Commodities

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

These are nervous times for iron ore producers.

Fortescue Metals, the fourth-largest miner of the steel-making material, starts to lose money if prices at Chinese ports fall below $39 a metric ton. After a 37 percent drop this year, Metal Bulletin's benchmark is now just 16 cents above its record-low $44.59 a ton.

Sailing Close to the Wind
Fortescue isn't far above its break-even levels
Source: Company presentation

So it's no surprise the Australian company's chief executive officer, Nev Power, is pulling every lever to keep his red dirt in the black. He's reducing the cost of mining, processing and then hauling the ore to port to $15 a ton from its current $18 a ton, according to a presentation last month. Interest expenses add another $4 a ton, so Fortescue announced Nov. 10 a tender offer aimed at paying back as much as $750 million of debt early.  Beyond that, he's looking at developing a joint venture with Baosteel and Formosa Plastics to produce magnetite, according to Bloomberg's David Stringer. That variety of iron ore requires costly processing but attracts a higher price and a lower government royalty tax than the hematite Fortescue mines at present.

One unexpected benefit comes from the Baltic Dry index, a benchmark for the cost of hiring freight ships that dipped below 500 on Friday for the first time since it started in 1985. When China's industrial demand was strong, the cost of both raw materials and the ships used to transport them soared. Now that it's slumping, commodity prices and ship rates will have to fall to clear supply gluts built up during the boom.

Looking at the cost of hiring a Capesize ore carrier gives you a sense of the benefit:

Flat Iron
The cost of hiring a large ore carrier has been slumping
Source: Baltic Exchange

Fortescue probably pays more than the current spot rate so as to reserve its cargo space and lock in prices for months at a time, but the benchmark is a good guide to the general direction of its expenses. A Capesize vessel carrying up to about 170,000 metric tons of iron ore will spend some 30 days making the round trip to deliver its cargo and get back to port, judging by the last voyage of the Bulk Prosperity, a bulker owned by China Development Bank that anchored off Australia's Port Hedland on Monday after returning from Qingdao.

At current rates of $4,713 a day, transport on the spot market for the whole voyage would come to about 83 cents a metric ton on a fully laden ship. 12 months earlier, the day rate was $22,192, and transport was $3.92 a ton. When you're only making $5.75 a ton of profit, as Fortescue is now, that's a significant difference.

There's potentially a virtuous circle here for iron ore producers. With operating costs for a capesize vessel averaging about $7,400 a day, according to consultancy Moore Stephens, shipowners are mostly losing money at current rates. But the alternative is less attractive these days, too. Thanks to that glut of iron ore, breaking up a ship and turning it into steel scrap only nets about half what it did a couple of years ago:

Breaking Up Is So Very Hard to Do
Low scrap prices are making it more difficult to remove ships from the market
Source: Metal Bulletin

That may keep more vessels on the market and ensure shipping costs stay lower for longer, helping iron ore miners stay in the black. 

Don't get too comfortable. Companies only book a ship if they have real cargo to move, so there's no speculative activity in the Baltic Dry to take the edge off price swings. The index almost doubled during June and July and Capesize rates were above $14,000 a day as recently as September. Fortescue's cushion is thin enough now that even a small spike could leave investors feeling sore.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net