Iron ore, the commodity most leveraged to China’s growth and Australia’s biggest export earner, is heading for the longest bear market in 20 years.
Vale SA, Rio Tinto Group and BHP Billiton Ltd., which control about two-thirds of seaborne iron ore supply, are spending about $47 billion on new and bigger iron ore mines from Brazil to Australia. The new cargoes are set to reach the global market just as China changes gear to lower growth expectations, following what may become its weakest performance since 1990.
“We’re already seeing the beginning of the end of the first phase of economic development in China,” Alberto Calderon, chief commercial officer of Melbourne-based BHP, which is spending about $1 billion a month on its ore mines in Australia, said last month at a conference in Canberra. “The pace of demand for iron ore from China has slowed down by more than half.”
Prices reached a record $191.90 a metric ton on Feb. 16 last year and may plunge as low as $50 a metric ton before the middle of next year, according to Andy Xie, a former Morgan Stanley chief Asia-Pacific economist. They haven’t traded at that level since contract prices were set at $47 a ton in 2006. The supply of iron ore to China, the world’s second-biggest economy, has helped secure 21 recession-free years for Australia, forecast to earn about $65 billion from the commodity this year.
“The price of iron ore is the canary in the coal mine,” Kieran Davies, chief economist at Barclays Capital in Sydney, said in a note. It’s seen as an indication of the economic outlook for China and Australia, he said in a phone interview.
Australia’s central bank yesterday cut interest rates because of a worsening outlook for commodity industries.
Iron ore’s turnaround is luring some of the world’s most high-profile short sellers, including Jim Chanos, who oversees about $6 billion as the founder and president at Kynikos Associates Ltd. He’s targeted producer Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., which at one point made Andrew Forrest Australia’s richest man as iron ore rose more than sixfold from 2001 to 2008 on Chinese demand.
Forrest’s net worth has plunged by 14 percent this year to $3.9 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. More than 97 percent of his wealth is linked to shares of Fortescue. Gina Rinehart, who became Asia’s richest woman after her father discovered minerals that helped create Australia’s iron ore industry, has seen her wealth plunge $1.2 billion, or 5.7 percent, this year to $19 billion, the data show.
Yvonne Ball, a spokesman for Fortescue, declined to comment on Andrew Forrest’s wealth. An e-mail to Hancock Prospecting Pty, Gina Rinehart’s company, wasn’t answered.
Iron ore producers have lost 29 percent of their market value from this year’s high in February, according to the Bloomberg Industries iron ore mining index.
As the slump in commodity prices erode valuations, Noble Group Ltd. and South Korean investors this week bid A$1.01 billion ($1.04 billion) for Arrium Ltd., the Sydney-based producer previously known as OneSteel Ltd. Arrium has rejected the offer, saying it was too low and conditional.
Bidders for Arrium, grouped under Steelmakers Australia, also include Posco Australia Pty, National Pension Service of Korea, Korea Investment Corp. and Korea Finance Corp.
Iron ore may average $96 a metric ton in 2017, compared with $167.60 last year, according to the median estimate of five analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News. Prices are set to fall for four consecutive years starting in 2014, according to the survey. They last fell for three straight years from 1992 to 1994, according to data from Merrill Lynch & Co.
Prices for immediate delivery at the Tianjin port in China touched a near three-year low of $86.70 a ton on Sept. 5, the lowest since October 2009, according to a gauge compiled by The Steel Index Ltd. They’ve fallen about 40 percent this past year to $104.20 a ton, while Rio’s market value has fallen by 9 percent and Vale’s by 8 percent.
“The uncertainty over there in the last two months has grown tremendously,” Andrew Keen, global head of metals and mining equity research at HSBC Holdings Plc, said in an interview in Singapore on Sept. 24. “The equity market is already dismissing any recovery in the iron ore market.”
Steel demand in China may have peaked last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Industries, adding to the mounting signals of an industry step-change. Sichuan Hanlong Group, a Chinese investor in highway and power projects, in August cut the price of its takeover bid for Australian iron ore mine developer Sundance Resources Ltd. by 21 percent, while BHP, the world’s biggest mining company, mothballed an estimated $22 billion iron ore port expansion.
“Steel demand growth had been stagnant, or even dwindled, since the fourth quarter of last year, leading to some dramatic changes in the iron ore market,” Zhang Changfu, general secretary of the China Iron and Steel Association, told the 12th China International Steel & Raw Materials Conference, on Sept. 27 in Dalian. “Iron ore supply is gradually moving into surplus.”
An iron ore surplus looms in 2015 after capacity expansions in Brazil and Australia, the biggest exporters, help boost global seaborne exports by about 35 percent from 2010 levels, Citigroup Inc. said in a report last month. BHP, which flagged China’s shift of economic focus from infrastructure to the consumer, last month warned investors not to expect record prices to be sustained with increased production.
“The high price in the past decade has sucked vast amounts of money into developing new mines,” Xie, a former World Bank economist, said in a Sept. 5 note, adding that prices may stay down permanently as steel demand is unlikely to grow as building of highways, railroads and properties has peaked. “This story will come to a crashing end.”
