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.
Current iron ore prices of US$100/tonne should be enough to spark activation of about 60 million tonnes of swing production to “balance the market”, according to BMO, with perhaps 40Mt of that coming from China.
BMO director, equity research, metals & mining – international, Edward Sterck, said a restart of Vale’s stalled 30Mtpa Brucutu mine in Brazil could restore 15Mt of production in the second half of this year. But there was no sign of a restart yet.
Global iron ore production has been impacted in the first half of 2019 by Vale’s dam failure at Brumadinho in Brazil, and the continuing legal issues around Brucutu, as well as weather and fire disruptions affecting Rio Tinto and BHP in Western Australia. BMO says shipping data suggests Rio Tinto and BHP are back on track, but Vale continues to struggle.
A need for 60Mt of swing production – US$6 billion of iron ore sales – could open up opportunities for Australian and other producers, though Sterck suggested to Mining Journal that higher production and earnings were “already baked in” to valuations.
“The iron ore price remains above our forecasts, suggesting upside potential to estimates,” he said.
“The high price should outweigh the supply disruption/shortfall [in the first half].”
On Tuesday the market watched in awe as the iron ore price was elevated to eye watering levels of $US108. By Wednesday, fresh speculation over marginal additions to supply caused the Chinese iron ore futures to wobble – the price dropped 2.3 per cent.
When a commodity has soared to a five-year high in a matter of months, wild swings are not surprising.
But make no mistake 2019 will go down in history as a vintage year for iron ore.
Even if the price dropped significantly in the second half of this calendar year to the $US80 levels it traded at towards the end of last year, the high prices for the first five months of this year would have already bolstered the profitability of the major Australian producers and the coffers of the federal and West Australian governments.
We haven’t seen iron ore prices at this level since 2014.
If the current spot price was factored into 2020 financial year earnings for our major miners, their profits would spike 60 per cent, according to analysts.
And a year at these prices would add about $4 billion to federal government coffers.
Already this calendar year Rio shares have risen 38 per cent, Fortescue stock has doubled in price, and BHP’s shares are 12 per cent higher.
How much is left in the tank for the iron ore price run and how long it can be sustained at levels above $US100 has left forecasters at a loss; they have had to revisit their assumptions as the price trajectory regularly leapfrogs over their targeted iron ore prices.
Back in February, CBA commodities analyst Vivek Dhar predicted the iron ore price could hit $US100 – a view that at the time was seen by some as outlandish.
Three months on and the product that feeds Chinese steel mills is in even higher demand, Chinese stockpiles are at a dangerously low level, supply in the first three months of the year from Australian producers was curtailed by weather events and most importantly the production issues that have plagued Brazil are not not getting any better.
It has resulted in a roller-coaster ride for the iron ore price.
In May, Brazil’s major producer, Vale, told prosecutors in the state of Minas Gerais that a dam was at risk of rupturing at its Gongo Soco mine, about 60 kilometres from where its Brumadinho dam collapsed in January, killing more than 230 people.
The Brumadinho dam disaster and subsequent mine and dam closures in Brazil had prompted Vale, the world’s biggest iron ore miner, to slash its iron ore sales estimate for this year.
Hopes that Vale could increase its shipments were dashed early in May after a court ordered a halt to its operations at its Brucutu iron ore mining complex, reversing a lower court decision that had allowed the mines’ activities to resume.
Analysts have generally underestimated the lengthy regulatory fallout and the repercussions associated with industrial disasters. This time is no different.
And they certainly misread the strength of China’s steel output this year – which, on an annualised basis, topped 1 billion metric tonnes.
Few have been willing to formally predict how long this iron ore boom will continue because it is not a cyclical one.
However, the general consensus is that markets should not factor in the resumption of much additional supply from Vale this year.
And this should put a floor under the price.
Some new supply (from marginal producers in India and China) may come on stream later this year – but new entrants will also be waiting to hear about the length of supply disruptions in Brazil.
Currently there are a raft of estimates for 2019 at between $US90 and $US95 and most projections fall back to $US80 levels in 2020.
For investors with iron ore stocks, 2019 is the year they hit the jackpot.
Near-term tightness in the iron ore market has persisted and intensified, with several developments in Brazil further restricting Vale’s (VALE)supply and Cyclone Veronica off Australia interrupting Pilbara shipments. We’ve factored in a reduction of another 20 million tonnes in Vale’s output in 2019 and 10 million tonnes in 2020. We now expect Vale to produce 350 million tonnes in 2019 and 370 million tonnes in 2020, down from an estimated 390 million tonnes in 2018. For Rio Tinto(RIO), BHP(BHP), and Fortescue, we’ve lowered our forecasts by 10 million tonnes in total for 2019 due to the cyclone. The estimated 30 million tonnes of lost supply from Vale and the Pilbara in 2019 is a more than 1% reduction to the seaborne iron ore market.
