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By Silvia Antonioli
NEW YORK, June 19 (Reuters) - Thailand's Sahaviriya Steel Industries PCL (SSI) expects to return to profit by the first quarter next year even as growing Chinese imports and softening steel prices continue to bite, the company's President Win Viriyaprapaikit said.
"The second quarter will be a loss but a smaller loss than in the first quarter," Win said in an interview on the sidelines of AMM's Steel Success Strategies conference in New York.
SSI, Southeast Asia's largest fully integrated steel sheet producer, reported a net loss of 2.8 billion baht ($89 million) in the January-March quarter, mainly due to losses at the British unit, SSI UK.
But earnings will improve due to higher sales volumes in Thailand, he said.
"In the fourth quarter there is a good possibility that we will make money. In the first quarter next year we definitely will."
His comments came after the first cargo of steel slab, a semi-finished steel product produced at SSI's newly-acquired UK plant in Teeside, arrived at its re-rolling mill in Thailand last weekend.
SSI restarted the blast furnace, which has capacity of 3.5 million tonnes per year of steel slab, in April after buying the Teeside Cast Products integrated mill from Tata Steel in early 2011.
The company will ramp output up to 85-95 percent of capacity in the third quarter, with the plant expected to be close to full capacity by the year-end, Win said.
Although most of the Teeside slab will be shipped to Thailand, some of it will be sold to third parties and SSI is already in touch with potential buyers, mainly in the United States.
"We already have interest from many customers who want to start using this product. Many of them have used this product from this plant before," Win said. "Currently the market in the U.S. is stronger than in Europe so we are focusing on that market."
In Thailand SSI sees steel demand increasing by 4 percent to 15.5-15.6 million tonnes this year, but it has to battle for market share with imported steel, especially from China.
China had an 18 percent share of the Thai hot-rolled-coil market in the first quarter this year, up from less than 5 percent one year ago, Win said. Chinese steel is gaining the biggest share in the construction sector.
"It's quite a significant number but not every market segment can use those (Chinese) products. The automobile customers for example need a product tailored for their requirements and want just in time delivery so the Chinese products cannot get in that market segment," Win said.
"We have a few market segments we are competitive in and we are not losing market share: the high-end automotive sector, the energy and transportation industries."
SSI aims to focus on higher-end steel production which is less exposed to competition from imports and plans to invest downstream into cold-rolled sheet production and coating.
The industry is also challenged by softening steel prices while raw material prices remain firm, which is squeezing steelmakers' margins, he said.
SSI buys iron ore for its blast furnace mainly on long-term contracts with prices adjusted every month or twice a month.
"It is our choice to buy on shorter term because we want our costs to be in line with the market as much as possible," Win said.
"We also sell most of our steel on monthly basis although for carmakers we mainly sell on quarterly of six-month basis."
To manage the raw material price risk, SSI is looking at steel derivatives, instruments recently introduced which are gaining popularity among financial and industrial players.
"We are not yet using derivatives but we are studying it," Win said.
"There is still not quite enough liquidity in the market for that yet, but I think in the near future there should be more liquidity and it should be a tool that we can use to hedge." (Reporting By Silvia Antonioli; Editing by Josephine Mason)