Vale disappointment keeps Rio Tinto as world’s top iron producer

The Brucutu mine in Minas Gerais state (Credit: Vale)

Rio Tinto Group’s hold on the title of world No. 1 iron ore producer is safe — at least for another quarter.

Vale SA was expected to overtake its main rival in the fourth quarter, but reported a disappointing 82.5 million metric tons of the steel-making ingredient after heavy rains restricted operations in northern Brazil. That compares with 84.1 million tons for Rio Tinto.

Vale lost the title of top supplier in the wake of a tailings dam disaster three years ago. After focusing on safety, it has slowly brought back production while Rio Tinto has suffered from its own rain disruptions and the fallout from a cultural heritage fiasco.

Now the two firms are level pegging, even delivering identical 2022 guidance of 320-335 million tons, although Rio Tinto’s is for shipments and Vale’s is for production. In Thursday’s report, Vale kept its 2022 projection despite more rain interruptions last month.

Bragging rights aside, the Rio de Janeiro-based company continues to bang the drum of value over volume, wary of flooding a market that’s still recovering from a rout in the second half of last year after China limited steel output to contain pollution and power use. Bloomberg Intelligence sees global supply contracting this year.

Iron ore bulls may find some support in Vale’s quarterly result, which trailed the 85.6 million-ton average estimate as well as the company’s third quarter and the year-ago result. 

Vale is also one of the world’s biggest nickel producers and a significant copper supplier. Production of those two metals fell 5.5% and 17%, respectively, from a year ago, although nickel output surged 59% from the strike-affected previous quarter. 

(By Mariana Durao)

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