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Edited Transcript of EAF earnings conference call or presentation 7-Nov-19 3:00pm GMT

Q3 2019 GrafTech International Ltd Earnings Call

PARMA Nov 14, 2019 (Thomson StreetEvents) -- Edited Transcript of GrafTech International Ltd earnings conference call or presentation Thursday, November 7, 2019 at 3:00:00pm GMT

TEXT version of Transcript

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Corporate Participants

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* David J. Rintoul

GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director

* Meredith H. Bandy

GrafTech International Ltd. - VP of IR and Corporate Communications

* Quinn J. Coburn

GrafTech International Ltd. - VP, CFO & Treasurer

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Conference Call Participants

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* Alexander Nicholas Hacking

Citigroup Inc, Research Division - Director

* Arun Shankar Viswanathan

RBC Capital Markets, Research Division - Analyst

* David Francis Gagliano

BMO Capital Markets Equity Research - Co-Head of Metals & Mining Research and Metals & Mining Analyst

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Presentation

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Operator [1]

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Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the Q3 2019 GrafTech International Earnings Conference Call. (Operator Instructions) Please be advised that today's conference call is being recorded. (Operator Instructions)

I would now like to hand the conference over to your speaker today, Meredith Bandy, Vice President of Investor Relations. Please go ahead.

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Meredith H. Bandy, GrafTech International Ltd. - VP of IR and Corporate Communications [2]

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Right. Thank you, Kensey. Good morning, and welcome to GrafTech's Third Quarter 2019 Conference Call. On the call with me today is Chief Executive Officer, David Rintoul; and Chief Financial Officer, Quinn Coburn.

Turning to our first slide. As a reminder, some of the matters we discuss on this call may include forward-looking statements regarding results, performance and strategies, among other things. These statements are based on current expectations and are subject to risks and uncertainties. Factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those indicated by forward-looking statements are shown here. We will also discuss certain non-GAAP financial measures for which you'll find reconciliations in these slides. The slides are posted on our website at www.graftech.com in the Investors section. For your reference, a replay of this call will also be available on our website.

Now, I'm pleased to turn the call over to Dave.

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [3]

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Thank you, Meredith. Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us today. GrafTech is well positioned to benefit from the long-term growth of electric arc furnace, EAF, steelmaking. With low cost, vertically integrated production and a long-term contracting strategy, GrafTech continues to generate meaningful free cash flow. We are committed to deploying that cash for shareholder returns and balance sheet improvement.

Turning to Slide 4. Let's begin, as we normally do, with safety. Health and safety excellence is a core value of GrafTech and considered a fundamental requirement of our organization's success. Our year-to-date total recordable injury rate has improved to 1.03, a more than 30% improvement from the prior year. I'd like to thank all of our team for this achievement. At the same time, each and every one of us must remain vigilant so that we can reach our ultimate goal of zero harm, that means everyone goes home safely every day. A safe plant is an effective plant, and we strive to be both at all of our locations.

On Slide 5, GrafTech delivered solid quarterly results despite challenging conditions in a number of the markets in which we operate. Overbuying late last year and early this year, coupled with reduced steel production in some regions, has resulted in excess electrode inventory that customers are working through.

Steel is a cyclical business, and we are seeing that play out in the market today. We expect graphite electrode inventory destocking to continue through the first half of 2020. Inventories should decline and conditions improve as we move into the second half of 2020.

Short-term steel manufacturing difficulties will work themselves out. Longer-term EAF steelmaking continues to take market share as evidenced by the new electric arc furnace rebuilds and builds, excuse me, we're seeing in the United States.

As a reminder, the majority of GrafTech sales volume remains on long-term contracts, which help reduce the volatility of our earnings and preserve margins. We are able to offer these stable long-term contracts, thanks to our substantial vertical integration into petroleum needle coke. Our wholly-owned Seadrift facility provides a secure supply of high-quality petroleum needle coke at costs that are meaningfully below current market pricing.

Now turning to Slide 6. In our earnings release, we announced a series of operational improvement projects at our Monterrey and St. Marys facilities. These projects are intended to optimize our manufacturing footprint while improving environmental performance and increasing production flexibility. We expect these projects to be completed in the first half of 2021, at which time we will be able to shift additional graphitization and machining from Monterrey to St. Marys.

We estimate that 2020 capital spending would be near current levels, which includes these projects as well as maintenance capital projects subject to the approval of our Board.

Moving on to Slide 7. As I mentioned earlier, GrafTech has the majority of our long-term production capacity sold under long-term take-or-pay contracts. These contracts provide profitability and visibility of earnings. In addition to the recent softness in the global steel industry, we have also seen a couple of our LTA customers declare bankruptcy.

