Iron ore imports by China climbed to a record for the month of February, helping to build the biggest ever stockpiles, while overseas sales of steel products tumbled to a three-year low in a reprieve for mills in Europe, Asia and the U.S. that have been battling Chinese competition.
Purchases of ore rose 13 percent to 83.5 million metric tons from 73.6 million tons a year earlier, with year-to-date shipments up 13 percent to 175 million tons, according to customs data Wednesday. Exports of steel products sank to 5.75 million tons in February, the lowest level since the same month in 2014.
The surge in ore imports and simultaneous slump in steel sales both point toward the recovery in the nation’s steel industry as China’s economy has stabilized, with mills boosting output while selling more production locally. Iron ore surged last year as the nation’s imports topped 1 billion tons, and it has extended that rally in 2017. Still, with supplies forecast to expand further, analysts have highlighted the risks of a pullback in prices.
“We think that the price of iron ore is going to finish closer to $60 a ton by the end of this year,” Sally Auld, chief economist and head of fixed-income and currency strategy for Australia at JPMorgan Chase & Co., told Bloomberg TV Wednesday, speaking before the release of the data. Spot ore with 62 percent content was at $89.80 a dry ton on Tuesday, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd.
China’s purchases may continue to expand with more supply coming from Vale SA’s $14 billion S11D mine. The first shipment of S11D ore, a blend that included material from other mines in northern Brazil, finished unloading in China on March 3. In Australia, billionaire Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill mine is also ramping up toward full capacity.
The record iron ore imports last month came as port stockpiles in the top user surged to unprecedented levels. The holdings increased 8.2 percent in February, the biggest gain in three years, and they now stand at a record 130 million tons, according to Shanghai Steelhome E-Commerce Co.
China accounts for about half of worldwide steel production, and a surge in product exports from 2014 to last year hammered global prices and triggered a rise in trade frictions as policy makers sought to protect local suppliers. At its height, the issue—including how to deal with industry overcapacity—was debated by Group of 20 leaders.
Monthly steel-product shipments peaked in September 2015 at more than 11 million tons, according to customs data. The February figure compares with 7.4 million tons in January this year, and 8.1 million tons in February 2016.