China Steel Growth Has Flattened as Economy Shifts, BHP Says

BHP Billiton Ltd. (RIO), the world’s biggest mining company, said China’s steel production is slowing as the world’s fastest-growing major economy starts to shift to focus more on consumers than large building projects.

“The big infrastructure build clearly will come to some end,” Ian Ashby, the Melbourne-based company’s president of iron ore, told reporters today in Perth. “Steel growth rates will flatten, and they have flattened, and we still see positive growth out to the middle of the next decade.”

The Australian dollar dropped for the first time in four days after the comments as Rio Tinto Group, the world’s second- largest iron ore exporter, said at a conference in Perth that it’s seeing a slowdown in China, its biggest customer. Premier Wen Jiabao this month cut the nation’s economic annual growth target to 7.5 percent and an official at the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said vehicle sales this year may miss the industry group’s forecast.

“The rate of GDP growth in China is more immediately slowing,” Rio’s David Joyce, managing director of expansion projects, said at the conference. “We remain confident on the basis of the figures we have seen, of a soft landing, with solid growth for this year.”

Dollar Declines

Australia’s dollar lost 0.4 percent to $1.0564 at 6:17 p.m. in Sydney after climbing 1.5 percent over the past three days. The so-called Aussie slid 0.3 percent to 88.12 yen from 88.40 yesterday, when it rose as high as 88.64, the highest since May 2011. BHP closed 0.1 percent lower at A$35.31 and London-based Rio declined 0.4 percent. The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index retreated 0.4 percent.

“There will be further risk that the Chinese economy will be slowing down” more than expected, said Lee Wai Tuck, a currency strategist at Forecast Pte in Singapore.

Steel output in China, the biggest producer, may slow growth to 4 percent this year, the China Iron and Steel Association said March 6. China’s vehicle sales may only increase by 5 percent this year, compared with the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers forecast of 8 percent, as economic conditions damp demand, Gu Xianghua, deputy secretary general of the association said today in Qingdao.

Weak Demand

Tire production growth in China, the world’s largest automobile market, may slow this year to 5 percent as a weaker economy saps sales in the commercial-vehicle market, Shen Jinrong, chairman of Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Co., a Chinese tiremaker, said today in Qingdao. Output grew 6.05 percent in 2011, according to the China Rubber Industry Association.

Iron ore prices have averaged $141.14 a metric ton this year, down 16 percent from last year’s average, according to data from The Steel Index Ltd. for iron ore shipments to China’s Tianjin port. The steelmaking raw material may average $86 a ton by 2016, Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch unit said in a report dated yesterday.

“The type of economy that’s being developed in China is changing,” Ashby said. It “will go through a phase of things like machinery and equipment becoming more important as people get up that GDP per head curve,” he said.

Double Capacity

China’s steel demand will remain positive until at least 2025, he said. BHP (BHP) is doubling iron ore capacity by 2020 and in January received initial approval for a A$14 billion ($15 billion) expansion of an export harbor in Western Australia to boost supply to steel mills. The cost estimate is from a report last year by the state’s Department of Mines and Petroleum.

“We’re still confident in the long-term demand for commodities generally, of which iron ore is one, as one-third of the global population is urbanizing and the population is getting bigger,” Ashby said. The company hasn’t “slowed down” its plans to add more capacity, he said.

Rio is also expanding its mines and sees its global production approaching 450 million tons a year in the next five years, it said on March 7. Its increasing output by more than 50 percent to 283 million tons by next year. Iron ore is both Rio and BHP’s biggest earning units.

BHP, whose biggest customer is also China, is re-evaluating spending plans amid slowing Chinese growth, the Australian Financial Review reported today, citing Chairman Jacques Nasser’s comments to investors. China accounted for 28 percent of BHP’s sales in the last financial year and 31 percent of Rio’s.

Steel output in China will grow to between 1 billion metric tons and 1.1 billion tons by 2025 from about 700 million tons currently, Ashby said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elisabeth Behrmann in Sydney at ebehrmann1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Keenan at rkeenan5@bloomberg.net

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