Exports are dominated by two countries, imports by three. And everything revolves around China.
By MC01, a frequent commenter on WOLF STREET:
China’s phenomenal and somewhat worrying rise as the top steel producer in the world has fueled an absolutely unprecedented boom in the trade of iron ore. The latest data available (2016) put the worldwide seaborne dry bulk trade at 4,553 million metric tons, of which 1,354 million metric tons, or 30%, were iron ore. The iron ore tonnage is up 37% from 2010.
The iron ore trade is overwhelmingly directed at East Asia: China accounted for 68%, Japan for 10%, and South Korea for 5%. Combined, they account for 83%. Germany, next in line, accounts for only 3%.
Iron ore exports are even more concentrated: Australia accounts for 57% and Brazil for 26%, for a combined 83%. South Africa, third in line, accounts for 5%.
The latest data from China claim the country is the third largest iron ore producer in the world at 375 million metric tons. But to fuel its gargantuan steel industry, China has to import enormous quantities of iron ore from abroad.
China, the iron ore producer, however, has a major problem: to help sustain its dramatic growth in steel production, it has started mining on a large scale even very-low grade deposits, resulting in a steep drop in the average iron-ore grade produced.
Iron ore is divided in two categories for commercial purposes: high-grade – over 50% content in pure iron (Fe) – and low-grade (below 50% Fe). Low-grade iron ore usually requires capital intensive and often time-consuming processes collectively called “beneficiation” before being used.
Chinese iron ores are generally very low-grade these days, with an average Fe content of just 32%, requiring extensive beneficiation. In 1995, the average Fe content was 49%.
By contrast, Brazilian iron ores have an average Fe content of 66%, even higher than the celebrated Swedish iron ores which for centuries were the best available in quantity (at last check, 65%). Australia’s average Fe content is 58%.
High-grade iron ores command a large premium over low-grade ores, but often the latter are so cheap as to make them economically attractive despite the costs of beneficiation. However, beneficiation of iron ores under 30% Fe content is usually considered uneconomical, no matter how cheap the ore itself, the energy used in the beneficiation, and how large the scale of operations. This raises some very interesting questions about the economics of China’s large-scale use of domestic low-grade iron ores with an Fe content as low as 25%.
Australian iron ore exports come overwhelmingly from Western Australia, and the breakneck increase in production over the past decade has gone wholly to feed the iron mills of China. The latest available data from Australia’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources are for 2015. They put iron ore production at 817 million metric tons, more than double 2009 production (394 million metric tons).
Not even the 2008 Financial Crisis impacted the volume of iron-ore production in Australia in any meaningful way, possibly due to the various stimulus programs instituted by the Chinese government to support their heavy industries.
At the receiving end of this trade are China’s megaports, such as Ningbo-Zhoushan, which, in terms of raw tonnage, is by far the busiest port in the world: in 2016, it handled 889 million metric tons of freight.
Ningbo-Zhoushan is the main gateway for commodities entering China and for bulk cargo, such as chemicals, being exported. It has an enormous capacity: 191 berths, 39 of which are classified as “deep water,” meaning they can be used by the largest oil tankers and dry bulk carriers at full load.
But even for a megaport, unloading the largest dry bulk carriers is not an easy process. The Valemax-class iron ore carriers, with a capacity of 400,000 metric tons, are 362-meters (1,200 feet) long and 65 meters (214 feet) wide (image via Vale).
A Valemax getting the finishing touches (image via Vale):
Ningbo-Zhoushan has some of the world’s largest gantry cranes for offloading ore, with a capacity of around 2,500 metric tons/hour. Even then, unloading a single Valemax iron ore carrier with a load of 300,000 metric tons (75% carrying capacity) will take over 120 hours of nearly continuous operation of a 2,500 metric tons/hour crane, or over five days.
Unloading a bulk cargo is not merely a matter of emptying the holds: It’s absolutely critical to maintain balance while emptying each hold and to keep the cargo as level as possible. Failure to do so can result in the ship capsizing or even experiencing structural failure.
