Bulkcarrier owners could be forgiven for feeling just a little bit dizzy at the moment. The unprecedented growth in China’s steel industry over the last decade has for years provided an adrenaline-infused experience in dry bulk trade. But with both Chinese steel production and iron ore imports registering a decline in the first half of 2015, is the playtime over?
Down To Earth With A Bump
It’s no surprise that the recent wobbles in China’s economy have been leaving dry bulk’s thrill-seekers with a nasty headache. Construction activity has slowed, and total steel use dropped by 5% y-o-y in the first five months of the year. Steel production has declined by a less severe 1% y-o-y, but this is still an unpleasant change of direction for those accustomed to average output growth of more than 10% per annum over the last ten years.
Round The Roundabout Again
Yet these worries over China’s steel industry are not new. According to China’s annual estimates, steel output growth in 2014 slowed to 1%, from 14% in 2013. However, iron ore imports increased in 2014 by a massive 15% to 914mt. Almost heroic growth in Australian iron ore production flooded the global iron ore market with cheap ore, displacing some higher-cost domestic Chinese ore production. Ambitious production expansion in Australia is still underway, and exports from the country are up 9% so far this year, but total Chinese seaborne imports are down 1%. So what has changed?
Balance Shifts On The See-Saw
This year seems to have proved a tipping point in the iron ore market. Weak Chinese demand is contributing to record low iron ore prices (dipping below $50/tonne in April). In 2014, the rapid drop in prices boosted China’s overall import demand, but no such positive effect is visible this year. Instead, the extent of the price drop has squeezed out a number of small iron ore miners across the world, and Chinese imports from many smaller suppliers have been depressed this year. And while Chinese miners have clearly reduced domestic production, there are questions over how much more capacity (particularly state-owned) will be cut.
Swings In Need Of A Push?
The unsettling thought for the dry bulk market is that the excitement of the Chinese ride could be coming to an end. Despite the price drop, most major ore miners are forging ahead with expansion plans. If China’s steel usage has peaked, miners will be fighting for market share in a shrinking demand arena. And if Chinese ore output proves resilient to price pressures, this could leave those expecting a resumption of firm iron ore trade growth with only a severe case of vertigo.
While global growth in low-cost ore production could still boost imports later this year, there is certainly no longer a consensus that China’s steel industry has considerable long-term growth potential. Faced with this ominous scenario, bulker owners will be hoping that the current weakness in China’s iron ore imports is only a temporary downward swing. Time will tell, but for some the playground which once spurred great excitement might be starting to lose its appeal.