On Tuesday the Northern China benchmark iron ore price plummeted 4.7% to $50.20 per dry metric tonne according to data supplied by The Steel Index. After two months of wild swings, the price now seems set to breach $50 a tonne level for the first time since February.
Iron ore is down 27% from its April near $70 when the made-in-China speculative bubble in the steelmaking raw material reached its peak, but is still trading 17% higher than at the start of they year.
The latest sell-off was sparked by stockpiling data showing inventories at major Chinese ports topping 100 million tonnes for the first time since February last year indicating the country’s steel furnaces, despite ramping up production as the price improved, have ample supply of ore.
The port data is just more evidence for what many analysts argue: the correction towards the $40s is the result of long-term supply and demand dynamics that are still stacked against the iron ore price at these levels.
Even before the recent drop, the consensus forecast of analysts polled by FocusEconomics was a sub-$50 average during the second quarter. Of the 17 analysts polled the most bearish was JP Morgan at an average of just $38, while even the most optimistic, Oxford Analytics saw the price topping out at $55.
The median forecast for 2017 is even more pessimistic at $44.80 over the course of the year according to FocusEconomics data.
Slowing Chinese demand, the impact of a race to the left of the cost curve and oversupply – 180 million tonnes of additional supply between 2016-2020 – has been well-documented.
But at the annual gathering of the industry in Singapore last week another risk factor for miners came to the fore. In a post-mortem organizers Singapore Exchange said scrap will play an increasing role in the Chinese market:
[China’s steel industry association] CISA noted that accumulated steel output will exceed 10 billion tonnes this year, providing a huge reserve of scrap. Significant growth in obsolete scrap over the next decade is expected to lead to greater substitution for pig iron in the steelmaking process. Over time, this should result in a gradual decoupling of pig iron and crude steel production growth rates, translating to relatively lower demand for iron ore.
Scrap supply has not in the past played much of a role in the Chinese steel industry, especially when compared to places like Europe where steelmakers have been known to charge up to 18% scrap to furnaces.
But in September last year the price to a Chinese coastal mill of producing one tonne of pig iron (including cost and freight of all iron ores, coking coals, sintering and pelletizing costs) fell for the first time below scrap – typically around 90% Fe – priced inside the country.
On Tuesday ferrous scrap prices in eastern China (heavy melting scrap 6mm and above thick, including 17% value-added tax, delivered to Zhangjiagang, Jiangsu province) continued to slide hitting $209 a tonne – down nearly 20% since the beginning of May according to S&P Global Platts data. The fall in Taiwanese import scrap has been even more dramatic. A 13% drop on Tuesday to $200 brought the price decline over the past month to 32%.