The hull must also constantly be monitored for fatigue cracks during the unloading procedure, which must still be overseen by the ship’s first mate, just like during the Age of Sail.
Because here is what can happen: The Brazilian port of Ponta da Madeira – which is operated by Vale SA, the Brazilian mining titan – gained worldwide notoriety in late 2011 when the Valemax dry bulk carrier Vale Beijing suffered structural failure while being loaded with 300,000 metric tons of iron ore during her first revenue-generating cruise.
Cracks in the hulls developed and extended to the ballast tanks, rupturing them. As the ship was in immediate danger of sinking, Brazilian authorities ordered her to be towed into deep water outside the port and her fuel tanks to be drained of bunker fuel.
By that point, the Vale Beijing had loaded about 250,000 metric tons of iron ore. To allow divers to perform emergency repairs to the ballast tanks, this cargo had to be unloaded to other dry bulk carriers outside the port, using a heavy lift pontoon crane. The Vale Beijing then limped to Jinhae in South Korea for repairs and is still in service as the Sea Beijing.
This dramatic incident, mercifully without victims or environmental damage, highlighted some of the absurdities of the modern marine trade.
The Vale Beijing was the first of a series of eight Valemax carriers ordered by Korean shipping company STX Pan Ocean (now simply Pan Ocean) under a complicated agreement with Vale SA. STX Pan Ocean obtained license to the Valemax design and a long-term contract with Vale SA in return for exclusively chartering these eight ships to Vale SA.
The exact financials are murky. As the Hanjin Shipping bankruptcy exposed, there have long been suspicions that the whole operation was not exactly profitable, as Korean shipping companies have a long history of bidding at cost or even at a loss to win large contracts.
These eight ships were ordered from STX Offshore & Shipbuilding, another Korean shipbuilder with shaky financials; it made headlines for “suddenly” entering receivership in late 2016 thus leading to a fire sale of their oversized European operations.
Neither the builders nor the shipping company have ever come clean about the causes of the structural failure. But two years later, another laden STX-built Valemax, the Vale Indonesia (now Sea Indonesia), suffered ruptured ballast tanks after running into a sandbar in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The ships operated by Pan Ocean are the only Valemax built by a Korean shipyard. Four others are being built by Japan Marine United. The rest have been built by Chinese companies. The Valemax class itself was designed by a Chinese engineering company, the Shanghai Merchant Ship Design & Research Institute.
These massive Valemax iron ore carriers are changing the iron ore trade: The 42 completed so far represent 15% of worldwide capacity, and there are presently firm orders for another 26. If no extra iron ore carrying capacity is added, by 2020 the Valemax will represent 24% of worldwide iron-ore carrying capacity. Astonishing and worrying at the same time.
This is one of the reasons why the Baltic Dry Index is not the reliable measure of sea trade it once was: As iron ore represents over 29% of dry bulk cargo worldwide, with such a massive supply of carrying capacity, rates are constantly repressed, and that’s without taking into account the long-term contracts (10+ years) that shipping companies such as COSCO and Pan Ocean have with mining concerns.
There have been constant rumors about even larger dry bulk carriers being considered by shipping companies. But the Valemax are already pushing the envelope, not just in terms of engineering challenges, but especially when it comes to infrastructure. Unloading them is a lengthy and costly procedure, and even China balked at the costs of improving its ports to allow fully loaded leviathans of this class to operate.
Larger ships would not merely have to reliably solve the issues that have dogged designers for over three decades but would also need incredibly expensive infrastructure that even China’s central planners may find prohibitive to build and finance. By MC01, a frequent commenter on WOLF STREET.
Years of “growth at any cost” led to accounting fraud, huge government bailouts, and murky restructuring plans. Read… “Big Three” Korean Shipbuilders & Their Huge Shipyards in a World of Overcapacity and Collapsed Orders
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Excellent article with very good data collected & researched.
This old Salt is impressed.
Thank you MC01
About a third ? of Australia’s exports are iron ore and coal. Would appear that from an export/import position China should have a lot of influence with Australia.
OZ has too many eggs in this basket.
