Posts Tagged ‘iron’

Is Chinese iron ore demand going to crash (thereby crashing the Australian economy)?

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Last Thursday, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald screamed, Slump likely in iron ore demand,

Chinese demand for iron ore seems set to slump after Beijing’s extraordinary move to turn off the power supply to its industrial heartlands.

There seemed to be fears in the industry that the Chinese government is slamming on the brakes on their economy. As the article continued,

Radical power cuts across the country reflect the promise of the Premier, Wen Jiabao, to use an "iron fist" to achieve tough, five-year energy intensity targets that expire this year.

There seemed to be an air of incredulity floating around. Is the Chinese government really hell-bent in crashing their own economy? As one of Macquarie Bank?s commodities analyst said,

You can’t just turn steel production off and expect the economy to function – it’s insane.

If the Chinese government are really that insane, then it doesn?t take a genius to figure out that iron ore prices will slump significantly going forward. Share prices of companies like BHP will follow as well.

But are they really that insane?

To answer this question, we recalled a comment by one of our readers (Paul in Beijing) in Concerns about China?s slowdown,

Put this in your diary. The restrictions will last until November. By December this year, production of key items such as steel and cement will be returning to full pelt.

As Paul said in Do you think China will crash soon?, we are now at the final months of China?s 11th five-year plans.

The first is that the 11th 5-year plan is now just a few months away from concluding. As in all political situations, it is of paramount importance for the current leadership to return an unblemished report card at the next Plenary meeting of the Communist Party. Hence the attacks on inflation, energy intensity and other issues.

What we think has happened is that on the issue of emission targets, the Chinese government realised that they were not going to reach it at that rate it was going. They had a set of numbers for the targets to reach by the end of this year and they realised that they weren?t going achieve that based on the status quo. Hence, the urgency to slam on the brakes so that at least where the aggregate numbers were concerned, they had done their job.

Why is it so important to reach the targeted numbers? Some say it?s a matter of saving face. That is, not reaching the targeted numbers is humiliating for the government. Others say it is a matter of having a perfect report card for the Hu-Wen team. That is, reaching the targeted numbers is another tick in their report card.

But assuming that by December, the restrictions are relaxed, the Australian economy is still not out of the hook yet. As Paul said,

The second point is that the 12th 5-year plan has not yet been promulgated. Already there are rumblings as to what it might include. The China Nonferrous Industry Association, for instance, has drafted a plan that would limit the capacity of alumina, aluminium and copper over the next 5 years. If such a plan were to be introduced, it would have massive repercussions for the world (buy UC Rusal shares for a start!).

In hand with this is the fact that the current leadership has only 18 months left in their tenure. The next generation of leaders has apparently been tapped and is being groomed. But unlike the present pair, the next generation come from opposite factions within the CPC. their ability to lead harmoniously may well be sorely tested! (Should they fall out, it would leave the Howard-Costello schism, or the Gillard-Rudd antagonism, for dead.

This is what we have to watch out for!

Overcapacity in steel production and surging demand for iron in China?

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Currently, economists in general are at a consensus regarding China. As this news article reported,

As the Great Recession wanes, there?s no better example of the Great Consensus than China. The overwhelming view is that it can grow 10 per cent indefinitely, its potential is boundless and it?s run by omnipotent geniuses who can?t lose. China is today?s New Economy and anyone who disagrees just doesn?t get it.

When the herd is all crowding at one side of the story, it is time to check out the other side. As you can read from our previous articles at Chinese government cornered by inflation, bubbles & rich-poor gap and Hazard ahead for Australia- interim crash in China, we have made our case for being sceptical on China’s post-GFC recent growth. While Western nations are mired in the ghosts of post-GFC deflation, China is the only major economy that managed to engineer a crack-up boom (see What is a crack-up boom?).

Unfortunately, many economists believe that this crack-up boom is a sign of ‘prosperity.’ The trouble with a crack-up boom is that there are only two possible outcomes:

  1. If the government wakes up to their mistake and decide to rein in the crack-up boom, the result will be deflation (falling asset prices, rising unemployment, bankruptcies).
  2. If the government have no guts to allow deflation to happen, hyperinflation will be the end result.

China is now at a critical junction- should they rein in the crack-up boom or should they let it continue?

From what we observe, they seem to be trying to walk the middle-ground. So far, they’re taking half-baked measures in an attempt to cool things down. That is, they’re trying to engineer a soft-landing. Although the former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji was successful in achieving that in the 1990s, there’s no guarantee that they will succeed again this time. In fact, there’s always a risk that they will tinkle with the balance too much and make a mistake that result in tipping the economy into a crash. Or a pin will appear from outside (e.g. trade war) and pop the bubble. Or they will do too little and let the economy overheat. Either way, it will be disastrous.

It is in this backdrop that the infamous short-seller, Jim Chanos is looking to short China. Since November last year, we first heard that this shark was on the prowl, examining China’s books (see Is the Chinese economy a house of cards?).

Indeed, there’s one aspect of China’s ‘books’ that we find a contradiction. Here, we turn to our readers to reconcile this contradiction:

  1. Take a read at Spot market for iron ore may sink contracts. From that article, it seems that China is trying to resist another round of price hikes for iron ore. As this article said,

    As senior executives from BHP and the two other iron giants, … , prepare to face down increasingly aggressive Chinese steel mills, prices are soaring again for the red dirt that it is essential for China’s massive urbanisation and infrastructure programs.

