iron ore price

Metal processors and traders throughout China are facing a grim reality today. Thanks to major economic shifts both within the country and without, metals demand has plummeted. Of course, it’s not great news for the world’s biggest metals manufacturer. But what does it mean for the rest of the world?

China aluminum

Grispb/Adobe Stock

A Hard Few Years with More to Come

When you boil it down, even the most complicated markets are just supply and demand. Of course, the world has seen extremes of both factors these past few years. In that time, we’ve seen the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez Canal.

From 2020 to 2021, buyers throughout China were largely responsible for a global surge in metals prices. At the time, they were hedging their bets in expectation of further price increases. However, March and April saw massive declines in demand for their products.

According to an S&P Global article, internal property sales started the trend. Soon after came the COVID-19 lockdowns, factory shutdowns, and a huge drop in the purchase of consumer metal products. So, everything being supply and demand, those eager buyers from 2020 and 2021 have now turned into eager sellers.

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Rushing to Adjust to Metals Demand

Even China isn’t big enough to argue with data, and metals futures are indicating strong selling pressure. Financial analyst company Refinitiv has aluminum, zinc, steel rebar, and iron ore futures declining through the remainder of 2022. With no real forecast for 2023 as of yet, buyers who attempt to sit on their supplies stand to lose millions.

As previously mentioned, a lot of this has to do with low demand in China itself. The construction sector accounts for some 50% of steel consumption and 30% of aluminum consumption. With new projects floundering and projected growth nearly nonexistent, the “middlemen” are feeling a pretty big pinch. In many cases, steel traders are selling their inventories below their purchasing costs in an attempt to salvage their operations.

Stimulus to the Rescue?

Beijing has not been idle in the face of the country’s economic woes. They recently announced a series of economic stimulus measures aimed at propping up their struggling economy. The measures include cuts to benchmark lending rates and delayed loan repayments, among other things. However, the capital has yet to back off its authoritarian COVID measures.

Most experts agree that China’s commitment to lockdowns and shutdowns is too big an economic disruptor for a simple stimulus to fix.

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It’s still touch-and-go for the steel sector in China despite the sprouting of the first shoots of a possible manufacturing recovery. However, last Monday, benchmark iron ore prices in the country gained a surprising 7%. This is the biggest daily rise in two-and-a-half months. Is it a sign that we should be more optimistic, or is this just a dead cat bounce?

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bulk cargo iron ore

masterskuz55, 2022, AdobeStock

China’s Slow Road to Recovery

Chinese manufacturing activity has thus far been down in 2022 due to a fresh COVID-19 outbreak. However, since mid-May, the market has shown some signs of recovery, particularly in the country’s economic hub of Shanghai. Nevertheless, experts expect steel demand to remain lackluster until manufacturing production returns to normal in June.

S&P Global Commodity Insights reported that China’s manufacturing production index for steel consumption fell by 28 points from 2021 and 16 points from 2020. These aren’t exactly hopeful numbers, and experts are concerned about the pace of recovery despite the stimulus package.

India Playing Hard Ball on Tariffs with Iron Ore

The aforementioned 7% rise in iron ore futures is puzzling. Firstly, it comes on the heels of India raising export duties on some commodities to rein in inflationary pressures. Specifically, the country increased duties for iron ore and steel intermediates. This included raising new iron ores and concentrates tariffs from 30% to 50%. On the other hand, pellet duties went from zero to 45%. According to a report in the Financial Post, tariffs on coking coal and coke were removed altogether.

This week, the most-traded iron ore futures on the Dalian Commodity Exchange (for September delivery) were up 4.4% at $129.18 (864 yuan) a ton. This was after a surge of as much as 6.9%, the highest since May 6th. Some experts believe India’s move may not impact China’s iron ore inventories as much as initially thought. After all, it only represented about 3% of China’s total imports in 2021. The same goes for the first four months of this year. Overall, Chain’s purchase rate from the subcontinent has stayed low due to increasing demand in India & the falling iron ore prices.

