The 2015 Metals Outlook Series: Iron Ore

While the mining boom was tied to the skyrocketing gold price and the massive demand in coal, what really created it was iron ore: the explosion in the metal's price is what really drove the mining boom to its spectacular highs, lifting Australia out of the Global Financial Crisis that hit much of the rest of the world.

By 2011 the Australian market was capitalising on prices of US$187 per tonne, a rate that was 13 times higher than the price then the price only eight years beforehand, in 2003.

Prior to the start of the mining boom this metal was unloved, albeit stable, price-wise.

However in 2004 the metal started an upward trend that continued slowly until 2008, just before the GFC hit, appearing to flatline at US$60 per tonne for the better part of a year. Then the financial turmoil hit and the price begin to spike rapidly, moving upwards unabated until it peaked at close to US$200 per tonne.

In the wake of this commodity rush it dragged the major miners Rio Tinto and BHP upwards, and in turn created a more suit-able market for players such as Fortescue Metals to peg high debt against high returns and make their relatively new company viable.

It also created market conditions for the rise of billionaires such as Gina Rinehart with her Roy Hill project and Clive Palmer with his continually embattled Sino Iron project.

The good times were expected to last forever; at least that is what the Australian Government thought in its attempt to impose both the Resources Super Profits Tax and its successor the Mineral Resources Rent Tax solely on iron ore and coal.

But as 2011 came to an end iron ore began its fall, one that is continuing and seeing the metal plumb the depths of the market.

In the space of only two months it dropped from more than US$177 per tonne down to US$135 per tonne, recovered, and then began to fall once more.

It managed to stay above the US$100 per tonne mark for most of this decline, apart from a very brief dip below this level in September 2012.

Although this decline appears to be unstoppable, the fall must eventually come to a basement: but when?

According to the market, it won't in 2015.

Last month the price of iron ore fell to approximately US$70 per tonne.

The commodity has been on a consistent downward trend this year, after it plummeted to double digit territory in May from its historic triple digit highs, the first time it has fallen that low in two years.

According to ANZ's head of Australian economics – corporate and commercial, Justin Fabo, iron ore has been one of the weakest commodities this year, and likely to continue in this vein.

"Key consumers – Chinese steel mills – still don't seem convinced higher prices are warranted, while high iron ore port stocks and rising seaborne supply remains on offer.

It reached a new nadir last month after trading at just US$75 per tonne, marking a 42 per cent loss since the start of the year, although it quickly recovered.

However this new low is not expected to be the bottom of the trough with data from Morningstar predicting an eventual slide below US$70 per tonne.

New research from the analyst firm has forecast the metal to reach its lowest point in 2017, falling to US$70 per tonne before recovering to a more stable US$75 per tonne by 2020, due to Chinese iron ore miners slowing output and the righting of prices as more stock floods the market.

This has been echoed in recent IBISWorld research, which states: "The industry is expected to grow at a slower rate over the next five years through to 2019-20", adding that "iron ore prices (in US dollars) are expected to decline slightly over the five years through 2019-20 [with] this decline expected to stem partly from higher production and output from Australian mines over the next five years."

The paper also pointed to an increase in output from Brazil and West Africa flooding the market as contributors to the price slump.

Speaking to Grant Thornton partner – audit & assurance, Brock Mackenzie, he told Australian Mining that current conditions had created a perfect storm for the metal early next year, as there are high levels of supply expected to come online from larger producers combined with a slowing growth in China.

This slide for the iron ore sector has not been a surprise for the industry or the market, with the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics stating in its September report that prices will continue to be strained.

"A rapid increase in iron ore supply combined with moderating growth in China's steel production have pushed iron ore prices lower in 2014. Prices have fallen nearly 40 per cent down from around US$130 a tonne (CFR China) in January to US$82 a tonne in September," BREE said.

This later fell to below US$70 per tonne in November.

While the group said iron ore price volatility is not uncommon, the difference this time is the oversupply flooding the market.

This is likely to be worsened due to the fact China has now opened its ports to Valemax size carriers, built by Brazilian iron ore giant Vale.

Valemax are Very Large Ore Carriers (VLOC) owned by Brazilian mining giant Vale, and are designed to carry iron ore from Brazil to around the world.

They have capacities ranging from 380 000 to 400 000 short tons deadweight, and are the largest bulk carriers ever built, with draughts of between 22 and 32 metres, and are designed to meet Brazil's need to freight more in a single journey due to its distance from many of the main iron ore customers.

China initially banned the carriers over concerns regarding the potential impact on supply and prices the large cargoes could have, using the ships own deep draught and size as impetus to revoke vessels of this size from docking at mainland Chinese ports in 2012.

Ship owners previously lobbied against Vale's super vessels, fearing they would give the company a monopoly over the iron ore and shipping industries.

