The iron ore supply shortage that has helped support high prices in recent months looks set to continue with Vale likely to struggle to meet its iron ore shipments target for 2020.
Vale has maintained its iron ore fines production guidance of 310 million-330 million mt in 2020 despite the suspension of activity at its Itabira mining operations in Brazil in early June due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Vale was told by state inspectors in Minas Gerais that it can reopen the Itabira complex, the company said on June 17. But the ramp-up is expected to be gradual.
cFlow, Platts trade-flow software, showed that Vale shipped an average of 18 million mt/month over January-May.
Last year, Vale sold around 25 million mt of its output to Brazilian steelmakers. Over January-April this year, Brazilian steel production fell by 14% year on year due to the effects of the pandemic, suggesting that iron ore demand may be lower this year.
If Vale's 2020 domestic sales were at a similar level to last year, it would still need to export around 27 million mt/month of iron ore over the balance of this year to be in line with its tonnage guidance. This means its monthly exports would have to be lifted by an additional 9 million mt/month, Platts estimates.
This would only get to the lower end of the guidance range, so reaching the higher end would require an even bigger monthly increase.
Similar to Australian producers, Vale's production and shipments are typically weaker in the first-quarter due to seasonal weather factors. This year, the rainy season went on longer than normal in Brazil and then the pandemic took hold.
Platts cFlow showed Vale's shipments dropped to an 11-month low of 17 million mt in March, then gradually recovered to 19 million mt in May. China's customs data showed that China imported 15.52 million mt from Brazil in April, a 6% month-on-month increase, but down 13% on the year.
Market participants in China said they were expecting shipments in the region of 290 million-300 million mt from Vale this year.
They were concerned that iron ore supply would remain extremely tight, noting imports may not reach the same level as last year. More negative news from the major producers would spark serious supply concerns, industry sources added.
Others in the Chinese market were more confident of Vale's ability to achieve its guidance. One market source believed Vale would quickly restart its operations and that the supply impact from Itabira would not be large.
The Platts 62% Fe iron ore benchmark averaged $92.54/mt CFR in May, up from $83.84/mt in April.
Source: S&P Platts