As China Slows, Australia's Top Iron Port Is at Busiest Ever

  • Low-cost miners adding supplies even as growth in China slows
  • Port handles cargoes for Gina Rinehart's new Roy Hill project

Cargo ship are loaded with iron ore at the ship loading facility in Port Hedland.

Photographer: Sergio Dionisio/Bloomberg

Australia’s iron ore export machine is running at full throttle even as China slows. Exports from Port Hedland rose to a record in March, according to the world’s biggest bulk-export terminal, which handles cargoes for miners including BHP Billiton Ltd. and new entrant Roy Hill Holdings Pty.

Total shipments increased to 39.53 million metric tons last month from 36.63 million in February and 36.61 million a year earlier, according to data from the port authority on Tuesday. The figure eclipses the previous high of 39.4 million tons set in September. Exports to China gained to 32.6 million tons compared with 29.14 million tons in February and 31.2 million in the same month in 2015.

QuickTake Iron Ore

While iron ore has staged a surprise rally in 2016 as Chinese policy makers signaled their willingness to bolster slowing growth in the top user, prices have sagged in the past two weeks as port holdings expanded to the highest level in almost a year. Port Hedland is a maritime gateway to low-cost supply from the Pilbara, the world’s largest production center. Billionaire Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill venture has been ramping up operations this year, and last month dispatched its inaugural cargo to China.

‘Ramp Up Output’

Suppliers in Australia have “started to ramp up output after a weak start to the year,” Xu Huimin, an analyst at Huatai Great Wall Futures Co., said by phone after the data were released. Port Hedland also handles shipments for Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., Australia’s number-three shipper. “That’s caused prices to be a bit weaker recently as China’s demand couldn’t keep up.”

Ore with 62 percent content in Qingdao was little changed at $54.75 a dry ton on Tuesday after losing 2.8 percent last week and 2 percent the week before, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd. The price surged 23 percent in the first quarter, rebounding after three years of losses, as mills in China ramped up output ahead of the peak-construction season and the country’s leaders pledged to back growth.

Adding to supplies from Australia this year are cargoes from Rinehart’s Roy Hill project, which is ramping up output to a target of 55 million tons a year. The company plans to hold a ceremony later this week at the Chinese port of Caofeidian, which is due to receive Roy Hill’s first mainland cargo. Earlier shipments have gone to other Asian destinations including South Korea.

Goldman’s View

Iron ore prices are likely to post the biggest loss among metals this year as low-cost supply continues to outstrip consumption, according to a January forecast from the World Bank. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. reiterated its bearish forecast after the recent advance, targeting a drop to $35 a ton by year-end. Citigroup Inc. projects an average of $38 for 2016.

Port holdings of ore in China climbed 2.3 percent to 97 million tons last week, the highest level since April 2015, according to Shanghai Steelhome Information Technology Co. In the past year, inventories have expanded 17 percent and last topped 100 million tons in March 2015.

While low-cost miners continue to expand supply, steel consumption and output in China are contracting. The country that makes half of the world’s steel may churn out 785 million tons this year, down 2.4 percent from 2015, when production shrank for the first time since 1981, according to McKinsey & Co. Steel demand will shrink 2.5 percent in 2016, the consultant says.

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