacity), or an interruption in international trade. Each possibility is considered below for chromium metal.
Surge in World Demand
The demand for high-purity chromium metal has contracted over the past several years with the decline in military spending and the slowing of growth in the commercial airline industry. A reversal of either of these trends could increase the world demand for high-purity chromium metal, and a reversal of both certainly would increase it. Excess capacity exists at the present time, and the committee estimates that demand would have to increase by about a third from 1994 levels before new capacity would be needed.
Contraction in Production and Capacity
The contraction in production and capacity over the past several years has resulted primarily from a response to declining demand and depressed prices. (While the Tosoh plant in Japan was forced to close on account of an urban renewal program, its initial plans to respond to this closure by opening up a new plant in South Africa were abandoned because of the state of the market.) Such contractions are normally considered appropriate responses to changing market conditions and not a cause for alarm. As more and more of the world 's capacity
is concentrated in a few plants, however, the possibility increases that an industrial accident, environmental regulation, strike, political turmoil, or some other event might produce an unexpected contraction in supply that causes the market price to jump. The increase would not last long—only until the problem was rectified or alternative sources of supply became available—but could create short-run problems for chromium-metal consumers.
Interruptions in Trade
The chromium-metal market, as noted earlier, is international in scope with the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia supplying U.S. and other consumers. Consequently, interruptions in trade could produce rather severe local shortages in the United States and other importing countries. The likelihood of such interruptions is probably slight. Governments have restricted trade for political reasons or to keep domestic prices from rising during a boom in world demand. For instance, the United States has prohibited trade with Cuba since the 1960s for political reasons. Also, trade friction with foreign countries could result in disruptions. For instance, trade friction with Russia over metals has resulted in several countries placing penalty duties on Russian materials, and the United States has repeatedly threatened China with trade sanctions over the past decade.
The preceding discussion suggests that shortages of chromium metal in the future are possible, if one defines shortages broadly to include short-run capacity-constrained shortages, resulting in situations where the market price rises significantly and causing disruption and other problems in the process. Little, however, has been said about price-control-induced shortages. Such shortages could arise with any of the situations described above, but they require government-imposed price controls or firm-imposed price ceilings to keep prices from rising to the market equilibrium level. Such intervention is most likely during wartime, although it has occurred in the United States and elsewhere on other occasions as well.
While chromium-metal shortages may occur in the future, appropriate public policy for dealing with this possibility should take into account several considerations. First, the figures for chromium-metal capacity assume some facilities operate at two shifts a day for five days a week. If necessary, production could actually exceed capacity by 50 percent by operating three shifts a day for five days a week with maintenance and service being conducted during weekends (FitzGibbon, 1995).
Second, while it takes several years to build new electrolytic chromium-metal capacity, it is technically feasible to increase or redirect aluminothermic capacity within a matter of months. Although there are currently no aluminothermic chromium-metal production plants extant in the United States, aluminothermic production plants do exist that produce other high-purity metals (e.g., Bear Metallurgical produces ferrovanadium; Reading Alloys produces columbium and vanadium; and Cabot Corporation produces columbium). These plants could be converted to produce chromium metal, if required and so long as demand for these other materials does not also dramatically increase. Thus the short-run capacity constraint and short-run supply curve shown in Figure 1-3 pertain to a much shorter time interval than for most other metals. This means that any potential future chromium-metal shortage will not cause extended difficulties for consumers and can be mitigated by consumer, producer, and government inventories until added aluminothermic capacity becomes available, so long as the shortage is not accompanied by a sudden, sharp increase in demand. An exception to this assessment, however, is that for the highest-grade chromium metal needed for high-pressure turbine blades and vanes in aircraft gas-turbine engines (see Chapter 2), the needed secondary treatment of the aluminothermic material by the double-degassing method requires construction of vacuum-degassing furnaces, which, the committee estimates, would require about two years (see Chapter 4).
Finally, it is important to stress that shortages, should they arise, would be ultimately self-correcting and persist only over the short run (a period that the committee estimates to be about two years). This is because the surge in market price or the existence of short-run capacity-constrained shortages encourages producers to develop new capacity. It is also possible that such shortages will encourage chromium-metal consumers to employ alternative materials and to develop new technologies that reduce the need for chromium metal (i.e., that the long-run demand curve is more elastic than the short-run one depicted in Figure 1-3). While these efforts may take time, they will eventually reduce demand and increase supply, thus causing the market price to fall and short-run capacity-constrained shortages to disappear. The short-run nature of the shortages suggests that stockpiling can be an effective antidote, a possibility that is considered more fully in Chapter 6.