Volumes, as shown on this slide, have been reduced by approximately 3,000 tons per year in 2020 through 2022 to reflect such changes in the financial health of certain customers. GrafTech continues to pursue a blended commercial strategy. The majority of our sales are under long-term contracts. We also have meaningful volumes under short-term agreements and spot sales.

Our ability to offer multiple contract formats for our customers is a key element to our commercial strategy. Short- and long-term contracts offer different advantages for different customers. We expect both to continue to be an important part of our commercial strategy going forward.

Now I'll turn it over to Quinn, on Slide 8, for more details on our financial results.

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Quinn J. Coburn, GrafTech International Ltd. - VP, CFO & Treasurer [4]

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Thanks, Dave. As Dave highlighted, third quarter financial results remained relatively solid despite some softening of economic conditions. Third quarter 2019 net sales of $421 million were down 7% from 2018 on lower sales volumes. During the quarter, we produced and sold 40,000 metric tons of graphite electrodes. As usual, third quarter production volumes reflect planned annual maintenance outages. This year, we were able to leverage that downtime to manage production to be more in line with recent sales volumes while maintaining cost performance.

We now expect full year production capacity utilization to average approximately 85%, as we match production to customer demand and supply chain conditions, specifically the inventory overhang that they spoke to earlier. We expect demand to rebound later next year as customers work through inventories.

Q3 weighted average pricing was a bit higher than the prior period. As expected, Q3 spot pricing was down relative to Q2. Approximately 79% of our third quarter revenues were to customers with long-term agreements.

Turning to Slide 9 for financial results. Third quarter 2019 net income totaled $176 million or $0.61 per diluted share. Q3 2019 adjusted EBITDA was $245 million, down from prior-year period due to lower sales volumes and higher raw materials cost, specifically related to third-party petroleum needle coke cost. Lower Q4 third-party petroleum needle coke pricing is expected to translate to lower cost of sales in the second half of next year.

Third quarter 2019 free cash flow of $211 million increased from Q2 as favorable working capital changes partially offset lower operational results. As you may recall, last quarter's shipments were weighted towards the latter part of the quarter, which resulted in higher accounts receivable as of June 30. In Q3, that working capital change was largely reversed.

Turning to Slide 10. In the past 12 months, GrafTech has generated nearly $0.75 billion of free cash flow, of which more than 40% has been returned to shareholders to date through dividends and share repurchases. We have also repaid over $150 million of debt during that time. GrafTech has a strong track record of free cash flow generation. Shareholder returns and debt repayment remain the key priorities for uses of cash.

Looking ahead, on Page 11. As Dave discussed, our strategy on future investments is to focus on high returns with payback projects to reduce operating costs, increase productivity and develop products that our customers value. In addition, we will continue to invest in health, safety and environmental performance. We continue to target shareholder returns of approximately 50% to 60% of 2019 free cash flow with the balance earmarked primarily for debt repayment.

Shareholder returns are expected to include dividends and share buybacks as appropriate including the $100 million share repurchase program we announced last quarter. To date, we have utilized about $10 million under that program. The timing of future share repurchases will depend on share price, traded volumes and other market conditions. We'll also manage our debt levels to align with the visibility that we have to our free cash flow. We repaid $125 million of debt earlier this year and anticipate making further debt repayments by year-end.

I'll now turn it back to Dave on Slide 12.

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [5]

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Thanks, Quinn. The steel market will no doubt have its shares of ups and downs, but the long-term outlook for EAF steelmaking growth remain strong. Electric arc furnaces continue to take market share from integrated producers.

Globally, electric arc furnaces make up almost 29%, including China, of steel production. And that share is expected to continue to grow over time. Electric arc furnaces are advantaged relative to integrated mills due to their flexible cost structure, lower capital intensity and better environmental performance.

In addition, GrafTech's vertical integration into petroleum needle coke offers a sustainable, long-term competitive advantage. Increased demand for needle coke from electric vehicle batteries has contributed to elevated needle coke pricing. With low-cost vertically integrated production and a long-term contracting strategy, we expect to continue to generate meaningful cash -- free cash flow.

As Quinn discussed, we are committed to deploying that cash for shareholder returns and balance sheet improvement. This concludes our prepared remarks. We'll now open the call up for questions.

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Questions and Answers

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Operator [1]

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(Operator Instructions) Our first question comes from the line of David Gagliano with BMO Capital Markets.

