Goldman Calls End to Iron Age After ‘Dramatic’ Drop in Ore Price

Iron Ore Supply
Rail cars laden with iron ore arrive at the receiving facility in Port Hedland in the Pilbara region, Western Australia. Before the surplus emerged, iron ore supplies were tight and producers had above-trend profits even as costs increased, according to Lelong and Cai. Photographer: Sergio Dionisio/Bloomberg

Iron ore declined sooner than expected this year as supplies exceeded demand and prices are unlikely to recover, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which said 2014 will mark the end of a so-called iron age.

This year “is the inflection point where new production capacity finally catches up with demand growth, and profit margins begin their reversion to the historical mean,” analysts Christian Lelong and Amber Cai wrote in a report today titled: “The end of the Iron Age.” The 2016 forecast for seaborne ore was cut to $79 a metric ton from $82 and the 2017 outlook was reduced to $78 from $85, according to the New-York based bank, which stuck with a forecast for $80 next year.

The raw material tumbled into a bear market this year as the biggest producers including Rio Tinto Group expanded low-cost output, betting higher volumes would more than offset falling prices while less competitive mines were forced to close. The decline in prices came sooner than expected, according to Goldman, which said in November that iron ore would probably drop at least 15 percent this year. The commodity is seen in a structural downtrend, JPMorgan Chase & Co. said today.

“The price decline has been dramatic, but a weak demand outlook in China and the structural nature of the surplus make a recovery unlikely,” Lelong and Cai wrote. “Lower prices for iron ore and steel are unlikely to boost demand in a material way. Instead, the day when steel production in China will peak gets ever closer.”

Lowest Level

Ore with 62 percent content at the Chinese port of Qingdao fell 39 percent to $82.22 a dry ton this year, the lowest level since September 2009, according to data from Metal Bulletin Ltd. The Bloomberg Commodity Index, which doesn’t include iron ore as a member, lost 2 percent in the period. Within the index, soybeans fell the most.

Before the surplus emerged, iron ore supplies were tight and producers had above-trend profits even as costs increased, according to Lelong and Cai. That period, dubbed by the bank as the Iron Age, is now ending, they wrote.

“The current exploitation phase in iron ore could last for a decade,” the analysts wrote. “Iron ore markets went through a 20-year period of declining prices in real terms during the previous exploitation phase that ended in 2004.”

The global surplus will more than triple to 163 million tons in 2015 from 52 million tons this year, according to Goldman. The glut was seen expanding to 245 million tons in 2016 295 million tons in 2017 and 334 million tons in 2018.

Producers’ View

The biggest suppliers see higher prices. Ore may increase as the higher-cost output exits the market, Nev Power, chief executive officer of Perth-based Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., said in an Aug. 20 interview on Bloomberg Television. Vale SA also sees prices rebounding as supply growth slows and mines close, Jose Carlos Martins, the Rio de Janeiro-based company’s head of ferrous and strategy, said on July 31.

Iron ore may see a dramatic recovery this half, Paul Gait, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said in a report on July 9, citing factors including a seasonal increase in the second six months and an end to China’s policy tightening. Asia’s largest economy accounts for about 67 percent of seaborne demand.

Credit growth in China missed estimates in July and new-home prices fell in almost all the cities the government tracks, putting pressure on policy makers to step up stimulus as they seek to meet an economic growth target of 7.5 percent.

About 110 million tons of global supply will close next year and a further 75 million tons in 2016, Goldman estimated in the report. While the majority of closures would be in China, seaborne producers will not go unscathed, it said.

‘Exceed Demand’

“New seaborne iron ore supply delivered into China is expected to exceed demand growth over the next three to four years,” Daniel Kang, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Hong Kong, said by e-mail in response to Bloomberg questions. “In short, we see iron ore in a structural downtrend.”

Rio Tinto, the biggest supplier after Vale, plans to boost output to more than 330 million tons in 2015, according to a company estimate. Vale will raise production 8.4 percent to 348 million tons in 2015. BHP Billiton Ltd. sees an 8.9 percent increase from its Western Australian mines in the year from July 1, while Fortescue may boost shipments by 25 percent.

Fortescue’s stock declined 32 percent in Australia this year, while in London Rio shares lost 5 percent and BHP rose 0.4 percent. In Brazil, Vale dropped 23 percent.

“The shift into structural oversupply is barely six months old but seaborne prices have already declined 38 percent year-to-date,” Lelong and Cai wrote. “Rather than representing the trough for this cycle, we believe the downward pressure is set to continue.”

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