Iron ore price drops to 1-month low, coking coal rebounds

The Northern China import price of 62% Fe content ore fell 2.8% on Monday, to a near-one-month low of $89.00 per dry metric tonne according to data supplied by The Steel Index.

After a 85% rise in 2016, the price of iron ore has improved by 12% so far this year and has more than doubled in value since hitting near-decade lows at the end of 2015.

The rise in the price of the steelmaking raw material has flummoxed market observers given supply growth expected in 2017, record-setting inventory levels at ports and an uncertain outlook for demand from China.

The bears received more ammunition over the weekend after inventories at major Chinese ports jumped to 130 million tonnes the highest since at least 2004 according to Steelhome data.

However, Reuters reports the bulk of inventories are low to medium-grade material and the availability of high-grade iron ore remains limited as "most Chinese mills are opting for higher grade iron ore to boost productivity in order to push out more steel as prices remain high."

The bulk of inventories are low to medium-grade material and the availability of high-grade iron ore remains limited

Iron ore prices should also be supported by news over the weekend that Chinese authorities will enforce crude steel production capacity cuts of 50 million tonnes. The announcement form part of Beijing's efforts to tackle chronic air pollution and restructure the steel industry which for decades have suffered from overcapacity, inefficiency and low-quality steel output. 

The Chines push should favour high-grade ore from Australia, Brazil and other exporting nations over domestic production which is low grade and remains unprofitable even at today's iron ore price.

On Monday, the market for coking coal continued to rebound with the steelmaking raw material advancing to $163.10 after three weeks of unbroken gains. Met coal prices are being supported by the decision to further cut coal production in China with a goal of eliminating 150 million tonnes this year. While the cuts target coal used in power generation, steelmaking quality coal will also be impacted.

A reduction in allowable work days at the country's coal mines last year sparked a massive rally in coal prices, lifting  met coal prices to multi-year high of $308.80 per tonne (Australia free-on-board premium hard coking coal tracked by the Steel Index) by November from $75 a tonne earlier in 2016. The price had fallen back to $150 a tonne three weeks ago.

Outlook murky

FocusEconomics in its February survey of analysts and institutions shows the price of iron ore averaging $56.70 a tonne during the final quarter of next year. For Q4 2018, analysts expect prices to moderate further to average $55.60 over the three month period.

None of the analysts foresee iron ore holding at today's prices – Dutch bank ABN Amro is the most optimistic calling for a $76 average towards the end of 2017 while London-based Investec sees an average of $71.50 over the cours of this year.

BMO Capital Markets see prices correcting sharply from today's levels to average $45 during the first quarter of 2018 while Oxford Economics expects iron ore to average $53 this year and below $50 in 2018. Iron ore averaged $56 last year, a slight improvement over 2015.

FocusEconomics study of coking coal price predictions do not point to further rallies, but prices should stabilize near current levels. The research firm's panelists expect prices to average $149 per tonne in Q4 2017. Prices are set to remain stable throughout 2018 and average $141 during the final quarter of next year. Coking coal averaged $121 last year and $90 the year before.