Brokerages are trimming iron ore price forecasts, with Macquarie Group Ltd., Australia’s largest investment bank, downgrading estimates by as much as 25 percent for the next few years, citing revisions to its China steel demand outlook. Since 2004, China, the fastest growing major economy, has spent an average 8 percent of GDP on steel, 16 times higher than the average U.S. rate and far in excess of the global average of 1.6 percent, Citigroup said in a July report.
“There’s a lot of supply coming into the market in the next few years, which is going to lead to oversupply and lower prices in the medium and longer term,” Ian Roper, CLSA Ltd.’s Shanghai-based commodity strategist, said at a Sept. 11 briefing in Hong Kong. He’s forecasting a price of $75 a ton in 2015. “On the demand side, China is structurally definitely moving to a lower pace of growth.”
While some expansions have been delayed because of declining prices, Rio, which says it’s sold more than 1 billion tons of iron ore to China since 1973, BHP and rivals are pressing ahead with capacity increases.
These two, and Fortescue, may boost output 65 percent in the next five years to 703 million tons, Citigroup said in a Sept. 3 report, referring to a “building wave of Australian exports.” Rio has an approved spending budget of $22.4 billion on ore projects underway, while BHP is spending $8.4 billion. The proposed BHP port expansion at Port Hedland was estimated at $22 billion by Credit Suisse Group AG in an April 12 report.
Steel production in China, the world’s biggest maker, reached a six-month low in August, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg. A preliminary reading for a Chinese purchasing managers’ index signaled manufacturing contracted for an 11th month, HSBC Holdings and Markit Economics said on Sept. 20.
Vale said in August that China’s so-called golden years are over as economic growth slows. China’s industrial output in August grew at the slowest pace in three years and President Hu Jintao said the economy faces “notable downward pressure.” Its GDP growth for 2014 is estimated to drop to 8.4 percent from 10.4 percent in 2010, according to a June forecast by the World Bank. China accounts for 65 percent of seaborne iron ore demand.
Steel output has been the touchstone of China’s economic progress as the building of roads, railways and real estate helped keep China’s average annual growth above 10 percent over the last decade. This prompted ore prices to surge from below $20 a ton last decade, aided by a 4 trillion yuan ($635 billion) public spending program from 2009.
Slowing Economic Expansion
China’s steel production growth may slow to about 3 percent to 5 percent annually the next five years on slowing economic expansion, Xu Xiangchun, chief analyst with Mysteel.com, said from Beijing. Output may gain 3.2 percent to 705 million tons this year, from 683 million tons last year, Xu said, less than half the 8.9 percent growth recorded in 2011.
“Should China’s annual steel output grow by below 5 percent in the next few years, and miners keep expanding under the current plans, the iron ore market will turn into a glut and prices will trend lower,” Henry Liu, Hong Kong-based analyst with Mirae Asset Securities (HK) Ltd., said by phone.
To be sure, iron ore prices have rebounded 20 percent since this month’s low and China’s government has demonstrated an ability to pump money into the economy to spur steel-intensive investment. It last month approved building of as much as 2,018 kilometers (1,254 miles) of roads and subway projects across the country. Nomura Holdings Inc. estimated the total value of projects approved at about 1 trillion yuan.
“Steel is the barometer of China’s economy and fixed-asset investment is the foundation of China’s urbanization progress, which will take at least a further decade, and iron ore prices follow steel,” said Wu Wenzhang, co-founder and chairman of researcher Steelhome.cn. “China has plenty of room to drive up the economy by implementing investment plans.”
The effects of lower prices are being felt in Western Australia, the home of the industry. The state’s revenue grew a less-than-expected 5.5 percent to A$25.2 billion last fiscal year, driven by lower royalties imposed on producers, the government said in a Sept. 26 statement. Lower iron ore prices are “placing significant strains on the state’s finances,” it said. Every $1 drop in the ore price cuts annual royalty income by A$33 million, according to the government.
Fortescue, Australia’s third-largest iron ore exporter, last month cut its full-year spending forecast by 26 percent to $4.6 billion, involving jobs cuts and deferral of projects, while Perth-based developer Aquila Resources Ltd. last month said it would trim spending on its A$6 billion Pilbara Iron Ore project with AMCI Inc.
Some “marginal” mines in Australia may face closure as the commodity price boom ends, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said Sept. 18 after the nation reduced its iron ore price forecasts for this year and next. From the end of 2008 through July, no major currency appreciated as much as Australia’s dollar, thanks to booming shipments of iron ore and other commodities to China. The currency traded at A$1.0210 against the U.S. dollar as of 4:26 p.m. Sydney time, down from a post-float record of A$1.1081 in July last year.
“A fall in iron ore prices is a reduction in our overall income, and it’s likely we’ll see some slowdown in Australian economic growth,” Hans Kunnen, chief economist at St. George Bank Ltd., said by phone.
— With assistance by Helen Yuan, and Michelle Yun