RIP Restock

Throughout the Great Iron Ore Rout of 2014, we’ve comforted ourselves with the knowledge that, regardless of what came beforehand, at least the fourth quarter would deliver respite from the market’s flagellation, as Chinese steel mills hastily replenished their depleted stockpiles of iron ore.

I’ve been something of a sceptic when it came the promised restock. Back in mid-September, my thoughts were:

I have been loath to commit to the point too aggressively, lest a strong Q4 restock befool me, but there are very good reasons to suspect that this year the iron ore rebound will be much more muted than it has been in recent years. We should still see a rally from current low prices by the end of the year, but the risks are heavily skewed to the downside.

I laid out a more detailed reasoning for this scepticism later that month:

  • India knocked some 100m tonnes of annual supply out of the seaborne market fairly rapidly in 2012 with its ban on mining in Goa, which followed similar restrictions in Karnataka in 2011 (total traded iron ore was about 1100m tonnes in 2012). If memory serves, Macquarie reckoned these moves added about $20 to spot prices throughout 2013.Chinese stimulus via fixed asset investment flowed freely in 2012, and, critically, the property sector commenced a strong upswing around the time iron ore bottomed.

  • Property is moving in the opposite direction now, and like much else in the Chinese economy, oversupply is becoming an issue. It remains to be seen whether the government is prepared to allow this process to run, or whether they cave and unleash another ‘big bang’ stimulus, as many analysts and commentators are now clamouring for. My base case is that the government institutes mild stimulus measures to support overall demand, without igniting another explosion of shadow banking excesses or wasteful fixed asset investment. But it’s roulette really, all you can do is monitor the situation in Beijing closely.

  • Due to a renewed upswing in Chinese demand, the loss of Indian supply tightened a market in which suppliers already held considerable pricing power. As everyone is surely aware, that is no longer the case now, with Morgan Stanley putting this year’s surplus at around 50m tonnes, growing to 150m next year. It has decisively shifted to a buyers’ market.

  • The displacement of high cost supply, which the majors adduce to justify their enormous supply expansions, will help stabilise prices in time. But so far this has occurred much more slowly than anticipated, and I expect this continue and high cost supply to exit only incrementally, rather than in a rapid manner that shrinks available supply and compels Chinese steel mills to suddenly scramble for stockpiles.

Thus, short of a ‘big bang’ stimulus from the Chinese government, the recovery in spot iron ore later this year is likely to be much more muted than in previous years. I still would not be surprised to see it rebound to around the high-$80s, but there is a good chance that the impetus for Chinese steel mills to restock as they typically did in the past just isn’t there now that the market is firmly in structural surplus.

Well, we’re through the halfway mark of Q4 and there is no restock in sight. Quite the opposite, in fact; iron ore has capitulated horribly.

SpotIronOre

And on the subject of capitulations, the sell-side is hurriedly accepting that iron ore is in serious trouble, and the downgrades are flowing freely. I noted with particular interest this comment from CommBank, included in today’s Reuters update:

“We no longer expect a meaningful iron ore restock later in the year as steel mills in China are content to purchase iron ore at their convenience, either from the port or from domestic producers, due to its wide availability,” Commonwealth Bank of Australia said in a note. “Tighter credit is also forcing many steel mills to adjust to lower inventory levels.”

This reflects the fundamental shift in the iron ore market that has transpired this year. It is obviously no secret that the sellers is now firmly locked in a chronically oversupplied market and fighting to the death. It was always likely that this change in the market would kill off the restock-destock cycle, or at least greatly reduce its impact on pricing. The reason being that steel mills don’t need to worry about losing access to supplies as they did when shortages reigned, so there’s little pressure to aggressively scoop up stocks when they have the opportunity in anticipation of tight supply down the track.

We’ll see buying before too long; these prices are surely looking enticing to some. But the shift in the market this year is structural, and we’ve got loads more supply coming next year. Any bounces into the year’s end are therefore immaterial, the sector’s fortunes are not going to be revived unless there is some radical shift in Chinese policy, and whether such a shift is even feasible anymore is debatable.

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