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David Francis Gagliano, BMO Capital Markets Equity Research - Co-Head of Metals & Mining Research and Metals & Mining Analyst [2]

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I just want to ask some of the, I guess, standard questions that we tend to be asking on these calls related to the current market conditions. First of all, just if you could comment where you see spot pricing now?

And then also somewhat related, there was a 3,000 ton drop. And you alluded to it in the prepared remarks for 2020 to 2022 contracts, I think, it was 3,000 a year. What specifically prompted that decline? Was it an actual bankruptcy or a renegotiation? And are there other contracts that are in a similar situation?

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [3]

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Dave, thanks for your questions. I'll start with the first one on spot pricing. I think, as everybody is aware of, we don't normally provide certainly forward guidance on spot pricing. And as I referenced, the steel market is certainly cyclical. And as such, it's influencing our industry and that then translates into certainly an impact in a declining way currently on the spot market.

Given that we're in the midst of negotiations on Q1 and 2020 business overall, I'm not inclined to give specific numbers today and influence those negotiations. However, as I said, suffice it to say that we do serve as a cyclical market. And as such, we're seeing some of those effects to be sure.

On the 3,000 tons, we made that adjustment because we have had a couple of bankruptcies. It's not represented or intended to imply anything about renegotiation or difficulties in other contracts. That is specifically areas where there have been a financial situation that led us to believe that liquidity of the customer in question may be problematic and we thought it was appropriate to make the reduction in the slide so that everyone could be aware of that and what we're seeing.

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David Francis Gagliano, BMO Capital Markets Equity Research - Co-Head of Metals & Mining Research and Metals & Mining Analyst [4]

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Okay. That's helpful. So not to put words in your mouth, but in terms of the expectations for additional changes to that contract book at this point, we should not expect those changes? Again, putting words in your mouth, I guess.

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [5]

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Well, look, Dave, your crystal ball might on this subject might actually be better than mine in terms of are there any other steelmakers in the globe that are going to go bankrupt. I'm certainly, for both their sake and our sake, I'm hoping that's not the case.

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David Francis Gagliano, BMO Capital Markets Equity Research - Co-Head of Metals & Mining Research and Metals & Mining Analyst [6]

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No. I was actually more asking about the other topic that comes up quite a bit in terms of, I guess, more directly, are you having customers approach you to renegotiate those existing contracts that are in place?

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [7]

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So our approach to customers that inquire, we're flexible in our approach to that as long as the outcome of their needs are such that GrafTech and our shareholders are a whole at the end of the day with the way the initial contract stood. So there haven't been any significant changes heretofore to speak to. But I would be -- we would be remiss if we were not, as good business people, partnering with our customers to be open to things that might be of value to them that still allow us to be in a situation where the value of the LTA is, in fact, kept intact. So that's our position on that subject.

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Operator [8]

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Your next question comes from the line of Alex Hacking with Citi.

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Alexander Nicholas Hacking, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - Director [9]

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So just a follow-up on those last comments. I would -- am I correct in assuming that what you're saying there is that you are willing to potentially cut prices on existing LTAs as long as customers are willing to extend those out? So in that sense, the customer is getting potentially a lower near-term price, but you guys are locking in more volume into the future. Is -- would that be an example of the kind of flexibility that you were talking about?

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [10]

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Alex, not quite. I was very deliberate in saying that the outcome of those discussions would have to be that the value of the existing LTA is kept intact. So that would mean, if you look at the net present value or the value of the LTA at this point in time, whatever changes we want to make would have to preserve, obviously, for the -- in the interest of our shareholders, that NPV. So it's not quite as simple as your example might suggest.

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Alexander Nicholas Hacking, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - Director [11]

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Okay. Could you give an example of what you're talking about, be more specific, I guess? Or you don't want to do it?

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [12]

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I don't think on this call that I want to put out into those and the marketplace suggestions on such modification because, I think, it's an individual one-on-one. We've had discussions with certain customers. And at the end of the day, some have decided to think through it and others have said, no, we'll just leave the LTA in place.

There are a number of combinations and permutations that can allow us to assist the customer in a near-term request to preserve the net present value of the LTA. So I don't think it's inducive or good business for us to try and align on this call the combinations and permutations that could exist in that. It's really a customer-by-customer preference and personal. What matters to one customer might not matter to another in terms of how they might view that.

So I don't expect that there'll be a great number of those things transpire. But as good business people, we are always willing to work with our customers to find an optimal solution that works for both parties.

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Alexander Nicholas Hacking, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - Director [13]

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Okay. I appreciate the color. That's helpful. I guess just a couple of others, if it's okay. You mentioned that you expect the destock to continue through 1H next year and then, normal business to pick up in the second half. I guess, why -- what makes you think that this is going to be another 6- to 7-month process? Is there a certain amount of tonnage that you're looking at that you think there's too much out there?