China Cosco has signed a 25 year deal with Vale that involves 14 of the massive Valemax ships.

"The current regulation actually already legitimises these vessels to berth at Chinese ports. If you look at how the ban was initiated in the first place, it will be unlikely for the government to make an official announcement with much fanfare that says the ban is loosened," an unnamed executive from state-owned port company explained.

"Eventually, the ban will be lifted in a quiet manner. You may see a Valemax ship granted approval by a local maritime authority to dock, and that will be it. Officials realised the ban has hurt China's economic interests, pushing up the costs for iron ore imports," the executive said.

According to Anglo American, this global glut of iron ore, will keep prices at these five year lows for a minimum 12 months.

However Australian iron ore, due to its high quality, will likely still be in demand.

In Australia alone over 200 million tonnes of new ore has begun export at the same time as China stopped stocking up on the commodity.

Unfortunately for Australian suppliers this is set to increase as BHP and Rio Tinto expand their West Australian iron ore operations, Fortescue cranks up the production rate from its newly opened Solomon Hub, and Roy Hill begins full production.

Mackenzie explained there are "a lot of issues likely to be ahead on the supply side, with it more than likely that larger producers will also use the situation to gain more market share and edge out the smaller producers, so we are likely to see these larger producers use this aggressive pricing environment as an opportunity to push more marginal operations out, so that smaller producers fall by the wayside".

ANZ's Fabo clarified the forecast, saying "swelling Australian iron ore exports have weighed on prices but the increase in supply will be slower in the second half".

Vale expanded on these statements, with the miner's global director of ferrous marketing and sales, Claudio Alves, telling Bloomberg "I don't think the market will be oversupplied forever".

However he went on to echo Mackenzie's statements on which miners will come through this current trough, stating: "Only the big suppliers with world-class assets, scale of production, efficiency, and good costs will be able to survive."

BNP Paribas' managing director energy and natural resources investment banking Asia-Pacific, David McCombe explained that this will soon reach a tipping point depending on when the Chinese Government chooses to stop subsiding its iron ore industry.

"There will be fewer players in the market and more opportunities to export to China when the government makes a decision regarding its ongoing support for its own iron ore industry.

"It is supporting it in the same way that it is propping up its own coal industry, and right now many of their mines' costs are around US$120 per tonne, so they are very marginal at the best of times, so the price will return slightly when these smaller players drop out."

Credit market conditions in China also affected end-user demand for steel, BREE stated, causing a sluggish growth rate.

Fabo added "the negative market reaction has been over­done, and we think prices are now vulnerable to relief rally if Chinese news starts to improve".

According to IBISWorld there are expectations of improvement, with "further growth forecast over the next five years".

However Citigroup painted a much darker picture of the 2015 iron ores market.

According to Citigroup analyst reports, the material is likely to average around US$72 per tonne in the first three months of next year.

It went on to paint a darker picture for iron ore, slashing the second quarter forecast from US$80 down to US$65 per tonne; it also downgraded the third quarter from US$78 to US$60.

However it did see a small uplift in the last quarter of 2015, only downgrading the forecast from US$78 to US$62.

Goldman Sachs was slightly more optimistic, holding the view that it will hover around an average price of US$80 per tonne.

BNP Paribas' managing director energy and natural resources investment banking Asia-Pacific, David McCombe, told Australian Mining the group expects the iron ore price to rebound in 2015, with similar expectations to Goldman Sachs.

"We expect it to rebound to around the low US$80 per tonne mark," he said.

"It is really all about the performance of the steel sector, which we believe will pick up in the last quarter of 2015.

"While it won't be a significant rise, longer term we will see the steel sector pick up about two per cent, and increase around two to three per cent the year after that," McCombe said.

"It will most likely end up sitting, at the back end of our four year forecast period, between US$85 and US$87 per tonne.

"So we do expect it pick up slightly over the year, but really it will be more about the ability of these iron ore producers to absorb the current losses, and about these miners having positive cash flows moving ahead."

While BREE also expects iron ore prices to rebound from current lows, it said highs of $US 130 are unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

In regards to investors in the market, Mackenzie said the approach will be similar to that of gold, urging investors to form a view as to the company's cost of production as a benchmark for whether it will be able to survive further prices.

"The focus for investors should be to familiarise themselves with the production cycle as well," he added.

This cycle will be demonstrably slower, with less change, in the coming years.

Whilst revenues grew at a rate of 25.2 per cent for the 2013/14 period, it basically came to a standstill this year, with a growth rate of only 1.9 per cent, slowing again next year to 0.7 per cent.

However revenues are predicted to pick up to a more respectable growth rate of 2.1 per cent in 2016/17, moving upwards at a similar rate of 2.9 per cent the following 2017/18 financial year.

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