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Iron ore bear market

A News Feature

End of iron ore's bull run means smaller companies likely to see red

By Paul Bartholomew

May 26, 2015 - For several years running, Rio Tinto's former head of iron ore, now group chief executive, Sam Walsh, would make attendees of Australia's premier steel and iron ore conference in Perth bristle by declaring that most aspiring miners in the room would "never produce a ton of anything."

This was during the 'glory days,' when iron ore prices were achieving historic highs on the back of seemingly insatiable appetite for the steelmaking raw material from China's rampant steel sector. The new era would surely see the oligopoly of Vale, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton vanish forever as a plethora of emerging producers gained market share in China and eventually other Asian markets. Companies with mooted projects of as little as 2 million metric tons/year production capacity quickly listed, and inked offtake memoranda of understanding with an apparent queue of Chinese steel companies. Everything was looking very rosy indeed.

But a 46% increase in iron ore exports from Australia over 2012-2014 -- from 491.6 million metric tons to 716.8 million mt -- and slowing Chinese demand combined to bring prices plunging down. At the time of writing, prices were bumping along in the low $60/mt CFR range, down some 56% from levels closer to $140/mt at the start of 2012.

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Walsh was correct in that many iron ore projects talked up during the previous decade remain little more than marooned, uneconomic resources. The downturn in iron ore prices has sent most investors fleeing, making raising capital to progress projects a Herculean task. Investors are still looking at metals assets, but iron ore, along with thermal coal, is pretty much bottom of the list in terms of attractive investment prospects currently. In many cases, smaller iron ore companies are simply managing their working capital in a bid to conserve cash reserves, and going through the motions of the approvals process in the hope that prices will one day recover and make the projects viable once more.

With the exception of Australia's Fortescue Metals Group -- which produces at an annualized rate of 165 million mt/year after shipping its inaugural cargo to China in May 2008 and could be said to be part of a new 'Big Four' -- few sizeable iron ore companies emerged during iron ore's bull run. Now that run has ended, the door is likely slammed shut for the foreseeable future. Smaller iron ore companies that did manage to enter production and now compete in seaborne markets face the ultimate challenge -- simply staying alive.

Last year BHP Billiton hived off some of its non-core assets into a new entity that was eventually given the moniker South32. Part of the miner's reasoning for the split was that it wanted to focus on mines that were big enough to allow technology and other innovations to bring down operating costs and improve efficiencies. This was essential in an environment of weaker commodities prices, the Melbourne- headquartered company noted.

Since the change of leadership at BHP and Rio in the first part of 2013 -- Walsh became chief executive in January that year and Andrew Mackenzie took over from Marius Kloppers at BHP the following May -- the primary focus has been on cutting operating costs, reducing capital expenditure and simplifying their operations in order to give back more to shareholders. At that stage, the two senior executives probably did not realize the extent to which raw materials prices would fall, but it has made their quest even more urgent.

However, the two companies, along with their Brazilian rival Vale, are determined to proceed with their respective capacity expansion programs, relying on lower production costs to maintain strong margins. But the capex clampdown, along with a market that already seems oversupplied, means riskier projects that require significant infrastructure -- such as Rio and Vale's Simandou deposits in Guinea-- are unlikely to be developed in this decade.

Big Four -- Quarterly Iron Ore Production

Rio is on track to lift production capacity to around 360 million mt/ year in Western Australia by late 2016 from 300 million mt/year currently. BHP should be producing at above 250 million mt/year by the end of this year, up from around 235 million mt/ year. Vale, meanwhile, is constructing its new 90 million mt/year capacity S11D mine in the Carajas region of Brazil, which could push total production capacity beyond 400 million mt/year by 2017. Speaking to Platts last year, Vale's head of ferrous Jose Carlos Martins admitted there was an element of risk involved in bringing all this iron ore to a softening market.

Next: Lower iron ore production costs necessary to conserve diminishing margins

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