You mean too few expensive eggs in the one basket.
At least there a few which is better than riding on the sheep’s back
About 80% of our exports come from the mine or the farm!
– When those ships are build at “break-even” or at a loss then I would assume that the builders are also under pressure to complete the building process at a (very) tight schedule. And that could force the builders to cut corners in the building process. And that doesn’t bode well for the quality of the ships.
The last of the eighth STX-built Valemax ordered by Pan Ocean, identified only by hull number (STX-D 1707) sat unfinished in the Dalian (China) STX shipyard for over a year after being launched in 2015.
Again, the details on why this happened are murky as shipping companies have every interest in having ships finished and performing their shakedown cruise as soon as possible. It seems the issues which would force STX Offshore & Shipbuilding to enter receivership next year were already rearing the ugly head. Just to give an idea of how “murky” we are talking here, nobody knew exactly who owned the hull at this point.
In the end Pan Ocean paid STX what I can only call a “ransom” to release the hull, which was promptly towed to Shanhaiguan Shipbuilding in Quinhuangdao which finished the ship, now in service as the Sea Ponta da Madeira.
Generally speaking modern cargo ships are far better built and reliable than their predecessors and are designed to last 20-25 years with nothing of the extensive repairs ships the previous generations needed.
However the oceans are full of older ships which have been patched up, rebuilt and altered many times.
For example the infamous fish factory ship Damanzaihao was originally built in 1980 by NKK (now part of JFE Steel) as an oil tanker and converted in a factory ship in 2008 in China.
As the owners are understandably secretive about it, nobody knows exactly how seaworthy this ship is, nor how much structural work was done during the conversion.
It can be perfectly safe and able to serve for many years to come or take in water as the Antelope sloop from Stan Rogers’ Barrett’s Privateers.
I really dig your posts here as a contributor (I spot your MO and always click through)and want to say thanks. Brain candy is really hard to find lately!
This reminds me of the experience of reading The Oil Drum any number of years back, which was eventually shut down (I presume by external forces). They were on top of the whole Deep Water Horizon and I learned a great amount of information during that tragedy.
Professional insiders always know the real scoop – the news/media isn’t interested in that story because it rarely serves the owners interests (the reason they are owners in the first place).
Thank you for such a well researched and presented article!
Thanks for this very interesting article!
The iron ore in the Pilbara (W. Australia) is so pure you can weld together cracks in the ground. The grade at some of BHP’s mines is so high, they have to mix the ore with dirt to lower it enough for Chinese refineries to handle. When you see the satellite shots of the mine, the exposed ground is a solid, dark, slate grey. And there’s no exaggerating how much of it there is.
I would love to see this vetted and posted by someone who knows more than me about the technicals.
I have always had the impression that … resource wise … the best/purest/etc-est are always exploited first and things almost exclusively go down hill from there with rare exception.
No matter how rapacious the robber barons and their puppet press the resource has to be found first. The Pilbara find is relatively recent (1966) and more discoveries of its extent continue in this century.
Unlike gold, where you can leave 99 % of the ore behind if you refine on site, all the iron ore has to be moved so there is almost always construction of a railway required.
The Fortescue Co did not get its first train load out until 2004.
Well done. A nice companion piece to a related article:
Same author – he has been contributing for a while here on WS.
I complemented him above – and I rarely post these days.
Outstanding work, will follow more closely if this is the quality that is posted with regularity.
Remember a half century ago when this was all internalized in the U.S., especially the Great Lakes area. The giant ore ships bringing the ore from Minnesota, the endless coal trains from southern Illinois, all meeting in the southern end of Lake Michigan in the massive industrial area of the Calumet Region in the northwest corner of Indiana, just south of Chicago.
It’s all silent now, gone and forgotten by all but the few octogenarians like me.
One of the dirty secrets of the steel industry is that one of the many factors (it’s not just cheap imports) which contributed to the downfall of the big US steel mills and the meteoric rise of minimills, which are mostly fed with scrap metal, is the steep drop in the average quality of iron ore originating from US mines: it went from 44% in 1950 to just 26% in 1965.
