China’s iron ore imports tumble as pollution clean-up gets going

Mills brace for curbs by Beijing on steel output this winter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 7:45am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 7:45am

Iron ore imports by China slumped last month to the lowest in more than a year, sinking from a record of above 100 million tonnes, as mills prepared for unprecedented state-ordered curbs on steel output over winter.

Purchases dropped to 79.49 million tonnes in October, according to customs data on Wednesday. That’s down from September’s 102.8 million tonnes, and is the lowest amount since February 2016. Over the first 10 months, imports by the world’s top buyer still expanded 6.3 per cent to 896 million tonnes.

As China curbs steel output to fight pollution, mills have been keeping more of their products at home. Steel exports fell to 4.98 million tonnes last month, down from September’s 5.14 million tonnes, and the lowest since 2014.

Iron ore users and investors have been tracking China’s bid to rein in pollution this winter by imposing restrictions on mills’ production, in addition to curbs on other industrial activity.

The drive has buttressed prices of higher-quality ores that are more efficient, while spurring speculation about a demand roller-coaster, with weaker consumption seen near term before a possible snapback in spring. At the same time, miners in Brazil and Australia have added supply.

The decline in China’s iron imports was the stand-out item amid a broader weakening of purchases, Daniel Hynes, a senior commodity strategist at Australia&New Zealand Banking Group Ltd, said in a note. “The closures of steel mills due to environmental concerns were behind the fall,” he said. Demand for raw materials imports is likely to rebound, according to the bank.

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Benchmark spot ore with 62 per cent content in Qingdao lost 0.6 per cent to US$62.26 a dry ton on Wednesday, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd. Prices have dropped 21 per cent this year. Futures were mixed, with the SGX AsiaClear contract up 0.6 per cent in Singapore and prices in Dalian 0.6 per cent lower.

Miners’ shares retreated. Fortescue Metals Group Ltd, the world’s fourth-largest iron ore exporter, declined 2.6 per cent to A$4.90 in Sydney, as fellow suppliers BHP Billiton Ltd fell 0.9 per cent and Rio Tinto Group slipped 0.7 per cent. The trio are Australia’s top exporters.