Iron Ore Prices in China are up

News agency Reuters recently reported that we could see a new rally of iron ore prices. They specifically cited the Chinese government’s decision to cut its benchmark interest rate for mortgages by an unexpectedly wide margin. Prices reacted rather quickly to this news.

According to Argus, spot 62% iron ore for delivery to northern China was up to $135.90 a ton on May 20th. That’s an increase of 5.7% from the previous day, and the best close since May 6th. Domestic iron ore futures on the Dalian Commodity Exchange were also stronger. However, they were up by a much more modest 3.4% to end at $123.62 (827 yuan) a ton on May 20th.

The MetalMiner Insights platform provides both Dalian iron ore prices as well as a full range of AI driven metal price forecasts. 

China lowered the five-year loan prime rate by 15 basis points to 4.45% on May 20th. This represented the biggest reduction since the country revamped its interest rate mechanism in 2019. Analysts felt this new move was largely an attempt to prop up the property and construction sectors. These sectors account for about 25% of the country’s economy. In addition, Chinese premier Li Keqiang said Beijing would step up policy adjustments to return the world’s second-biggest economy to “normal growth.”

According to the same report cited earlier, some experts believe a rally around iron ore prices was in the cards. After all, such measures had clear implications for iron ore and steel demand. Moreover, initial signs suggest China was already on its way to increasing steel output after the winding down of winter pollution curbs and the removal of some of the COVID-19 restrictions.

All in all, April output rose 5.1% from the prior month to 92.78 million tons. However, it’s worth noting that this was 5.2% below April 2021’s numbers. The period from June onward will be crucial if we really want to get a sense of where Chinese iron ore and steel prices are heading.

China is Also Making Moves Regarding Supply

In the meantime, Channel News Asia reports that the Cameroonian government had inked a deal with Sinosteel Corporation Limited to mine high-grade iron ore for about US $676 million (420 billion CFA francs). It’s part of the country’s bid to find new sources for the steel-making ingredient.

Under the 20-year mining agreement, Sinosteel Cam S.A., a Cameroonian subsidiary of state-owned Chinese mining firm Sinosteel, will develop the central African nation’s Lobe iron ore mine. It’s part of China’s ongoing effort to diversify its ore supply beyond Australia (where it is currently engaged in a trade war) and Brazil.

The deal would result in 4 million tons of ore, with 60% of iron content being produced and shipped. The higher-grade iron ore would also help reduce Chinese carbon emissions from the steel-making process.

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The ascent for U.S. steel prices faltered as HRC, CRC, and HDG prices began to fall in early May. Plate prices also took a big dip.   

All in all, the Raw Steels Monthly Metals Index (MMI) fell by 8.9% from April to May.

Know what to do when the market shifts. Related article: The Art of Timing Your Buy

Iron Ore Slumps to 4-Month Low on Demand Concerns

Iron ore prices fell to a 4-month low on mounting demand concerns due to China’s ongoing lockdowns. Meanwhile, iron ore fines fell to $131.90 on May 10, the lowest since Jan 31 and a 12.6% decline since the close of March. 

According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Chinese steel output dropped more than 6% year over year in March. On top of lockdowns and restrictions due to COVID outbreaks, Chinese steel production faced several other curbs in recent months. Among them were Olympics-related cuts, which expired in March, and China’s specific intentions to reduce crude steel production in 2022.

China’s property sector also remains a point of concern. Property developer Sunac missed a recent bond payment in early May, becoming the latest property developer to fall into default. According to the company, “liquidity issues” played a significant role in their missing payment. Additionally, sales were “significantly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.” Indeed, there was a 65% drop in sales from March to April. Before Sunac’s default, Zhenro Properties attributed its own default in April to the “unforeseen scale and duration” of lockdowns in Shanghai.

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Whirlpool Trims Sales Forecast as Steel Prices Dip

Domestically, Whirlpool started to see a slowdown in demand, which caused it to narrow projected sales for 2022. Following an 8.2% year-over-year drop in sales during the first quarter, the North American appliance sector stated it would remain level during 2022. This is a major change from its previous forecast of 3% growth. Industry wide, North American volumes fell 4% year over year during the first quarter, although they nonetheless stand 24% above 2019 levels.