Intriguingly enough this was due to the same reason of the drop in Chinese iron ore quality: production was shooting through the stratosphere, peaking at 115 million metric tons in 1967. By comparison in the same year the USSR claimed to have produced 96.9 million metric tons and Japan, which in 1968 overtook Western Germany as the second economy in the world, produced just 62 million tons. These three countries were the top three steel producers in the day.
The US steel industry mostly contracted during the 70’s due to high energy costs which made beneficiation expensive, but not by much: when Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were running for the White House the US still produced over 100 metric tons per year.
US steel production really took a big hit in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s still the fourth worldwide. and it’s likely to stay there for a long while, unless Korea’s growth-crazed chaebol add over 10 million metric tons to a situation of serious overcapacity.
Really interesting stuff, I was not aware of this history, thanks for posting that.
For my job I’ve spec’d a lot steel in bills of material. Over the decades we all noticed steel was getting sourced from new places (mostly China), I never knew the how’s or the why’s.
Agree. Great article and follow up posts on the history, thanks MC01!
Good overview .pfd (see bow) of China’s still milled export market. China is the largest exporter of steel milled products at 14.6Mil metric tons (but purchased 3,096 mil Metrit tons of total of the 4,553 iron ore sold globally). Good info graphic on geographic export qnty also; notice Canada is on the map which backups the trans continental routing practic into the US. But Still, the export volume of milled products is tiny for milled goods.
For finished goods, metal bulletin.com writes, for June exports were 6.89mil metric tons, but still small, compared to what China is consuming locally.
Milled steel products are generally considered “components”, not raw materials or finished goods, and as such are usually part of modern logistic chains which may stretch all over the world.
I personally know one Japanese company which merely assembles part of their products in China: almost all components are made in Japan, either by companies they directly control or by Japanese vendors, then shipped to China, and hence contributing, among other things, to those milled steel imports you see. The rest of the parts are made in The Philipines and Thailand. Intriguingly enough the former are made by the Filipino subsidiary of a German company. The joys of long supply chains!
Why are not they buying from Chinese vendors? Apparently all things considered it’s just cheaper for them to ship the parts from Japan than setting up shop in China. Plus Chinese labor is becoming expensive: this Japanese company has recently set up an office in Vietnam and I bet part of that Chinese production is about to move South. ;-)
If anyone needs proof that globalization has reached its logical, destructive end, this is it. Importing huge volumes of iron ore to build ghost towers and ghost cities, paid for by ever more creative financing, and a dollar short that has reached epic proportions. And now a trade war that will severely reduce the supply of dollars to China. I look forward to your next post detailing the bankruptcies that will soon decimate the shipping industry.
Are you certain that it is globalization that is causing the logical destructive end, and not the central banking systems that are encouraging ever more debt in industry, government and people’s private lives? Oh, and what about the world-wide decline in birth rate that is forcing countries like Germany to import workers who have such different cultural values from their own? People jump on words like globalization, socialism, liberal, and conservative as the source of all our troubles, while not bothering to define the terms or the attributes of those terms that are causing out difficulties. It is not those words that are causing our problems. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves….” – Shakespeare. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” – Pogo
Yes; problem is central banks, fractional reserve and fiat money
Problem is mercantilism – theory of trade that insisted that a nation grows rich by exporting more than it imports. Which is refuted by David Hume and Adam Smith 250 years ago but it is still believed today
Problem is believe that for us to live good lives other people need to suffer,a zero-sum game.
Problem is believe that government is God and can help and solve all our problems.
Many people do not remember it, but the Tenth Five Years Plan of the USSR (1976-1981) called for such a massive increase in steel production as to overtake both Japan and the US, then the two foremost steel producers in the world. The plan called for an absolutely ridiculous 50 million metric tons increase in steel production, from 96 to 146. This was, obviously, not merely reached but surpassed, reaching 148 million metric tons in 1980 already.