    So, this fit in with economists’ consensus that Chinese demand for Australian iron ore will continue to surge as their economy roar ahead.

  2. Next, take a read at China Trims Steel Capacity Amid Glut, Minister Says (Update1),

    China, also the world?s biggest producer of iron, cement and aluminum, is facing a severe oversupply of steel as mills expand faster than outdated plants are closed. The government is studying a ?more feasible? plan to tackle steel overcapacity, Li?s ministry said on Dec. 3.

Dear readers, why should there be another surge in Chinese demand for iron ore in 2010 when they are looking into closing steel mills to address the severe overcapacity problems? Does anyone have any idea on how to reconcile this contradiction?

What’s the deal with China’s arrest of Stern Hu?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Last week’s arrest of Stern Hu, Rio Tinto’s iron ore negotiator in China, on ‘espionage’ charges had caught many by surprise. Curiosly, the charges that were laid on him were, in the eyes of the Chinese government, matters of national security. In Western standards, such charges (e.g. bribery to obtain information on bargaining position), even if substantiated, are deemed commercial in nature.

What is going on? Why is the Chinese government doing that? Good questions. In fact, there are more questions than answers in this case.

Whatever turns out to be eventual outcome for Stern Hu, one thing is clear- the annual iron ore price negotiation is currently frozen indefinitely. The Chinese steel industry, before this incident, was a fragmented bunch of mob. Some of the steel makers wanted to break ranks and cave in to a smaller price cut. But with a few of the Chinese steel executive arrested too (this fact is overshadowed by the arrest of Stern Hu), it seemed that the Chinese government is imposing discipline on their own steel makers to force them into line. Only then can the Chinese steel industry present an united front against the pricing power of BHP-Rio. Currently, there are investigations being carried out at steel mills in China as the industry wondered whether more arrests are to follow.

Obviously, the impact on Rio Tinto is not good. As long as this incident is not resolved, it will imply revenue loss for Rio Tinto. The impact on China, however, is less clear. If this incident is a calculated move by the Chinese government, then it is likely that they are already prepared for an extended impasse. As we wrote before in Australia is a pawn in the international game of commodities,

Over the weekend, Michael Sainsbury wrote in The Australian that China has stockpiled a remarkable 100 million tonnes of iron ore. It?s one thing to stockpile copper, but iron ore is not easy to store in such huge quantities.

But is this move made by the Chinese government to gain merely a commercial advantage? If so, then it’s a very clumsy way of achieving a commercial goal. By using the national security apparatus on a common bribery case (who don’t bribe in China?), the Chinese government is politicising a commercial issue. This issue seems to be more than just a commercial matter. As this article reported, it was the Chinese president who endorsed a probe into Rio Tinto. Professor Yu Ping, an expert on Chinese criminal law said here,

My experience is the people working at the Shanghai State Security Bureau [who arrested Stern Hu] are well educated. Many speak English and are more competent and more aware of the national interest than their counterparts at the Public Security Bureau,” he said.

You have to assume that detaining Mr Hu is a calculated decision knowing full well the international political sensitivities of doing it during the iron ore negotiations.

The fact that the Chinese government did not bother to inform the Australian government of the nature of the charges (and Australia’s foreign ministry had to scour the official Chinese media to learn of that) shows that China is, for whatever reason, deeply offended with Australia.

Not only that, why would China want to elevate this issue from commercial matter to a national security issue?

As this news article reported,

The investigation into Rio appears to be part of a realignment of how China manages its economy in the wake of the global financial crisis, with spy and security agencies promoted to top strategy-making bodies.

The nine-member standing committee of China’s Communist Party, led by President Hu, had taken more control over economic decisions at the expense of the State Council, led by Premier Wen Jiabao, it said, quoting anonymous Chinese economic advisers. The president endorsed the Rio investigation, it said.

International security analyst Clive Williams said every country, not only Australia, now faced difficulties dealing with China, because of the country’s looming economic problems and leadership sensitivities about them.

Coming from a resource-rich lucky country, it is easy for people like us in Australia to see the world as one of plenty. In fact, relative to its small population, Australia has a glut of natural resources. China on the other hand, relative to its colossal population, sees the world as one of scarcity. Therefore, in our eyes, the Chinese government is over-reacting over a commercial dispute. As we wrote before in Nations will rise against nations,

Therefore, outwardly, the world may be at peace. But inwardly, we believe there will be jostling for power, influence and resources between the major nation blocs. Bigger nations will use smaller nations as pawns, international armed non-state groups will intensify their activities and inter-ethnic conflicts will arise. We have no doubt that there will be plenty of Black Swans appearing in the days to come.

Certainly, there is more than meets the eye in Stern Hu’s arrest.

Chinese revenge on Rio/BHP

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

In What is Chinalco?s role in the mining love triangle?, we said that

Traditionally, the annual price for iron ore is determined by chivalrous negotiation between the producers (e.g. BHP, Rio, CVRD) and customers (Chinese, Japanese and Korean steel mills). Last year, BHP had been toying and pushing with the idea of turning iron ore price determination towards the more conventional free market model. Of course, that angered China as it is in their interest to contain iron ore prices. We guess the Chinese must still be smarting from BHP?s attempted spat. The recent move by Chinalco could just be the first round of a payback.

… They will be careful not to turn this into a political drama. That explains why they are, up till now, taking the softly softly approach.

It will be interesting to watch what the Chinese will do for their next step.

Guess what the next step of the Chinese is? They blacklisted Rio and BHP in their own daily spot market. See this news article: China locks out BHP and Rio ore.