Steelmaker demand for iron ore, the biggest source of cargoes for commodity carriers, is weakening, threatening to end the most profitable shipping rates in almost a year.
Ore stockpiles at ports in China, the largest user, already expanded to within 3.6 percent of a record, according to Antaike Information Development, a Beijing-based researcher. Chinese steelmaking is near the least profitable in almost three years, data compiled by Bloomberg Industries show. Iron-ore swaps, traded by brokers and used to bet on future costs, show no price rebound until at least 2013, according to Clarkson Securities Ltd., a unit of the world’s biggest shipbroker.
ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steelmaker, and Angang Steel Co. are among producers that idled furnaces as slowing global growth drove benchmark prices for the metal down 15 percent since March. For capesizes, vessels hauling about 80 percent of seaborne iron ore, that means a 40 percent drop in rates in the next quarter, according to Pareto Securities AS.
“The decline we have seen in both iron-ore and steel prices is a sign of slower demand in China,” said Martin Korsvold, an analyst at Pareto Securities in Oslo, whose recommendations on shipping companies have returned 13 percent in the past year. “It’s a very stark indicator of what’s going to happen for capesizes.”
Capesize rates almost tripled to $26,669 a day since Aug. 1, exceeding the $20,000 needed to break even for the first time this year, according to the Baltic Exchange in London, which publishes costs along more than 50 maritime routes. Returns averaged $29,247 so far this quarter. That will drop to $15,900 in the first three months of 2012, according to Pareto.
The slump in dry bulk is also hitting tankers and container lines. Returns on the largest oil carriers are at minus $769 a day, compared with the $29,800 Frontline Ltd., the biggest operator, says it needs to break even. An index reflecting charges for six types of containers fell 37 percent since the start of April, a gauge from the Hamburg Shipbrokers’ Association shows.
The Bloomberg Dry Bulk Shipping Pureplay Index retreated 34 percent this year, and 11 of its 14 companies will report lower earnings or losses in 2011, analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg show. The MSCI All-Country World Index of equities fell 5.6 percent.
Benchmark iron-ore prices at the Chinese port of Tianjin fell 35 percent to $118.40 a metric ton since Sept. 7, according to The Steel Index Ltd., which publishes data on the cost of steel, ore and scrap metal.
Rates for capesizes surged as steelmakers initially took advantage of declining iron-ore prices to expand stockpiles. Now vessel owners have a glut of carriers, the result of a building program begun in 2007 and 2008, when returns rose as high as $233,998 a day. Shipyards in China and Japan still have orders equal to 30 percent of the existing fleet, according to data from Redhill, England-based IHS Fairplay.
Shipping companies are counting on developing markets to shore up demand and reduce the glut. The International Monetary Fund is anticipating growth of 6.1 percent in those countries next year, compared with 1.9 percent in advanced economies. China, the world’s biggest steelmaking nation, will expand 9 percent, more than twice the predicted 4 percent gain for the world, the Washington-based group estimates.
Developing economies will account for 73 percent of steel demand next year, compared with 61 percent in 2007, the World Steel Association forecast Oct. 12. Global usage will probably expand 5.4 percent in 2012, against 6.5 percent this year, the Brussels-based group said. Consumption contracted in 2008 and 2009 amid the worst global recession since World War II.
World equities have rallied for five consecutive weeks, the longest winning streak since January, on optimism the global economy will avoid another recession. European leaders agreed on a plan to contain the region’s debt crisis on Oct. 27, driving the biggest rally in local stock markets in a month. Faster economic growth would buoy steel consumption, in turn driving demand for iron ore and shipping.
Profitability at Chinese mills may not be as low as the Bloomberg Industries index indicates. The gauge is based on the cost of domestic iron ore, currently at its most expensive relative to imports in at least three years, data from Steel Business Briefing and Antaike show. That means producers may seek to shore up margins by increasing their reliance on international supply.
Shipments from Australia, the top global exporter, were at the highest ever in August, according to the most recent government data. Brazil shipped record cargoes in the three months to September.
Mills may not need to boost ore imports for much longer. Monthly inbound shipments reached an eight-month high in September, Chinese customs data show. Stockpiles at ports were 95.8 million tons on Oct. 28, compared with a record 98.7 million in August, said Shanghai Steelhome Information, a research company. At the same time, steel production has declined for four consecutive months to the lowest level since February, figures from the association show.
“There won’t be more imports, there will be less,” Zhang Changfu, vice chairman and secretary general of the China Iron and Steel Association, said at a conference in Beijing yesterday. “Iron-ore companies are now having troubles with selling the product.”
Spending on railroad building in China fell 59 percent in September from a year earlier as new projects were slowed after a high-speed train crash in July killed 40 people, data from the Ministry of Railways show. Baoshan Iron & Steel Co., the country’s biggest publicly traded steelmaker, said Oct. 27 some clients asked to delay deliveries because of tightening credit.
A measure of global hot-rolled coil steel fell to $714.24 a ton in the week to Oct. 25 from as much as $837.78 in March, according to an assessment by Steel Business Briefing.
Capesize charter rates are already erasing some of the last two months’ gains, dropping 8.9 percent last week, the most in three months. Forward freight agreements, traded by brokers and used to bet on future transport costs, anticipate rates no higher than $18,200 on an annual basis through 2016, Baltic Exchange data show. For the first quarter of 2012, they are trading at $14,275.
A measure of the combined earnings of the Bloomberg Dry Bulk Shipping Pureplay Index will retreat 51 percent this year, according to analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg. STX Pan Ocean Co., the biggest member of the gauge, will report a loss of $33.8 million, compared with net income of $94.95 million in 2010, according to the mean of seven estimates. Shares of the Seoul-based company fell 35 percent this year.
Iron-ore swaps based on anticipated first-quarter prices at Tianjin are trading at $129 a ton, according to London-based Clarkson. That compares with the record $191.90 in the physical market in February. Longer-dated swap contracts imply an average price of $123 for 2013, little changed from actual prices of $118.40.
“The iron-ore market is very weak and stockpiles of iron ore in the biggest ports are high,” said Nicolai Hansteen, an analyst at Oslo-based shipping consultant Lorentzen & Stemoco A/S, who anticipates a first-quarter capesize average rate of $25,000 a day. “Prices are dropping, and that must be leading to some hesitancy among traders in what they will do in the next month in terms of import behavior.”