While some see Whirlpool’s slowdown as a warning of what’s to come, U.S. demand through March appeared strong. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, new orders for manufactured durable goods saw 0.8% growth in March. Consumer spending likewise rose 1.1%. Both of these factors serve as strong economic health indicators. Manufacturing, in particular, makes up roughly 12% of the U.S. economy.

Manufacturers’ New Orders: Durable Goods

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Arcelormittal Expects Up to 1% Drop In Global Steel Demand in 2022

ArcelorMittal SA recently lowered its estimates for global steel demand. The world’s second-largest steelmaker now expects demand to fall up to 1% in 2022. They cite the war in Ukraine and China’s zero-COVID policy, which are slowing the global economic recovery and increasing inflationary pressures. This is a big change from their forecast of 1% growth prior to the Russian invasion.

The European Steel Association (Eurofer) also narrowed its outlook for EU steel consumption in 2022. Thus far, Europe has experienced the brunt of the economic impact from the war in Ukraine. Alongside supply chain disruptions and a “worsening energy crisis,” Eurofer now expects consumption to fall 1.9% in 2022. All this after consumption rebounded by 15.2% in 2021. However, the organization remains optimistic for 2023, projecting an overall 5.1% increase.

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Steel Prices: Actual Metals Prices and Trends

  • Chinese slab prices fell by 5.03% month-over-month to $767 per metric ton as of May 1. Meanwhile, the Chinese billet price decreased by 7.96% to $699.92 per metric ton.
  • Chinese coking coal prices rose 7.63% to $535.64 per metric ton.
  • U.S. three-month HRC futures fell 24.42% to $1,145 per short ton. While the spot price increased by 4.56% to $1,405 from $1,405 per short ton. U.S. shredded scrap steel prices rose by a mere 1% to $606 per short ton.

Steel prices for hot rolled coil in Europe have started to decline as end users push back from earlier offers. Meanwhile, benchmark iron ore prices in China dropped, due to the country’s zero-Covid policy. One analyst noted that steelmakers in Europe are cutting back their production.

“Steel would get a bit of support from production cuts … crude was down 6.8% in Q1 year on year,” one analyst told MetalMiner, referring to the World Steel Association’s (Worldsteel) global numbers. Global crude production for the first three months of 2022 was almost 457 million metric tons, compared with 490 million metric tons over the same time in 2021, Worldsteel’s numbers show.

Europe’s crude steel production for 2022 was down 3.8% to about 36.2 million metric tons from 38.3 million metric tons, Worldsteel data also indicated.

Comparative steel prices by region:

Comparison steel prices

Source: MetalMiner Insights

Although US steel prices continue to rise, Chinese HRC prices have clearly flattened.

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China’s Zero-Covid policy is driving demand down
China’s Zero-Covid policy and the lockdown in Shanghai has pushed iron ore’s benchmark price for 62% Fe fines to $136 per metric ton cfr China. This is down almost 10% from $151 on April 22, one analyst said.

“The next question is how far will they fall? Iron ore, I reckon, if Beijing goes into major lockdown will be below $100 soon,” that source added.

The first trader believed that prices would continue to decline in the short-term. He did not rule out that they could bounce back. However, one reason for which is that China is now eyeing an increase in export tariffs.

Reports about plans by Russia to take over eastern and southern Ukraine, could also push up steel prices as plants in the occupation zone could become subject to sanctions that the European Union placed against Russian steel products on March 15. This could severely impact end users in Central and Eastern Europe.

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Back in Ukraine

Ukrainian flats producer Zaporizhstal has also started to put out feelers for prices on its flat rolled products. after Metinvest said it would bring the plant back on stream. The trader believed that there would not be much interest from that steelmaker.

“Who is going to risk buying from Zaporizhstal?” due to the risk of rail infrastructure damage, the trader asked.

