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Trade review: Soaring iron ore prices bring buying flexibility to the fore

Seaborne iron ore prices surged in the July-September quarter on the back of strong Chinese crude steel production and tight supply of iron ore fines. However, the market eased from early September due to weaker finished steel prices, squeezing steel margins and indicating the price range could be lower in the fourth quarter.


S&P Global Platts' Iron Ore & Steel Outlook found that 54% of market participants expected benchmark prices to range between $100/mt and $110/mt CFR China in Q4.


Platts 62% Fe benchmark iron ore fines index, or Platts IODEX, averaged $118/dry mt CFR China in Q3. After a slower July, prices surged to a six-year high of 127.60/dmt on Aug. 18, before strengthening further to $130.80/dmt on Sept. 3, the highest since January 2014.

The surging cost of mainstream medium grade fines prompted mills with flexibility in their blending ratios to scout for cheaper alternatives among lower grade fines and less-mainstream ores. A flexible strategy will continue to be vital as Chinese steel margins slumped in September and the steel market in Q4 is expected to be weaker overall than in Q3.


Domestic rebar margins had fallen to around $10/mt by end September from $50/mt at the start of Q3, while hot-rolled coil margins dropped to $13/mt in late September from as high as $75/mt in August, Platts data shows.


Spot market activity in Q3 saw traded premiums for Rio Tinto's Pilbara Blend fines rise to $5.30/dmt over the arrival month average of IODEX on Sept. 1 from $2.70/dmt on May 27. BHP's MAC fines product was trading at a discount to IODEX until late May, after which it climbed to a premium of $2.60/dmt by Sept. 10.


BHP's Yandi fines, which is a 57% Fe low alumina ore, went from minus $2.98/dmt over the arrival month index on June 29 to a premium of $2.10/dmt on Sept. 29.


Similarly, Fortescue Metals Group concluded a spot sale of its 56.5% Fe Super Special fines at a record low discount of 3% over the October IODEX on Sept. 18, FOB Port Hedland on a dmtu basis, for loading early October.


Indian fines, which tend to have higher contaminant and moisture levels than Australian lower-grade fines, also benefited. Prices jumped in Q3 on the back of increased demand and supply disruptions caused by India's monsoon season.


China produced 93.36 million mt of crude steel in July, up 9% on year, and 94.8 million mt in August, up 8.4%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, driving strong demand for iron ore. China's iron ore imports jumped accordingly, reaching 213 million mt in July-August, up 15% on year. Shipments from Vale, Rio Tinto, BHP and FMG were all lower in July than June, according to Platts cFlow analysis, and their export performance was mixed in August.


This spurred greater appetite for non-mainstream sources. Supply from India, Ukraine and Canada over July-August rose 85%, 98% and 200%, respectively, on year to 9.4 million mt, 5.2 million mt and 4.9 million mt.


Exports from Vale have recovered after its operations were disrupted by severe weather and coronavirus restrictions earlier in the year. Platts estimates the Brazilian company had achieved around 67% of its 2020 guidance of 310 million-330 million mt by late September, but would need to lift weekly exports by 1.7 million mt to reach the lower end of the full year total.

HIGH PORT STOCK PRICES SUPPORT SEABORNE INTEREST

The spread between the 62% Fe IOPEX FOT East China, or the iron ore port stock index, on an import parity USD-equivalent basis, and IODEX has remained positive since late May and averaged $4.50/dmt in Q3.


This is because Chinese mills preferred to procure iron ore in smaller quantities from the ports to mitigate their risk exposure to seaborne prices. Further, iron ore port stocks were lower than the year before due to strong demand and slower vessel unloading.


China lengthened the processing period for Australian iron ore import permits in mid-August, which has slowed down customs clearance.


Market participants expect the IOPEX-IODEX spread to close in Q4 on the rebalancing of supply-demand fundamentals. quayside inventory has been steadily recovering since mid-August following improved weather conditions in China and higher supply volumes, especially from Brazil.


HAVE DIRECT FEED PREMIUMS BOTTOMED OUT?

The 64% Fe blast furnace pellet premium was assessed below zero for the first time ever on Aug. 19, at a discount of 95 cents/dmt CFR China. The alternative direct feed option, lump, saw premiums plunge to a three-year low of 3.8 cents/dmtu CFR North China on Aug. 11, on inventory accumulation and a heavy reliance on sinter feeds.


Market consensus is that direct feed premiums have already reached a bottom, but the size of any rebound in Q4 depends on the port stocks situation.


Lump and pellet are premium products as they can be charged directly into blast furnaces, saving sintering costs and reducing pollution. The apparent cost advantage encouraged end-users to adjust up their blending ratio in Q3 while anticipating stricter sintering cuts in the coming winter.


However, there may be limited upside to demand from China in Q4 as some mills have increased their utilization rates of direct feeds to their technical upper limits of 25%-30% in blast furnaces, according to steelmaker sources in Hebei.


On the supply side, the diversion of pellets from Indian and European markets into China is expected to fall amid the recovery of local demand. Lump ore consumption in Japan and South Korea may also improve in Q4 on higher crude steel production ahead, limiting supply into China.


Source: S&P Platts

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