Will seaborne supply growth overwhelm Chinese steel production? Or will it manage to keep pace?
These have been key questions facing the iron ore market over the past couple of years. But the story in 2014 has levels of complexity. One is Beijing’s war on pollution.
Mills in China’s key steel making provinces of Hebei and Jiangsu are under pressure to lower emissions and comply with new air pollution standards following smog crises last year in several big cities.
As a result, they are buying higher quality ore, known as lump, that can be loaded into blast furnaces without sintering, a process that is a big source of pollution and sulphur dioxide.
Premiums for lump over the miners’ regular product, fines, are increasing as tougher environmental standards force Chinese steelmakers to use a different mix of raw materials in their furnaces. The same is true for iron ore pellets.
The price of Australia lump, as assessed by Metal Bulletin, is fetching a premium of between $17 and $18.6 a tonne over fines with 62 per cent iron content – the benchmark iron ore price for financial markets. Six months ago the premium was at $8 a tonne, while pellets with 65 per cent iron ore content are trading at a premium of $40-$42 a tonne to fines, up $10 in the same period.
That is good news for several large mining companies, including BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Vale, which are among the top suppliers of high-grade ores.
A further increase in premiums will help cushion a decline in the benchmark price, which has dropped 5 per cent in the year to date to $124.2 a tonne mainly on concerns about slowing economic growth and a credit squeeze in China.
However, greater reliance on high-grade ore will undermine China’s efforts to diversify its sources of iron ore away from Australia and Brazil, which provide more than 70 per cent of its seaborne imports.
Macquarie said mills in Hebei, which account for about 40 per cent of China’s steel production, were using 85 per cent fines, 10 per cent lump and 5 per cent pellet in 2012. It now thinks they are using 70 per cent, 20 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.
Andrew Harding, head of Rio Tinto’s iron ore business, has predicted there would be “more work” to curtail sintering plants in and around Hebei. China’s crackdown on smog could provide a prop to prices, or at least the high-quality ore and pellets produced by the likes of Rio Tinto and Vale.
“The net result of that is we should see a bias towards an improving lump premium,” he said.