Iron Ore

According to a report, crude-steel output in China dropped 1.3% to 270.07 million metric tons in the first four months of 2015 as compared to the same period in 2014. The World Steel Association has forecast that China will end up using far less steel this year and maybe even the next. Which again means more supply and far less demand.

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The report quoted Alan Chirgwin, BHP Billiton iron ore marketing vice president, as saying steel supply was expected to rise by about 110 million metric tons this year, exceeding demand growth by around 40 mmt.

Yet this has not fazed Rio Tinto Group, for example, which recently announced it would continue with its plan to produce iron ore at full capacity despite the fall in prices. While BHP and Brazil’s Vale SA have, for now, stepped on the brakes vis-à-vis their medium-term plans, team Rio, on the other hand, thinks reducing production costs will help it hang on to its lead…and profits.

Betting on a Comeback

Rio Tinto sees China coming back with renewed vigor and driving global iron ore demand through 2030.

Where does that leave India? So far as iron ore or even steel consumption is concerned, China is miles ahead of India, even in the fatigued condition it finds itself today. India, as reported by MetalMiner, drew a blank for about two years due to a court-imposed ban on ore mining, which left its steel companies at the mercy of imports, something that they continue to rely on even today.

That had also affected its iron ore exports, especially from the ore-rich provinces of Goa and Odisha. India’s iron ore imports went up dramatically to a record 6.76 million tons in the first 7 months of the 2014-15 fiscal year. Once, the country was the third-largest supplier of iron ore to the world, but, because of the export duty and a national mining ban, it had turned into an importer.

Analysts predict India was likely to remain a net importer of iron ore in 2015-16 as well, no thanks to the continued drop in falling international rates. The only silver lining, claimed analysts, could be that due to the resumption in the domestic production of iron ore, the quantity of imports may not be as high as the last fiscal year.

Captive Market

India’s steel companies do not have captive mines, so they have to get their average 95 mmt a year of iron ore from elsewhere. With international price of ore hovering today at about $50 per mt for high-grade ore, it is too attractive a deal for Indian steel mills to be passed on. As reference points, last year, iron ore imports happened when rates had touched $90 per mt.

In all this, Australia, a country that sells about 80% of its ore to China, sits in a happy position. While it hopes that the recent cuts in interest rates will revive the Chinese economy, and thus its demand for iron ore and coking coke, it is also looking increasingly to India to pick up its stock. Last year, for example, as reported by MetalMiner Australia had approved Adani Group’s approximate $15.5-billion (AUS $16.5 billion) Carmichael coal project in Queensland that could yield up to 60 million mt of coal per year. That was just the beginning. For the Aussies, if the dragon’s appetite for iron ore and coking coal is satiated, the hungry tiger is always lurking in the background.

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When the Tiger and the Dragon dine together the world sits up and takes note.

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Signing business agreements worth $22 billion is a big deal so Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to China made big, bold headlines here. Some of India’s old, and some not so old (Adani, Bhusan Power and Steel), players in the steel and power sectors, were signatories to the 26 deals.

Steel and Energy Deals

The notable contracts included the one between India’s IL&FS Energy Development Co. and China Huaneng Group for a 4,000-megawatt thermal power project, and India’s Bhushan Power and Steel sealing a pact with China National Technical Import and Export Corporation for an integrated steel project in Indian province of Gujarat.

So here were two Asian, nee global, giants, breaking bread and talking business at the same table, sending analysts scurrying to their laptops to chalk out spreadsheets and draw pie charts in an effort to understand the impact of all this in the long term.

While business leaders of both nations, including Alibaba Group Chairman Jack Ma, spoke of long-term interests, such talk brought the arclight swinging back to the present and short-term situation currently prevailing in the Asian region, especially in iron ore and coking coke, two crucial ingredients in making steel.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that steel is the mainstay of Asia’s infrastructure, a fact that has had iron ore and coal miners — and even steel majors in China, India and as so far as Australia — jockeying for a major piece of new market share. With demand from Europe and the US lacking, suppliers in all three countries are walking a thinly veiled tight rope to ensure their survival.

Wither Demand

Once a destination of hope, the Chinese dragon, for now, has lost some of its hunger. Some say next-door neighbor India is where one can find fresh action. The jury’s honestly still out on that one, though. But the slowdown in China’s economy means less need for steel, in turn, lowering the demand for ore and coking coal. Leaving miners re-tweaking their business plans.

