Surging Iron Ore Won’t ‘Fall Off a Cliff,’ Says Rio Tinto

  • Rio CFO says China in fundamental shift to less-polluting ore
  • Second-biggest miner sees robust growth to continue in China

Rio Tinto CFO Says We Have Planned for Downside Scenarios

Iron ore will defy forecasts for a dramatic price collapse as China’s economy remains strong and the top buyer boosts demand for higher-quality imports, according to Rio Tinto Group, the second-largest exporter.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s going to fall off a cliff,” Chief Financial Officer Chris Lynch said Monday in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Daybreak Australia. “I guess the key issue is that we have to be robust in case the price goes up, down or sideways, and that’s what we set out our business to do.”

Global exporters are benefiting as mills in China, the world’s top steelmaker, increasingly prefer higher-quality raw materials to raise efficiency and cut pollution, according to Lynch. Iron ore, which accounted for about 60 percent of Rio’s profits last year, soared in 2016 to defy predictions that rising supply would overwhelm demand. Benchmark prices jumped the most in two months on Monday to the highest in more than two years.

“There’s another fundamental shift going on in China and that’s the preference for the more efficient and less polluting end of the industry,” Lynch said in the interview. The switch by mills to higher-quality imports will support Rio and other exporters, while China’s growth becomes less reliant on commodities as it balances toward consumption and services from a focus on infrastructure and construction, he said.

The raw material, which has surged as stimulus in China supported steel output and consumption, is poised to correct sharply in the second half on rising supply from Australia and Brazil, according to Citigroup Inc. Prices will fall each quarter this year to $55 a metric ton in the final three months, according to the median of 13 analysts’ forecasts compiled by Bloomberg.

Iron ore will plunge back below $50 as an extra 90 million tons of seaborne ore hits the market in 2017 with holdings at China’s ports are already at an all-time high, Liberum Capital Ltd. analyst Richard Knights said last week in an interview.

QuickTake Iron Ore

“We like the idea of higher prices, but there’s not a lot you can do about it,” Lynch said. “I can’t give you any justification for why it’s $2 higher today than it was yesterday.”

China’s imports jumped to an all-time high of more than 1 billion tons last year. Stockpiles rose 2.8 percent last week to a record 127 million tons, Shanghai Steelhome Information Technology Co. said Monday.

Ore with 62 percent content in Qingdao rallied 6.5 percent on Monday to $92.23 a dry ton, the highest since August 2014, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd. Rio climbed 1.4 percent by 10:40 a.m. in London, trading near a four-year high.

Higher prices are boosting earnings for the top producers including Rio, which last week reported its first annual profit gain since 2013, though the company has maintained its disciplined approached to acquisitions, according to Lynch. It has looked at “a hell of a lot” and a lot more than than “we’ll ever pull the trigger on,” he said.

“We looked at a lot of things, there was a lot of stress on a lot of our competitors through the early part of last year,” Lynch said. “Notwithstanding the drop in market caps, the enterprise value didn’t change that much given that the debt was still there at 100 cents in the dollar.”

While London-based Rio sees “a fairly robust future in China,” the producer is no longer focused as exclusively on the nation in its demand outlook, according to Lynch. Higher infrastructure spending under President Donald Trump and faster approvals for projects in the U.S. are both potential positives for Rio, he said.

— With assistance by Betty Liu

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