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Material Matters: Iron Ore, Bulks And Lithium

Commodities | Jan 24 2018

A glance through the latest expert views and predictions about commodities. China; iron ore & steel; bulks; and lithium.

-Further policy tightening and stricter compliance expected from China in 2018
-Drop in Chinese steel mill profitability may lead to increased demand for lower-grade ore
-Strong demand and supply restrictions drive Macquarie's upgrades to bulk price forecasts
-SQM deal puts Chilean lithium brine producers at disadvantage


By Eva Brocklehurst


Investors at the 2018 Greater China Conference appeared more comfortable with the growth story than they were in 2017 and UBS also notes the government's push to close outdated polluting industries continues to gather pace. All companies expect further tightening of environmental policy and stricter compliance requirements.

The high price for iron ore and coal remains a concern for investors but the broker finds steel mills unworried about the high prices. Steel inventories are expected to exit the winter at low levels and construction ramps up in March, so there is an expectation for further spikes in steel and raw material prices.

Property remains a key issue as it is the largest driver of raw material demand. Government policies remain restrictive and this is weighing on sentiment. UBS suggests construction activity may well be flat year-on-year. Automotive, home appliances and infrastructure are all expected to slow. Growth is still expected in 2018, albeit at softer pace.

Iron Ore & Steel

China's winter heating season started with the iron ore price falling and steel prices rising, as expected. Yet, now, Credit Suisse observes the rebar price has plummeted and iron ore has risen.

It appears that supply/demand balances have been quite dynamic. Previously, the broker would expect steel traders to be already restocking for the construction season, underpinning the rebar price. The broker acknowledges signs that traders are beginning to buy, which may steady the steel price, but aggressive bidding for iron ore cargoes remains an enigma.

Credit Suisse assumes that steel mills are stocking up with high-grade iron ore ahead of the construction period. Steel mills are becoming cost conscious again, as the steel price has fallen so much and, anecdotally, the broker notes low-grade iron ore is gaining more attention. This should reduce low-grade discounts, although this is not yet visible in the indexes.

CBA analysts also suggest the restocking cycle that helped iron ore prices surge from mid-December may be waning and agree a drop in steel mill profitability may also lead to stronger demand for lower grade ores. As profitability comes under threat the analysts expect the lower grade discount may narrow, but not to historical levels.

Shaw and Partners argues that the absolute level of iron ore is not the key, but rather the stockpile versus import ratio. The stock to import ratio range since the GFC has been between 1-2 months and the current level is around 1.7 months.

So, the analysts calculate that, whilst the current ratio is certainly higher versus the low in December 2015 of 1.0 times it remains 15% below all-time highs. If rumour is correct, and Chinese mills have started restocking iron ore, the analysts expect this ratio to track lower in coming weeks.


Stronger demand and supply restrictions have driven material upgrades to Macquarie's bulk commodity price forecasts. The broker lifts estimates for iron ore and manganese by 20%. Estimates for 2018 for coking coal are lifted by 40% and thermal coal by 30%.

Incorporating the upgrades, Macquarie raises BHP ((BHP)) earnings estimates by 27-52% and Rio Tinto ((RIO)) and South 32 ((S32)) by 27-38% apiece. Upgrades to iron ore prices translate to earnings increases for both Fortescue Metals ((FMG)) and Mt Gibson ((MGX)) as well.

The material upgrades to short and medium-term coal price forecasts have transformed the earnings outlook for both Whitehaven Coal ((WHC)) and New Hope Corp ((NHC)) and the broker upgrades Whitehaven Coal to Neutral while retaining an Outperform rating on New Hope.

Macquarie's forecasts for base metals are largely unchanged with the exception of copper, which is upgraded 17% for 2018 and 12% for 2019. This translates to increases in earnings estimates for OZ Minerals ((OZL)), Sandfire Resources ((SFR)) and Metals X ((MLX)).


Macquarie makes a number of changes to its lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) forecasts, with a material upgrade to 2018 carbonate and spodumene prices of 14% in 19% respectively. The broker still envisages supply will overshoot near-term demand and maintains a bearish view for 2019/20. Upgrades to electric vehicle demand should erode the surplus by 2021/22 and lead to higher prices.

Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (SQM) has been allowed to increase its output and Macquarie believes the deal puts Chilean lithium brine producers at a disadvantage versus Orocobre ((ORE)) and FMC in Argentina.

The broker observes an onerous royalty rate and forced sale to locals of up to 25% of production at discounted rates have now lifted the bottom quarter of the cost curve for the two cheapest producers. While the SQM deal will have an impact on long-term lithium supply, Macquarie considers spodumene the key to near-term pricing.

Despite a near tripling of exports there has been minimal impact on headline LCE pricing and the broker believes this reflects a lack of production from the growing Chinese conversion sector. The success of new conversion capacity in China and the successful ramping up of new operations remain key to the near-term driver of the lithium price.

On current reduction forecasts Macquarie expects Australian spodumene exports to triple again by 2020. Nevertheless, price outcomes are dependent on mines being up and running on time, production being to specification and DSO remaining part of the supply mix.

Following the latest deal by SQM, the broker believes the Galaxy Resources ((GXY)) Sal de Vida project is unlikely to be brought into production. Removing the development causes Macquarie to upgrade medium-term earnings estimates because of reduced operating costs, while long-term earnings estimates are reduced by -15-45%, with around 80% of the reduction because of the valuation of Sal de Vida. Galaxy is downgraded to Underperform from Neutral.

Meanwhile, the broker upgrades both Pilbara Minerals ((PLS)) and Syrah Resources ((SYR)) to Outperform from Neutral. The broker expects Pilbara Minerals' Pilgangoora project will be a long-life and low-cost operation and the exposure to upgraded long-term lithium pricing underpins the upgrade.

For Syrah Resources, delivery of the company's downstream strategy remains key to valuation but the commissioning of Balama is a significant de-risking step. The broker's upgraded outlook for electric vehicles leads to a lift in the long-term price forecasts for battery anode materials.

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