Zaporizhstal can produce up to 3.8 million metric tons of pig iron. Its seven open-hearth furnaces and one bath furnace can pour 4 million metric tons of crude steel.

The plant can also roll up to 3.6 million metric tons per year of hot rolled sheet and coil. Further downstream, the plant has an annual capacity of 1 million metric tons to produce cold rolled coil.

Ed note: MetalMiner analysts will present an aluminum and carbon steel price market outlook on Wednesday, March 2 at 11:00-11:30 am

The price decline of iron ore appears short-lived as the Chinese government cracks down on speculative trading. This has led many market analysts to forecast a rise in ore prices in the coming months.

Fitch, in its latest report, has expressed optimism due to Chinese demand for iron ore. The reporting agency believes ongoing supply constraints and fresh demand would eventually combine to restore market equilibrium.

Rising iron ore forecasts

Based on current market conditions, Fitch Solutions Country Risk and Industry Research now joins some of its peers in revising its 2022 iron-ore price forecast upwards. The company believes prices will go from US $90 per ton to $120 per ton. In addition, both JP Morgan and Macquarie also upwardly revised their ore forecasts for 2022 according to a recent report from The West Australian.

The Raw Steels MMI tracks monthly price movements across a basket of steel-making materials.

China’s state planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) recently announced that teams would investigate the commodity exchanges and major ports. The investigation included an examination of iron-ore inventories, along with trading practices in the spot/futures markets. That triggered a downward spiral of iron ore prices and futures. It also led to the Dalian bourse doubling transaction fees on some iron-ore futures contracts starting from February 16.

Source: MetalMiner Insights

From US $150 a ton in early February, the crackdown on speculative trading led a price decline to about US $120 per ton, on negative investor sentiment. Dalian iron ore touched a new low not seen since February 2020 last week declining for the 5th straight session.

Why did Fitch upwardly revise their iron ore price forecast?

The answer lies in Fitch’s own report. Fitch appears positive because China’s domestic demand for iron-ore itself would increase in the coming days. The Chinese administration will likely add its financial muscle to the economy in 2022.

In addition, Bloomberg reports that the Chinese government contemplated routing all purchases of the steelmaking material through a single state-backed platform. Quoting sources familiar, the report said the platform remains in development.

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The state to run iron ore purchases on its own platform

The state-run platform, will eventually replace the current system of steel mills negotiating spot purchases independently. The plan for the state-run platform includes both the stabilization of iron ore supply and prices.

Last week, the National Development and Reform Commission had asked iron ore traders to release excess inventory, and to reduce stocks to “reasonable levels.” This move came after a joint investigation with the market regulator in Qingdao, which serves as one of the country’s biggest iron ore ports. Not surprisingly, Qingdao had large stockpiles of ore. This led to allegations of hoarding to push up prices.

China’s steel industry has always complained of iron ore market manipulation by a few giant international mining companies. Experts now believe that the new steps, initiated by the Chinese authorities, will curb that influence. All eyes will watch the stimulus measures that the Chinese government has promised to roll out soon.

Let’s see if this reboots steel demand.

 

In 1953, China spelled out its 1st “Five-Year Plan”.  The strategy involved maximizing the nation’s control over exploration, production, and exports of natural resources. Based upon all available indicators, the country seems to have succeeded in “extending” that plan around the globe.

News out of China earlier this week confirmed this fact. Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso said that it would conclude trade negotiations with China later this year. From all indications, the new trade deal between China and Ecuador may include more exports of Ecuadorean minerals to China.

In the last 10 years or so, China has already “come to the aid” of Ecuador. China extended long-term credit running into millions of dollars for trade that’s tied-in with crude oil, minerals and other projects.

Ecuador does not stand alone in Latin America. China has arrangements with other countries to exploit natural resources such as iron ore, copper, nickel and rare earth elements (REE). Earlier this month, Xi announced a further “deepening of ties” between his country and Argentina. This came after Zijin Mining Group announced that it would invest US $380 million to build a lithium carbonate plant in Argentina. Incidentally, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia make up South America’s lithium triangle.

