Japan, South Korean Mills Face Price ‘Squeeze,’ Moody’s Says

Steelmakers in Japan and South Korea may have their earnings “squeezed” after BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP) won a 55 percent price gain for its coking coal, Moody’s Investors Service said.

“Such a rapid increase in the input price for a key component will hurt the steelmakers’ financial profiles and squeeze earnings,” Sydney-based analysts led by Ian Lewis said today in a report. The mills may be “unable to fully pass on the higher costs to such customers as car makers, appliance makers and construction firms,” they said.

JFE Holdings Inc. (5411), Japan’s second-biggest steelmaker, said March 5 it would pay $200 a metric ton in a three-month contract with BHP. That compares with this year’s benchmark price of $129 a ton. The increase will improve the credit outlook for producers BHP, Rio Tinto Group (RIO) and Wesfarmers Ltd. (WESDA), Moody’s said.

Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd. and Kobe Steel Ltd. (5406) also agreed to the same accord, Moody’s said in the report, citing reports it didn’t identify. Coking coal and iron ore supply contracts are traditionally negotiated for 12 months.

The “inevitable” shift away from annual agreements could “dent the financial and credit profiles of steelmakers by reducing the predictability of their main input costs,” Moody’s said. That would make it difficult for the steelmakers to negotiate “appropriate prices” with their customers.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Keenan in Melbourne at rkeenan5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew Hobbs at ahobbs4@bloomberg.net

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