China plans state-backed platform to buy iron ore

Beijing, China. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China’s latest bid to wrest control of soaring iron ore prices is a plan to make global suppliers negotiate sales to the world’s biggest market through a centralized platform.

Beijing wants all purchases of the steelmaking material conducted through a single state-backed platform that’s under preparation, according to people familiar with the matter. At the moment, Chinese businesses including steel mills can negotiate spot purchases independently.

The plan aims to stabilize the steelmaking ingredient over the long-term, and is part of a broader focus on boosting China’s influence over the price of commodities, the people said. Iron ore’s spot market is relatively small, but prices there determine how much steel mills pay in long-term contracts.

China churns out more than half the world’s steel, and its iron ore imports last year were worth nearly $180 billion. Its steel industry has long complained at the pricing power it says is held by a handful of giant international mining companies. Authorities are also keen to head off inflation as Beijing rolls out stimulus measures in 2022 that could reboot steel demand.

China’s National Development and Reform Commission didn’t immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

Pushing back

The latest proposals add to a flurry of actions and announcements that last week quashed iron ore’s powerful rally from mid-November. Authorities hosted a series of meetings with traders, culminating in a Thursday gathering where major global commodity firms were asked to draw down stockpiles and cooperate with a probe into possible “illegal” activities.

The cost of iron ore is largely tied to daily spot-market assessments from third-party agencies including S&P Global Platts. Long-term contracts — which cover the vast majority of supplies — are based on averages of the spot price over agreed time periods, such as monthly or quarterly.

High stakes

This regime replaced a system of high-stakes annual price talks, which collapsed in 2010 amid pressure from overseas iron ore miners. In December 2020, with prices also rallying before a round of government stimulus, China’s steel mills said the price mechanism had failed.

Centralized negotiations are by no means unprecedented for China’s purchases. A group of China’s top copper smelters collectively bargains the price for annual supplies of raw materials, for example.

But general problems with such an approach include coordination across a huge number of buyers, and the potential for cargoes to be resold at higher prices. The latter was widespread before the breakdown of annual pricing earlier this century.

Beijing is also encouraging other moves to improve its position in iron ore, the people said. The government wants further mergers and acquisitions among big steelmakers, as well as more domestic output and the purchasing of stakes in mines outside China.


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