For those who need to track rare earth metals prices, the MetalMiner’s MMI report contains a rare earth index.

China and imports: accusations of weaponizing trade

In addition to its traditional trading partners like the US and Australia, China has extended its expansionist trade tentacles across another continent. In Africa, China’s aggressive mining policies have not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Afghanistan serves as another example.

For example, after Congo had emerged from civil war in the early 2000s, China had seized the opening to buy mines. From those early years in this relationship, the China-Congo alliance has come a long way. Beijing has its hands in copper and cobalt projects worth billions.

The way China has managed its foreign and trade policies from the 1950s underlines that its “expansionist” strategy drawn up in those early years still guides its actions.

Iron ore – the big score

Iron ore likely represents where the Chinese have scored the most as compared to other countries. Beijing largely depends on Australia and Brazil for the same. Ore imports from these two countries have accounted for about 80% of all imports since 2015. Of course, with diplomatic ties between China and Australia souring in recent years, it has dampened trade between the two. In 2022, analysts expect Australian ore imports to fall below the 60% mark.

To tackle the drop perhaps, China said on Feb. 7 that it aimed to step up mines’ iron ore production and use steel scrap to develop a more efficient, greener ferrous industry. According to the South China Morning Post, a joint statement with state planners and environmental regulators, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) vowed to consolidate and restructure the steel industry. MetalMiner previously covered that topic in this month’s Raw Steels MMI report.

Weekly analyst insights cover steel and other global trade topics

China and Rare Earth policy

Of course, no report or analysis of China’s trade policies can avoid the country’s REE strategy. According to some estimates, the country mines over 70% of the world’s rare earths. In addition, China accounts for over 90% cent of rare earth refining and production. Rare earths remain essential inputs to various technologies, including defense systems and satellites.

The US also relies on China for at least 80% of its rare earths. That has long raised the hackles of the US administration and lawmakers. For years now, the US has worked to explore alternatives to reduce this reliance.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, China already has access to the largest untapped reserves of cobalt. Of the 14 large cobalt mines, as many as eight have tie-ups with Chinese companies.

A few days ago, China’s Zijin Mining had announced that its first lithium exploration project launched in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) through Katamba Mining, a joint venture between Zijin and Congolaise d’Exploitation Minière (COMINIERE) of the DRC.

Elsewhere, in Australia, another Chinese firm recently acquired a 51% stake in the world’s largest lithium mine there.

According to another news report, in January of this year, another Chinese mining financier had bought equity in a junior mining company exploring cesium and lithium in northeastern Ontario, Canada. According to this report, Sinomine Rare Metals Resources would provide $3 million to Power Metals Corp. through a financing agreement to give the company a 5.7% interest in the Vancouver and Arizona-based junior miner.

In 2021, China, the largest producer in the world of primary and hollow aluminum, imported a record amount of the same for the second consecutive year. Imports of refined nickel and copper continue at the same speed. Refined nickel imports in 2021 doubled year-on-year. So have purchases of a wide range of nickel raw materials.

Strategic stockpiling

Furthermore, China continues to import metals and minerals to shore up its own reserves. This has raised accusations of “weaponizing trade” from other countries.

Once, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott had said so in so many words. While calling for Britain and its allies to stop technology sales to China, he had called for the world to reorient essential supply chains away from China. An adviser to the UK Board of Trade, Abbott had said Beijing viewed trade as a strategic weapon that can be turned on and off.

It is always a challenge reading markets, whether you look at fundamentals of supply, demand and macro economic developments or whether you are a chartist looking at price trends to see how they compare to previous models, assessing price movement relative to Fibonacci levels and indications from high/low daily pricing data.

One issue we repeatedly see is an overreliance on one metric. The media love a headline and will make a prediction based on just one data point. Stock levels fall — prices must rise, or imports rise – so demand must be strong.

If only life were quite so simple.