Disruptions mean that higher-cost iron ore is needed to balance the market, such as from domestic mines in China. The iron ore price has averaged $83 per tonne year to date, well ahead of our prior $65 per tonne forecast for 2019. Accordingly, we are raising our near-term iron ore forecasts to $73 in 2019, $60 in 2020, and $50 per tonne in 2021. Our prior forecasts were $65 in 2019, $55 in 2020, and $40 per tonne in 2021. Our unchanged $40 per tonne long-term forecast now starts a year later, in 2022.
All major iron ore miners we cover benefit from the higher price forecasts, including Vale. However, for Vale, there’s uncertainty around the cost to rectify the Feijao dam failure and compensate the victims as well as legal action that may affect the operation of other mines. Fortescue benefits most because it’s an iron ore pure play and has lower margins than BHP or Rio Tinto, which brings greater leverage to the price.
We’ve not changed our $40 per tonne long-term forecast, given the relative flatness of the iron ore cost curve inside the steep tail of smaller-scale and marginal producers, most which we eventually expect to exit. Disruptions to Vale’s supply should resolve within the next few years. In terms of iron ore supply additions, the lost output from Vale, including Samarco, should come back in the medium term. The S11D project should also expand to reach capacity over the next few years. BHP and Rio Tinto should grow modestly as those companies reach their installed capacities. Anglo American’s (NGLOY) Minas Rio mine in Brazil should add more than 20 million tonnes per year after being shut to rectify slurry pipeline leaks. Most of the additional output from Anglo will come in 2019. From a disrupted 2019 base of about 350 million tonnes, we expect Vale’s output to grow to around 425 million tonnes a year from 2023…..
Dr David Paul of Vectorvest appears with Nick ‘Moose” Batsford on Core Finance TV. Subject: Waiting for confirmation of a bottom in the Stock Market. Stocks covered include Anglo American (AAL), Rio Tinto (RIO), Eland Oil & Gas #ELA and Pearson #PSON. “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.
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Sophos Group SOPH produced a third quarter rise in billings of 16.1%, with strong momentum continuing. The Americas delivered growth of 20%. Cash generation for the quarter was strong with a rise of 28.4% in unlevered free cash flow, making a total increase over the first 9 months of 136.2% and expectations of the figure doubling by the year end.
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On Wednesday, after a one day leap of 4%, iron ore rose to a 10 month high of $64.30 per tonne making a rise of 50% since the beginning of the year and nearly 75% since the mid December lows.
Coking coal is not a glamour commodity by any means but on Wednesday that too reached a year’s high of $95 per tonne whilst steel making coal was up by 30% from its December lows.
Rio Tinto RIO said that the rally in commodities was not sustainable but as we reported on Wednesday RIO’s first quarter growth reached double digit figures with copper up by 27% on the previous quarter. At the same time BHP Billiton BHP cut its iron ore production target for the first time in fifteen years.
Even silver, which has for a number of years steadfastly refused to perform its expected role as a tracker of gold , has suddenly shot up to become the best performing commodity of 2016, helped by huge demand from hedge funds and Chinese investors. In only eleven days this month the price of silver jumped by by 14%. Hedge funds bullish positions on silver are now at their highest since 2006. The last time they were so bullish on gold was in 2011 when the price of gold had reached the dizzy heights of $1900 per oz.
The test is not how prices are suddenly emerging from the abyss and soaring onwards and upwards. Speculation can do all sorts of wondrous things but the real test is whether investment in new projects is following suit and it is. Capital expenditure on new mines has nearly doubled in five months, rising by $50 billion to $108 billion of which a huge $65 billion went on gold and copper mines.
Even rare earths have joined in the party. China produces 85% of the world’s rare earths and has now concentrated its previously fragmented rare earths industry into 5 enormous new companies. In the first 3 months of this year shipments of rare earth oxides from China rose by over 100%, with March being the second best month on record.
An almost infallible measure of the health of the world’s mining industry is Caterpillar CAT. Again as we reported last month, Caterpillars sales figures were forecasting a global collapse in mining production and mining activity. In only a few weeks the turn round has been so dramatic that Caterpillar has had to rush out updated figures showing that the rate of decline in machine sales had fallen sharply in all of its markets and that for March they were down by only 13% compared to March last year, whilst the figures for January and February had been down by 21% and 15% respectively. Hedge funds and speculators do not buy mining machinery. Only miners do that.