Last year, for example, the Rio Tinto Group, BHP Billiton Ltd. in Australia, and Vale SA of Brazil, to stem the tide, had stepped up low-cost output to pump up volumes, leading to a glut. Now, everybody’s mantra seems to be – cut production costs faster than the falling prices.

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Non-residential construction starts, a good leading indicator for outlays and spending, spiked more than 40% in February according to a major bank report due, in part, to a large jump in warehouse spending and a major iron ore producer is cutting production as prices just start to recover.

Warehouse Spending Jumps

A recent economic report from Wells Fargo Securities Economics Group showed private warehouse spending for last year jumped 48.6% and is expected to rise again in 2015.

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E-commerce was cited as just one reason for the accelerated growth in warehouse spending.

Companies such as Amazon are changing almost every aspect of the supply chain as it expands its reach to a growing share of the population by placing fulfillment centers close to the consumer, the report says, noting that Amazon has about 75 fulfillment centers in the US and another 15 underway.

Wells Fargo estimates that there will be growth in institutional and commercial building; those markets have been slower than others, like manufacturing building, in 2014. The bank also predicts structure investment spending to increase 5% this year and 8% in 2016.

Iron Ore Production Slashed

BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, said on Tuesday it would slash its iron ore production cost further and cut spending to better withstand a downturn in commodity prices.

Giant iron ore producer BHP and rival Rio Tinto Group are locked in a battle to become the lowest cost iron producer.

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Iron ore has now gained more than 29% since early April when it was trading as low as $47.08 a metric ton.

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The dramatic turnaround has been fueled in recent weeks by BHP Billiton‘s decision to slow its rate of production growth. The market has taken this as the start of greater market discipline by producers. A rebound in iron ore shipments following the end of the Chinese New Year has added to a sense that the worst is over and the bounce back has begun.

Over the past month, three of the world’s four largest seaborne iron ore producers have suggested they will make adjustments to production volumes, Rio Tinto Group being the only dissenter but Chairman Jan Du Plessis told shareholders at an annual general meeting in Perth that our share of the seaborne trade today is 20% and a decade ago it was 20%., suggesting the firm is not trying to drive competitors out of the market simply to maintain market share. That may be the case but Rio’s 20% is of a much larger pie today. The company plans to ship about 350 mt of iron ore in 2015.

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Financial moves and comments from the Federal Reserve dominated today’s MetalCrawler.

Yellen Says Stocks Could be Overvalued

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen on Wednesday said high equity valuations could pose potential dangers but that stability risks across the US financial system remained in check.

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“I would highlight that equity market valuations at this point generally are quite high,” Yellen said. “There are potential dangers there.”

Yellen’s view on the run-up in stocks was an answer to questions from International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, who joined the Fed chief for the opening session of the “Finance and Society” conference.

Quebec To Help Cliffs Sell Iron Ore Mine

The Canadian Province of Quebec is prepared to buy a rail line and port facilities that service a shuttered Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. iron-ore mine there to pave the way for the operation to reopen under new owners. The government also is open to buying 20% of the Bloom Lake mine to facilitate a deal, Economy Minister Jacques Daoust said. Purchasing the rail and port facilities could lower the mine’s operating costs by as much as $20 a ton, he said.

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While India leads the world in Direct-Reduced Iron production, the domestic industry has been facing an uphill production battle for the last four years.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

India’s DRI sector is hoping for help from the government and clarity in the overall steel policy to see it through, what many have dubbed, its most critical phase ever.

Demand DRIs Up

What is worrisome is that the falling demand for steel, especially construction steel globally, could further, negatively impact the sector. Some are quick to note that India’s DRI units need not worry much on this front as the market in India has remained insulated from global trends owing to steadily increasing domestic steel consumption.

Two other risks facing the sector are imported scrap being used by steel companies in India, DRI is an excellent substitute for scrap in electric arc furnaces, and the reliance by medium-sized DRI producers on inferior technology. That means technological limitations stop the producers from exploiting inferior grades of iron ore and coal.

Further, the limited availability of coking coal only motivates steel production in the country through a combination of DRI and blast furnace. What has added to the misery is the recent round of coal auctions held by the federal government.

