A U.S. Steel spokesman last week emphasized the “temporary” nature of the idling coming at the company’s Keetac and Minntac operations in northeastern Minnesota.
But in looking around at the global industry, it’s shaping up as another of those slumps that sure won’t feel temporary when it’s done. It’s a global industry, and the news is bad all over.
Down in the Indian state of Goa, for example, an export industry that three years ago employed more than 100,000 may never come back. The government put it on hold for environmental reasons, and when it permitted mining to start up again this year there was no more market. Barge captains there can’t even sell their rusting hulks for scrap.
Over in western Australia, a leading market analyst last month asked for one of the iron mining companies to do the decent thing and go out of business. His other hope was that producers finally get serious about forming some sort of cartel to get a production cap, boosting prices. Financial analysts don’t usually openly call for price-fixing and collusion.
The pain isn’t just confined to ore, of course, because it’s just an input for making steel. In a recent steel industry report put out by the big Canadian bank BMO, none of the trend lines were heading up.
Scrap prices are still falling, as are prices for finished steel. American steel plant utilization is running right at 70 percent, the minimum level to be considered a healthy market. Global capacity utilization is well below what’s thought of as healthy. And unsold steel inventory continues to build.
Why the industry is reeling in 2015 starts in China, which consumes nearly half the annual world supply of more than 1.5 billion metric tons of steel. A speculative real estate boom there has busted, so steel consumption is projected to decline in 2015. That’s shattered long-held industry assumptions of growth. It’s going to keep sliding at least through 2017, according to the global investment bank Credit Suisse.
Weaker demand from China, however, is only half the story. On the supply side, big global miners invested billions of dollars in new mines and facilities. BMO estimated that between 2012 and 2018, the five largest global players will collectively add 440 million metric tons of annual iron ore production capability.
To put that in perspective, one of those Iron Range operations that looks plenty big, Keetac in Keewatin, has an annual capacity of about 6 million tons of taconite pellets.
With demand easing and supply surging, market analysts haven’t been able to cut their price forecasts for iron ore fast enough. The latest view seems to be price settling about $45 per metric ton for the second half of this year and through at least the first half of 2016 — about a third of what it was a year and a half ago.
The most bearish view might be that of Australia’s treasurer, Joe Hockey. It’s his job to present a government budget forecast, and he told the Australian Financial Review that in the iron ore market “there seems to be no floor.”
Minnesota producers get some protection from the chaos of the seaborne ore market by being suppliers to North American mills. What’s produced here is also a different product than the ore put on a ship in Australia. Yet in a global industry with far too much capacity, nobody escapes without wounds.
The big employers of northeastern Minnesota miners have said steel products are being “unfairly traded,” meaning imported at a low price and known as dumping. This generally means that a product is being sold here at a lower cost than it’s being sold for in its home market, or that it’s being sold below its cost.
With overcapacity in China, it’s no surprise that steel producers there are looking to export what they can. Everybody else in the business must be trying to do that, too.
In talking with an economist last week, the conversation about dumping quickly veered off into trade policy and politics. One conclusion is that overseas steel producers likely aren’t “dumping” to beat up the American industry.
Sit in the chair of a steel company CEO for a minute. Because the fixed costs for things like the building and paying a corporate staff don’t go away when an operation isn’t running, shutting down doesn’t take costs to zero. It might mean that losing money on every shipment is still a better financial decision than shutting down.
If that steel finds it way to a customer here, domestic steel producers would insist that’s dumping. Anybody running the offshore steel business would call it fighting for survival.
How long it takes for the least efficient providers to exit can’t be known, but as that analyst of the Australian miners observed, it can take a while. Some companies are propped up by governments or suppliers. It’s one reason forecasts of ore prices have come down sharply as far out as through the end of 2019.
Any optimists looking for a quick recovery should have gotten sobered up by the news contained in Tuesday morning’s release of the first-quarter operations review of Rio Tinto, one of the biggest of the global mining companies.
Ore shipments for the quarter actually fell well short of its target, and Rio Tinto made the usual kind of excuses found in corporate news, including awful weather. But what’s dismaying is that the company did not pull back from its ambitious, 350 million metric-ton shipment target for the whole year. To get there, it has to really pick up the pace.
Analyst Menno Sanderse from Morgan Stanley digested this news, then wrote in a note to clients that “this is concerning given the weak iron ore price we’ve already seen so far in … 2015.”
He isn’t the only person who should be concerned.