Melbourne — Iron ore port stocks in China mounted in the last week of September and into early October as trading wound down during the Golden Week holidays and seaborne supply is expected to be strong in the fourth quarter, but an improvement in finished steel prices and high steel production should keep the iron ore market largely supported.
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China's iron ore inventories climbed to 120 million mt in the first week of October, up around 4 million mt from a fortnight earlier, according to CEIC data. It was the highest level since early March, when iron ore prices were below $90/mt CFR.
There is still an oversupply of lump and pellet at Chinese ports due to global steelmakers cutting production as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This has dampened seaborne buying interest, though a combination of steelmakers restoring output and planned winter production cuts in northern China's Tangshan may help premiums recover.
Mills typically use more direct charge products, such as lump and pellet, to reduce sintering emissions in winter.
Concentrate inventories at ports have risen to more than 11 million mt, which could help improve price competitiveness versus domestic concentrates.
Since returning from the Golden Week holidays, buyers have been slightly bearish about the prospects for the iron ore market. The S&P Global Platts 62% Fe benchmark (IODEX) was $121.35/dry mt CFR China on Oct. 13, down around $2/mt since trading resumed on Oct. 9.
However, this is above the $100-$110/mt range where 54% of respondents in the Platts Iron Ore & Steel Outlook expected prices to average in Q4.
Chinese finished steel prices and margins have rebounded strongly since the holiday, which will help to support iron ore prices. Domestic hot-rolled coil margins were $38.62/mt and domestic rebar margins were $33.10/mt on Oct. 13, the highest level for both since the first week of September, after which Chinese steel prices started to recede, Platts data shows. Platts' steel margins use a three-week "lag" for iron ore prices.
The reported restrictions on China importing metallurgical and thermal coal from Australia are not expected to impact iron ore imports, but the news may cause some jitters among buyers and encourage them to buy from port stocks.
SUPPLY STRONG IN Q4
Supply continues to be strong and will pick up further in the October-December quarter. China imported more than 100 million mt of iron ore for the fourth consecutive month in September, reaching 108.5 million mt, according to China customs.
Ongoing robust steel production should help draw down iron ore inventories, particularly if the steel market recovery is sustainable. Platts sees crude steel output up 4%-5% on year in 2020.
Exports from Australia and Brazil are generally strong in October-December. In Australia, Q4 exports are usually the second-highest quarter of the year after April-June. Producers try and ship out as much as possible ahead of the rain impacted Q1, while those that run to calendar financial years will look to maximize revenues, particularly when prices are high.
With northern Australia set to experience a La Nina weather event in the coming rainy season (December-April), producers may work even harder to ship out tons.
Australia's Port Hedland exported 45.5 million mt of iron ore in September, of which 39.7 million mt went to China. This was lower than 46.1 million mt and 40.1 million mt, respectively, in August, according to the Pilbara Ports Authority.
Brazil's Vale has significantly ramped up its exports, with seaborne shipments in August jumping 24.7% on month to 29.34 million mt. However its exports were still down 7.4% on year at 169.06 million mt over January-August due to operational issues earlier in the year, according to Platts cFlow vessel tracking software. Given Brazil also experiences severe weather around the same time as Australia and Vale is in catch-up mode, the Brazilian company's exports are likely to be the highest this year in Q4.