Iron ore coking coal and especially steel production figures worldwide are now major indicators for Australia and the national economy’s outlook, especially from China.

Of course, economic growth, investment, inflation, etc, in our major markets matter most, but the touchstone statistics for us and for China are steel demand and production, which in turn translates to rising (or falling) levels of production and sales of iron ore and coking coal.

Of those, iron ore is the glamour commodity (which is a little odd, given that it is essentially iron-rich dirt and rock). But that’s the modern reality so far as China is concerned. Last month China imported a record 64.5 million tonnes of iron ore, much higher than anyone had expected, as car production in September topped a million units again for a seventh month.

But it’s not all bullish in the Chinese industry: yesterday the Chinese government ended plans for two 10-million-tonnes-a-year (combined around three times Australia’s annual production) steel projects under the developing policy aimed at cutting overcapacity in six key industries, including steel.

Chinese media reports said the two projects, one from the huge BaoSteel group, the other from major producer Wuhan, would not proceed under this new policy. The decisions were announced at a press conference yesterday in Beijing. The decisions were made by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission.

“Xiong Bilin, an official with the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning body, delivered the message at a press conference yesterday and added that the start date of the projects would depend on the development trend of the steel industry. Both projects were approved by the State Council, China’s Cabinet in early 2008, ahead of the outbreak of the global financial crisis, Xiong said.

“If they were launched now, when there is obvious overcapacity in this industry, they may influence the industry’s restructuring, Xiong added,” China Daily reported.

Steel production figures for September have not yet appeared officially: they could in the next 24 hours when the latest flow of data from Beijing is released, but unofficial reports suggest a 4% drop to just under 50 million tonnes.

But that’s still very high. So its no wonder BHP and Rio are facing a demand picture now for iron ore (and Chinese steel) vastly different than a year ago, or three to six months ago).

A week ago Rio Tinto was upbeat in its third quarter production review, revealing record production and sales and lifting its 2009 output target 5-7.5% to a high of 215 million tonnes.

This morning BHP Billiton was almost as upbeat, revealing record production (thanks to a rise in iron ore pellets in Brazil, not in Australia, but there was an 11% rise in Australia in the quarter.

BHP said iron ore production rose to 30.106 million tonnes in the three months ended September 30, from 29.824 million tonnes the same period in 2008, helped by the start of operations at its three pellet plants in Samarco, Brazil, in July.

However, production also was 11% higher from the June quarter of this year, which is a better reflection of the surge in demand, especially from China in that time.

But BHP did qualify this solid production effort in its commentary as it said it saw demand from China steadying in the coming year:

“Chinese economic growth continues to be robust on the back of strong domestic-focused consumption and infrastructure-based stimulus spending. China’s re-stock of commodities is essentially complete and there is now evidence of higher than normal stockpiles across the supply chain. We continue to look for Chinese imports to more closely reflect real demand over the remainder of 2009 calendar year.”

BHP also saw improved signs from other markets (as did Rio Tinto), but again, it was tempered by the reality of the continuing sluggish levels of demand in some major Western economies.

“There are signs of stabilisation in the developed economies, with positive signs of improvement in industrial production, the Purchasing Managers Index and a turn in consumer confidence. However, unemployment in key developed economies, such as the US, Japan and Europe, continues to lag and may trend higher in the near term. We are starting to see some positive impact of re-stocking of pipelines, particularly in steel-making raw materials, after a period where demand essentially disappeared.

“Despite the low metal inventories in developed economies, there is little evidence yet of sustainable demand for metals emerging post the northern summer. We continue to stress that this developed economy improvement is not without volatility and is from a very low base.

“We maintain our view that real demand follow-through in developed economies may not be transparent until mid-2010 calendar year.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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