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Rising imports, iron ore prices

iron ore

nikitos77/Adobe Stock

More seasoned analysts understand that, and a recent Reuters post is a case in point.

Rising imports and a 25% surge in iron ore prices over just three weeks into top consumer China have been taken by many as a sure bet steel demand is strong. China buys some 70% of seaborne iron ore. As such, it is overwhelmingly the main driver of demand.

The post cites Chinese customs data from Dec. 7 that reported November iron ore imports of 104.96 million metric tons. That total is up 14.6% from October and marks the strongest month since July 2020.

That all sounds immensely bullish, and will no doubt support prices that have pulled back marginally but remain near multiweek highs at over $100 per metric ton equivalent on China’s Dalian exchange (up from the mid $80s early last month).

The market also took support from China’s politburo, promising to promote a “healthy development” of the property sector. That comes shortly after China’s central bank announced a cut in banks’ reserve requirement ratio to bolster slowing economic growth.

Read more

Chinese iron ore prices have certainly been on a roller coaster ride this year, hitting a record high in value terms after a period in which the price had risen and fallen sharply.

Futures on the Dalian exchange for delivery in January 2022 are now trading at RMB 777 per ton. That compares with about RMB 1,221 in May. However, prices are on the rise again, with futures climbing 50% in just the last three weeks.

Each month, MetalMiner hosts a webinar on a specific metals topic. Explore the upcoming webinars and sign up for each on the MetalMiner Events page. The next webinar is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. CDT, Thursday, Oct. 28. 

Complicated iron ore dynamics

 

bulk cargo iron ore

masterskuz55/AdobeStock

The market is facing all kinds of contrarian dynamics.

On the one hand, steel production is rising in many provinces following power and environmental shutdowns over the summer.

On the other hand, debt-laden property group Evergrande is just the (admittedly very large) tip of the iceberg that is the Chinese property market. That is a market Beijing is clearly intending to curb and bend to its will.

While arguably overdue, the fact remains, construction absorbs some 25% of Chinese steel production. A slowdown in the sector will have a profound impact on Chinese domestic steel demand.

Price uncertainty

Huge uncertainty surrounds where prices are likely to go.

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Chinese moves to clean up their heavy-polluting industrial sector has triggered a swift collapse in iron ore prices for the first time since July 2020.

Prices last Friday and Monday dipped below the $100 per ton mark.

iron ore stockpile

John/Adobe Stock

According to a draft guideline released on Thursday, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment intends to monitor 64 regions during its winter air pollution campaign.

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Evergrande crisis sparks concerns over Chinese economy

Iron ore, copper and other commodities may be further hammered following news of the crisis at Chinese developer Evergrande. Markets across the globe fell sharply Monday as Evergrande, one of the biggest property developers in the country, Evergrande threatened to default on loans worth U.S. $300 billion.

This has sparked off worries about the economy. It could also cause downturns in construction and demand for raw materials.

Iron ore’s fall

Since May, iron ore prices have fallen by more than half. China, the world’s biggest steelmaker, has tightened production curbs. Furthermore, China’s property market is experiencing a sharp downturn.

MetalMiner has previously reported on China’s move to cut down its steel production to curb pollution.

The Chinese government has announced plans to scale down the steel industry, which accounts for between 10-20% of its carbon emissions. The country has also raised tariffs on steel-related exports, effective as of Aug. 1, 2021.

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China’s increased appetite for iron ore has become a problem for neighbor India.

In the first four months of 2021, ore exports from India increased by 66% to 22.42 million tons (MT). As much as 90% of this went to China, according to Business Today.

Each month, MetalMiner hosts a webinar on a specific metals topic. Explore the upcoming webinars and sign up for each on the MetalMiner Events page.

India’s iron ore problem

India iron ore barge

natmat/Adobe Stock

China is the largest consumer of iron ore. The country imports about 70% of the world’s production. Last year, it imported a record 1.17 billion tons.

The spike in iron ore exports is becoming a problem for Indian steelmakers, as they are struggling to get this critical raw material. Some have now demanded that the government ban iron ore exports from India.

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