There was just a problem: nobody in the USSR had a clue on what to do with all that steel. And with all the cement, glass, titanium etc the same Five Years Plan had made available. The Soviet economy was already in terminal decline and decades of distortions had been accumulated leading to the classic cases observed by our businessmen who went beyond the Iron Curtain: shops (we are talking the high end shops for foreigners paying in hard currency and members of the nomenklatura) were overstocked with glassware, often of extremely high quality, but one couldn’t find woolen socks. “They are on order” was the invariable answer, and it might as well have been the case.
China’s central planners have created a market for all that excessive capacity in pretty much any heavy industry you can think of, but it’s an artificial market.
Homeownership in China is the highest in the world at 90%. Yes, you read that right. Even real estate-crazed Spaniards stop at 77.1%.
As always with China it’s a number one should take with caution, but it’s sure home ownership there is extremely high, meaning there isn’t that much growth left. Upgrading? Great idea, but the problem is always whom to sell the old house to. Perhaps the government will step in with a “Cash for Hovels” campaign.
And what about all the mom and pops speculators owning multiple property? Now they are basically flipping properties around among themselves at always increasing prices but for how long will the government be able to prop up property prices without causing a much dreaded inflationary flare?
are you contemplating writing any other commodity articles? For example copper, grains/beans, energy production, usage and source type, etc.
Your writing, with Wolf’s and the other contributors make a great team. (Team Wolf?) Much appreciated, as so many other sites don’t cover the interesting topics as well as Wolf presents, and aren’t as high quality.
“The Wolf Pack”
China’s steel exports are past their peak
Quotes from a piece by Andy Home: Reuters
‘In the context of the last few years, however, those January (2018) exports were startlingly low. It was the smallest monthly outbound flow since February 2013.
Exports fell by 30.5 percent last year and the trend appears to be accelerating. January’s exports were 36.6 percent off last year’s pace.
The period of peak Chinese steel exports is now past.
Unfortunately for China, and quite possibly everyone else, it will probably be too little too late for U.S. President Donald Trump.’
Other bits from the piece: China has cut 100 million tons of capacity.
The temp cuts to improve air are getting longer.
A kind of funny fact: China has a sizable ‘shadow steel’ industry that need not report to central govt.
Presumably this has to be for domestic sale. Is it possible to load steel for export without reporting it?
At the end of 2016, the EU imposed tariffs of up to 73.7% on Chinese steel… So yeah, demand for Chinese steel in the EU in 2017, after those tariffs went into effect, would likely drop.
The EU likes to scream about free trade when its own exports are threatened, but it knows how to protect its own markets.
Well, Reuters in June about China’s exports: “Steel product exports came in at 6.88 million tonnes for May, customs said, up 6.2 percent from 6.48 million tonnes in April but down 1.4 percent on a year ago.” So it looks like demand for Chinese steel isn’t further collapsing.
I wonder how much of China’s excess capacity is due to their borderline- insane stimulus after 2008. The industry cranked up with none of the approvals etc. we have ( a shadow steel industry?)
Then after a bunch of ghost cities were built and they had that big stock market crash, the Govt decided to pull in its horns and cut back on stimulus.
This stranded a lot of capacity.
Even for the CCCP it may be politically hard to shutter a mill or at least harder than arresting a short seller.
Hopefully when the output for domestic use is right-sized, China will contribute less to the world glut.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PUBLISHED JULY 29, 2018
UPDATED 22 HOURS AGO
This is the source reprinted by the Globe.
Nick, I blocked the article from the Globe that you pasted here because it would have been a copyright violation. Just post the link.
The reason cold rolled steel exports have peaked is very simple: steel is yet another sector where overproduction reigns supreme worldwide.
In just three years (2015-2017) Vietnam has more than doubled domestic steel production, going from 5 to 10.3 million metric tons. In the same time frame India has gone from 89 to 101.4 million metric tons.
But one can argue these are emerging markets, and hence the extra production goes wholly to feed hazy “domestic growth”. So let’s see some developed countries.
Between 2015 and 2017 steel production has remained stable in Japan, Germany, Italy, France and Spain and slightly increased in the US (from 78.9 to 81.6 million metric tons). Even growth-crazed Korea added less than 2 million metric tons (from 69.7 to 71.1 million metric tons).