Unable to Bid in Coal Auction

DRI companies were unable to participate in the auction, and a hitherto discounted source of fuel was lost, pushing the cost of DRI production by an estimated 40%, some have said. The DRI segment has brought this to the government’s attention.

While many steel companies prefer to use DRI instead of scrap, the slowdown in the global steel industry has seen some amount of the steel melting scrap being imported into India because of lower import duties. What makes steel plants happy in such cases, besides the cheap duty, is the fact that the imported scrap percentage works out to be higher, which eventually negates the cost of imported scrap.

To many analysts, the DRI sector in India is poised on the cusp of a turnaround, but only if there is adequate government backing as well as support from domestic steel companies. Even then, it could easily take four years for the industry to come back to an even keel and ramp up production.

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Today in MetalCrawler, the sleepy iron ore market was jolted to life. Is it a shift from the bearish trends we’ve seen lately? Only time will tell.

BHP Dials Back Mining Expansion

Iron ore advanced after BHP Billiton Ltd. curbed expansion plans and supplies from higher-cost mines dropped, easing concern that global output will outpace demand and feed a global glut. Miners’ shares jumped.

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Ore with 62% content at Qingdao, China, rose 5.5% to $57.81 a metric ton early today, its highest since March 16. Benchmark iron ore is still 60% below the peak of $144.18 reached in August 2013. Visit our MetalMiner Indx for the latest prices.

Exports Fall for the Quarter

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Ker writes that the week’s iron ore moves could have a major impact on markets if other producers follow BHP’s lead and constrain supply. Across Rio Tinto Group, Vale SA, Fortescue Metals Group, Arrium Limited, Mt. Gibson Iron and Grange Resources, exports were more than 19 million mt lower this quarter than in the December quarter, raising questions about why the iron ore price has fallen 28% during a period of supply weakness.

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Morningstar recently published its Outlook for Basic Materials Stocks and the picture is still negative for base metals and mined metal inputs.

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The commentary is part of Morningstar’s Quarter-End Insights, a special report also featuring outlooks for the economy, stock market, credit market, and each sector.

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US Sen. Lisa Murkowski, (R-Alaska), last week, introduced the American Mineral Security Act of 2015, a bill that promises “to prevent future mineral supply shocks and boost the competitiveness of our energy, defense, electronics, medical, and manufacturing industries.”

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The AMSA would require that the director of the US Geological Survey establish a list of minerals critical to the American economy and provide a comprehensive set of policies to address issues associated with their discovery, production, use, and reuse. It also would require that the federal government establish a methodology for the designation of critical minerals, based on potential supply disruptions and the importance of their use, and require the list to be reviewed and updated at least every two years.

Critical Minerals

There are also changes in permitting, the Federal Register process and the bill would extend an executive order issued by President Obama in 2012, regarding the permitting of important infrastructure projects, to mines that produce critical minerals and critical mineral manufacturing projects. The full bill is available online at the Senate website.

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Here at MetalCrawler the steel and iron ore layoffs keep on coming, unfortunately.

More Minnesota Iron Ore Layoffs

U.S. Steel Corp. said Tuesday it plans to idle part of its Minntac plant at Minnesota’s biggest taconite iron ore mine and processing plant, resulting in about 680 layoffs due to low steel prices and foreign competition.

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U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone said the layoffs are temporary at the Mountain Iron facility, which employs about 1,500 workers, but that the company can’t speculate how long they’ll last. She said that will depend on market conditions and customer demand. Three of the plant’s five iron ore processing lines will be shut down, she said.

Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel already announced it would idle its Keetac plant in nearby Keewatin effective May 13, resulting in 412 workers laid off. And Magnetation LLC announced in February that it was shutting down its Keewatin plant, resulting in about 20 job losses. The mining region is about 200 miles north of Minneapolis.

China’s Metals Financing Industry Weakens

Incentives that for years drove Chinese imports of copper to obtain short-term loans are starting to become less attractive, slowing demand in the world’s largest consumer of the metal, according to the Financial Times.

Stocks of copper held in Chinese bonded warehouses fell in the first quarter, even though it is traditionally a period of oversupply, according to figures released by consultancy CRU, suggesting weaker demand for financing.

Chinese copper consumption in the quarter rose 0.7%, the weakest rate since 2008, according to their data.

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