An unexpected shift occurs in China’s metal demand

Wed Feb 21 2024
Ramesh Sridharan (909 articles)
An unexpected shift occurs in China’s metal demand

Big miners have long profited from China’s housing demand, so the understanding that the property slump is starting to appear semi-permanent is not great news for them. China may be constructing fewer apartment buildings than in the past, but it is constructing more metal-intensive products, such as electric vehicles and windmills.

That fact, in conjunction with the large iron-ore miners’ supply discipline, has prevented the situation from deteriorating further.

However, the headline results announced by miners this week were far from attractive. A decline in aluminum prices contributed to a 19% year-over-year decline in Rio Tinto’s full-year net profit, the mining company announced on Wednesday. After deducting one-time costs, such as a substantial write-down of nickel assets, BHP’s underlying profit for the first half remained relatively unchanged. The dividend reduction were announced by both mines. Underlying earnings for the full year came to 12% for Rio Tinto.

But there were also some positive aspects. It is not surprising that indicators of China’s copper demand growth, especially imports of copper ore and concentrate, continue to appear robust. This is due to the country’s massive EV and green-power boom. Compared to the first quarter of 2021, before the real estate slump struck metals demand, the imports of copper ore and concentrate were almost 20% higher in metric tons last quarter.

According to statistics supplier CEIC, even iron ore imports were 7% higher. That is remarkably powerful considering the magnitude of the property disaster.

The Chinese housing market collapse may take some time to recover from, but the need for steel is on the rise due to improvements in infrastructure and industries. According to Rio Tinto, in 2019, the property market accounted for 34% of China‚Äôs completed steel demand. However, in 2023, that percentage dropped to 27%. According to Rio, in 2023, China imported a record-breaking 1.18 billion metric tons of iron ore. The National Bureau of Statistics reports that after two years of decline, China’s crude steel production leveled off last year, standing at approximately 1.02 billion metric tons, unchanged from the previous year.

Iron ore prices have been supported by weak supply growth. ANZ reports that China’s total demand for steel increased by only 0.5% in 2023, with a 15% decline in demand from the country’s housing industry. Global iron-ore shipments likely declined last year as well, according to the bank. Even the major miners have been aware of the impending storm clouds in China for some time, so that wouldn’t be shocking.

Despite a seemingly endless flow of negative news from China since midyear, iron-ore prices closed the year up almost $30/metric ton, according to CEIC statistics. At the margin, steel demand could be somewhat propped up by the trickle of policy support from Beijing, the most recent of which was a significant reduction to the benchmark prime rate for five-year loans.

Imports of copper concentrate from China have increased dramatically since 2021, indicating a promising direction. However, steel will continue to be needed worldwide and in China long when the housing-led iron ore boom ends.

Ramesh Sridharan

Ramesh Sridharan

Ramesh Sridharan is our Stock Market Correspondent covering events and daily movements of stock markets in Asia. He is based in Mumbai