Credit Suisse contrary view on Iron Ore

Where is the Chinese iron ore inventory cycle?

By Houses and Holes at 9:06 am on July 5, 2017
Republished with thanks to Macrobusiness.

From Credit Suisse:

Iron ore turns up, once again confounds bears on the Street

Iron ore once again confounded those calling it down by jumping at the end of June. However, this was predictable. In late May and early June we were hearing anecdotally (Platts) that some steel mills were on-selling contractual cargoes of iron ore to repay quarterly loans due at the end of June. That was a destocking event which inevitably put pressure on the price by adding cargoes to the daily sales list. But by the end of the month, loans were met and destocking is always followed by restocking.

Street still focused on port stocks, China mills are not Iron ore has been nothing if not volatile so it has been a tough call, but the Street keeps getting it directionally wrong, doubling down when the price is sliding. We believe one big difference between the Street’s price forecasts and what actually happens is that analysts are looking at a different side of the supply-demand equation from the actual buyers – Chinese steel mills. The street is obsessed with ever-rising port stocks. These stocks seem a clear indication that iron ore is over-supplied so for commodity analysts, that means the price should fall until some supply is destroyed to restore balance. Therefore, when the iron ore price is rising, analysts publish grim warnings that this can’t last due to too much supply. When the price falls again, the analysts feel validated that they were right, and promptly down grade price forecasts because it’s “the end”. But then the price rises again….

Why do the steel mills keep buying?

China steel mills seem unconcerned about port stocks, although it is not clear why. We do note that steel mills own two thirds of the port stocks anyway (traders the remainder) so perhaps SOEs are taking contractual cargoes, but only using the high grade portions currently while steel prices are so high? They could buy other high grade supply from the traders’ stocks. As we found on our visit to Tangshan mills at the start of May, SOEs have no concerns obtaining bank loans so may not worry about working capital. They may plan to destock later when prices are lower. And interestingly, Mysteel’s survey of around 67 small to medium steel mills which will be private, seem to have normalised inventories rather than any build up. So larger SOEs may be the culprits.

Steel mill buying follows demand, not supply

But if we leave aside the port stocks issue, then steel mills’ buying decisions are based on demand, not supply. The volatile iron ore price is actually reflecting destock-restock cycles by steel mills. One influence on the stock cycles is seasonal and predictable, another is Chinese macro factors, particularly policy decisions and is very difficult or impossible to forecast. Macro factors and seasonal demand periods guide steel mills as to whether steel demand will be strong and prices strong. If it looks promising, they want to buy ore to run flat out. And when one is buying, all start buying to beat the iron ore price peak.

How has this worked in practice?

Seasonally we reached the construction season end in June, so rebar demand should have been lower, and it has been. But equally importantly it was clear from anecdotal reports in Platts that destocking was taking place – mills were dumping contractual cargo deliveries into the spot market, liquidating to raise cash for debt repayments due at the end of June. It is clear that near the end of the month, that would cease as debts were met. Instead, the mills that had sold incoming cargoes would need to go back and buy to continue steel production – restock follows destock. And so it has played out.

As commentators searched for an explanation for the price jump, they latched onto a speech about the economy by President Xi on 27 June that was the only notable macro event. It was not a rip-roaring call by the President, but may have provided reassurance. From Reuters’ reports we see that the President said the full-year growth target could be met, said China was capable of meeting systemic risks despite challenges and noted that maintaining medium to high speed long-term growth will not be easy due to the sheer size of the economy, but the Government is committed to bolstering consumer-driven growth and curbing excess capacity in industries such as steel and coal.

No change to our 3Q price forecast of $70/t

Despite the run-up in the iron ore price it remains below our 3Q price forecast of $70/t. But our call was not based on the end of a short-term destocking cycle. Instead, we are looking towards September and October, which is seasonally a strong period for steel production and consumption – after the summer heat and rain, but before the winter freeze. If steel mills want to be producing strongly in September, they need to be booking iron ore cargoes in late July and August, and these are typically months where the price lifts. June is normally the low point for iron ore, heading into the summer steel demand lull.

Looming winter cuts may add to 3Q iron ore demand

This year there is an additional factor to consider. The Environment Ministry has its widely publicized industrial curtailments planned for 26+2 cities over winter. Smog reaches hazardous levels over Beijing-Tianjin during the winter when coal burn for heating joins the normal industrial smoke. Next winter, a change is planned by reducing industrial emissions from mid-Nov to late-Feb. The steel industry in Hebei, Henan, Shanxi and Shandong is expected to cut output by 50%, If this policy is enforced – and smog is a high priority issue – then steel output may fall by 35-45Mt over the three months. If prices remain high, steel mills will want to keep selling so it might be possible for them to over-produce and build some inventory in 2H. If this is so, then 3Q iron ore buying could be extra strong.

Ahem, not a lot of humility there. CS was telling folks that iron ore was going higher at $94. It was it that missed the destock not the other way around.

Still, there’s some reasonable arguments here. The jump in price triggered by Li’s bland comments was a surprise. Mills have been lowish on stock so may be behind some of it. But let’s face it, when Dalian open interest also soars then we can be pretty sure that China’s loony tune retail speculators (Banana Man) also played some significant role.

Those rebar stocks are also bullish and it’s true that mills follow demand. Q3 may well hold up and mills replenish their inventories though $70 as average looks a big stretch from here. $60 would probably cover it.

But the September-November period is not seasonally bullish at all. It is seasonally weak and traditionally brings in a big destock. If we combine that with what I expect to be a slowing of growth at the margin by then, then mills will indeed follow demand and shed inventories into year end. Especially so given port stocks will be even higher before then if we see some price pressure in Q3.