Price surge of steelmaking ingredient has created a huge cash windfall for big producers
The price of iron ore remained above $120 a tonne on Wednesday after BHP Group, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of the steelmaking ingredient, revealed annual exports had declined for the first time this century.
In a trading update, the Anglo-Australian miner said it had shipped 270.5m tonnes of iron ore in the 12-months to June, down from 273.2m tonnes in 2018 — the first year-on-year decline in sales since at least 2000. Supply disruptions in Australia and Brazil and record steel production in China has seen the price of iron ore climb by almost 67 per cent this year to more than $120 a tonne, a level it last traded at in 2019.
The price surge has created a huge cash windfall for big producers like BHP and Rio, which at current prices are making more than $100 on every tonne of the commodity they ship to China, the world’s biggest consumers.
Both companies are tipped to announce big dividends when the announce results next month. At the start of its 2018/19 fiscal year, BHP expected to ship between 287m and 283m tonnes of iron ore but was forced to lower guidance after its mines in Western Australian were hit by a tropical cyclone and a major train derailment.
Rival Australian producer Rio has also suffered disruptions and has lowered its production forecasts twice since January. It expects to ship between 320m-330m tonnes of iron ore in 2019, down from 338.2m in 2018. Brazil’s Vale is also shipping less ore following a deadly dam disaster in January.
With BHP and Vale planning major maintenance programmes in September and October respectively, analysts reckon the iron ore market will remain tight. “BHP are expecting a modest production increase of 1 per cent to 6 per cent in 2020 [273m to 286m)”, said Paul Gait, an analyst at Bernstein Research.
“A planned maintenance programme . . . aimed at improving productivity has temporarily put a pause on any potential volume growth in the system.” In a report issued this week, analysts at Deutsche Bank said iron ore prices would not “break” sustainably below the $100 a tonne level until the first half of next year and then remain around $80 until 2021.
“One of the key takeaways from our [recent] China trip regarded clear evidence of a positive trajectory for infrastructure investment activity in the second half of the year, and only a modest deceleration in new [housing] starts during the same timeframe,” wrote analyst Nick Snowdon. “This points to a relatively healthy demand setting for iron ore in the second half of the year.”
In its trading update, BHP said it was likely to record $600m of exceptional items or charges to cover the costs of decommissioning a tailings dam in Brazil and redundancy costs. The company also flagged a $1bn hit from the impact of declining copper grades and the train derailment.