To make matters worse Gulf countries, despite the ready availability of large quantities of dirt cheap steel from Asia, are setting up their own heavily subsidized steel mills. The Saudi are backing off somehow, as the need to make economies continues (wars aren’t cheap, US energy companies have proven far more resorceful and resilient than predicted and the ARAMCO IPO has fizzled again), but countries such as Qatar are staying on course.
This doesn’t bode well at all for steel prices. They may be peaks as the threat of tariffs sends people running around with their hair on fire but the trend is towards lower prices due to overproduction, no matter energy and transport costs. Like Shipbuilding, to which it’s closely tied, steelmaking is a hot political topic and in some countries some sort of sacred cow, albeit sometimes it turns into a white elephant.
‘Like Shipbuilding, to which it’s closely tied, steelmaking is a hot political topic and in some countries some sort of sacred cow, albeit sometimes it turns into a white elephant.’
Exactly. And you can understand why a developing country might have an insecure self- image and want to force its way into the 20 th Century, but it’s harder to understand what is supposed to be so important about steel to a developed one like the UK let alone the only superpower the US.
The UK has to move past its 19th and 20 th century economy and focus on much higher added- value.
For the US, it needs to drill down into the role steel plays in that ‘justification- for- everything’, national security.
Is there a scenario where the US must suddenly build thousands of tanks, ships, planes etc.?
Maybe, but what?
The underlying common link of mining, transporting, shipping, refining, smelting, milling, of steel is:
Which is a finite resource. The world does not have an endless supply.
Hard to ignore cracks have appeared in the worldwide energy crunch.
Eventually those common links listed above will be moot.
OLI – the World Coal organisation says that the world has over 1 trillion tons of proven coal reserves, equal to over 150 years supply at projected usage rates. In addition to ‘proven’ reserves, we probably have several times more in known ‘potential’ reserves. People have been prophesying that we are running out of coal, and other energy sources, for wel over a century but we keep finding more. As they say, the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stone, we discovered a better alternative. The same will happen for coal, but it sure ain’t gonna happen because of ‘renewables’ any time soon. Fortunately we have at least 150 years to find something better.
We’ve only been burning fossil fuels (i.e. combining them with oxygen and releasing CO and C02) for less than 250 years or zero in terms of our evolution.
Yet the change in the atmosphere is already easily detectable.
The serious thing is that the change can go from linear to geometric, or ‘run away’ in a self- sustaining reaction.
I’m not much of a green (it ain’t gonna run out in my life time) but objectively, not subjectively, speaking, our species can’t burn all the remaining coal.
When you see Beijing and Delhi right now, you are seeing a glimpse of a coal- burning future.
If you take into account the amount of mineable Uranium for use in both conventional and breeder reactors, there is still enough energy for thousands of years. Funny though how we once thought this technology would make electricity too cheap to meter, yet energy is far from cheap and nuclear is too expensive for the US to build.
Still, fossil fuels won’t run out in our lifetimes, and we’re already finding ways to operate without them. So we have a situation where energy will continue to be a limited resource, but we aren’t really in danger of it running out either.
Very true, from one point of view, but
1/Energy extraction and production may become unviable economically and inadequate to maintain previously constructed infrastructure (this is why civilizations collapse historically, not the absolute exhaustion of resources), and
2/ We shall be overwhelmed by the pollution and contamination produced by industrial civilization. Eco-system damage is probably nearing the tipping point, and I don’t mean just GW.
3/ It is also quite likely that financial systems -balanced on a knife edge now, collapse irretrievably before resources are fully consumed.
I recommend everyone to consult Tainter’s ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’, as a first step.
Excellent article. Thanks for the education!
A interesting aspect of the article is that in the forseable future mining of all types is and will keep becoming evermore energy consuming…thanks for the insight.
Allow me again to thank you all for your kind comments.
…and thank you, MC01, not only for your consistently fine contributions to Wolf’s indispensable site, but also your tip of the musical hat to the great Stan Rogers, whose talents are very much missed. May we all have a better day.