Heavy rainfall that’s crimped iron ore exports from the biggest shipper, Australia, and lent support to price gains, is seen continuing to disrupt supply while storms persist.
Annualized shipments from Western Australia’s Pilbara iron ore region fell by more than 100 million metric tons in early February, according to Macquarie Group Ltd. The state had its wettest summer, which runs December through February, in data beginning in 1900, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
The significant decline in the pace of shipments in January and February, based on weekly data from key ports, is likely to have contributed to recent strength in iron ore prices, Macquarie analysts including Hayden Bairstow said in a note. The wet seasons in 2015 and 2016 were relatively benign, he said.
“Shipping rates have started to recover, but the wet season is far from over, and with 2017 looking like a more-average year, the risk of further supply interruptions remains,” Perth-based Bairstow said in the note.
Benchmark iron ore has gained about 14 percent this year and last month touched the highest since August 2014 on better-than-expected steel output in China. UBS Group AG raised its average price forecast for 2017 to $71 a metric ton from $56 a ton, according to a March 2 note, citing strong demand and high steel margins. Ore with 62 percent content in Qingdao traded at $89.80 a dry ton on Tuesday, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd. data.
“What the companies haven’t seen too much of this year are cyclones, which are their biggest bugbear as the winds prevent ships from being loaded at all,” David Lennox, a resources analyst at Fat Prophets in Sydney, said by phone. “Wet weather and the Pilbara often go hand in hand, though we’re now moving toward the drier season. From here on in, we should expect shipments to be pretty normal.”
Annualized shipment rates from Western Australia’s Pilbara iron ore region fell from about 850 million tons a year in the December quarter to 801 million tons in January and 794 million tons last month, according to the March 3 note from Macquarie. The average rate over the last week of January and first two weeks of February fell to 725 million tons, a reduction of 125 million tons from the December quarter run rate. Despite the rain, the shipping guidance for the major producers remains on track, Macquarie said.
Exports from Port Hedland, which handles cargoes from suppliers including BHP Billiton Ltd. and Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., fell about 11 percent in February from the previous month, to the lowest since January 2016, data released Tuesday shows. The decline reflected weather related disruptions to iron ore operations, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. analysts wrote in a note Wednesday.
Gains in steel prices and the fact China’s mills have been seeking higher-quality raw materials have been more important drivers of the iron ore price in recent months, according to Mark Pervan, Sydney-based chief economist at AME Group, an industry consultant. Seasonal disruptions from wet weather should ease by the second quarter, he said by phone.
Rainfall at a monitoring station at Dampier Salt, close to the Dampier port used for Rio Tinto Group exports was above average for the past two months, the meteorology bureau’s data shows. Precipitation at Port Hedland airport, close to the town’s port, was above average in January. The chances of a wetter or drier than average March-to-May autumn season in Western Australia are roughly equal, according to the bureau.