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [14]

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So I think it's a twofold component. One, we're looking at the recovery of the broader steel group and thinking that, that will happen in the New Year. And as that transpires, the inventory that we think is on the ground by our major accounts anyway, as the steel business returns to healthier levels in the first part of 2020, they'll begin to burn down that inventory. And we're estimating that as we get into the second half that the graphite electrode business will return to a more normal state, if you will.

So it is a combination of trying to estimate the return of the steel industry as well as our estimate on inventories and doing a little math on all of that. And believing that the second half, they should have burned through most of this inventory in the first half of the year.

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Alexander Nicholas Hacking, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - Director [15]

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Okay. And then just one more, if it's okay. Just on the buyback, how are you -- I guess, any color on how you're planning to deploy that? I guess I had assumed that you would have been a bit more aggressive this quarter. I think you only spent $9 million out of the $100 million that was authorized. So any comments there?

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Quinn J. Coburn, GrafTech International Ltd. - VP, CFO & Treasurer [16]

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Yes. Sure, Alex. It's Quinn. We continue to believe that share repurchases are a very attractive use of our cash flow. Obviously, we repurchased very opportunistically during the quarter, we believe, creating value for our shareholders. And we do have the $90 million remaining, and we do plan to continue repurchases in future quarters. So that's probably that's the level of detail that I can provide.

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Operator [17]

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Your next question comes from the line of Arun Viswanathan.

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Arun Shankar Viswanathan, RBC Capital Markets, Research Division - Analyst [18]

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I guess, first question is just a little bit more details on this inventory situation. Can you share maybe the level of days of supply at your customer level or producer level or tons? And I guess -- or maybe even the industry kind of utilization rate that you see right now in the market?

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [19]

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Arun, I think what I would answer to that is that we attempt to the best of our ability to keep a handle on inventory and -- of our different customers in different regions in the world. And it's a very mixed bag in terms of the degree of inventory across the board with a pretty large standard deviation.

So for that reason, I'm not -- I don't think I'm going to be inclined to say that we're going to provide an exact number where we think inventory is at. Other than to say that we know that people have enough inventory on the ground that we think working through their current and our expected run rates as we go into 2020, that we expect the first half of next year to see that begin to burn down. And the spot demand reflecting the fact that these players are in the process of burning down inventory as opposed to building inventory.

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Arun Shankar Viswanathan, RBC Capital Markets, Research Division - Analyst [20]

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And then just on...

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [21]

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[Then, we're clear] what it is.

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Arun Shankar Viswanathan, RBC Capital Markets, Research Division - Analyst [22]

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Yes. And just on the needle coke side, could you provide some color? You saw some increased costs there. How needle coke prices are trending? And what your expectations are in the next year?

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [23]

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Sure. Look, we're careful not to comment on other companies' numbers, i.e., in this case, whether it's a P66 or others. It's probably not for us to disclose what they're doing or say what they're doing. However, we will direct you to, and I'm sure you've read the same public reports that we have that needle coke pricing has, in fact, dropped. And that's not something that hasn't, in the last couple of weeks, become more or less public knowledge. And you can read about it, and the reports that I've seen in public places seem to have the number about right.

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Arun Shankar Viswanathan, RBC Capital Markets, Research Division - Analyst [24]

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And just lastly on the capital return side, are you still projecting around 50% to 60% of free cash flow to be deployed into capital return to shareholders?

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Quinn J. Coburn, GrafTech International Ltd. - VP, CFO & Treasurer [25]

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Yes, absolutely. That remains our target with the balance used to repay debt. As we mentioned, we do plan to repay debt by the end of the year. Repay additional debt by the end of the year.

With regards to the capital return, we don't have any specific timeline or deadline, but absolutely that 50% to 60% remains our target.

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Operator [26]

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This concludes the Q&A session for today's call. I will now turn the call back to David Rintoul for closing remarks.

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David J. Rintoul, GrafTech International Ltd. - President, CEO & Director [27]

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Thank you very much. In conclusion, GrafTech is a leading provider of highly engineered graphite electrode services, solutions and products to the EAF steel market. Our vertical integration is a significant sustainable competitive advantage, and our long-term contracts continue to provide profitability and visibility. We have a proven track record of cash flow generation and returning cash to our shareholders.

Again, thank you for your interest in GrafTech, and we look forward to speaking with you next quarter.

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Operator [28]

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This concludes today's conference call. Thank you for your participation. You may now disconnect.