Like any real relationship, Australia’s love affair with iron ore has been complicated. Since the 1890s, Australians have mined and refined iron ore – in one form or another – to enable a range of industrial pursuits here and overseas. 

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Over the last century, and since the early days in Broken Hill, the rise and fall of countries and economies has led to a flux in iron ore markets and, in turn, its miners Down Under.  

Export bans, implemented during WW2, put a 20-year hold on iron ore exploration before the lure of vast visible reserves in Western Australia saw the embargo eventually lifted. Here’s a small anecdote from WA iron ore pioneer Lang Hancock that sums up the situation well.

In November of 1952, I was flying south with my wife, Hope. On going through a gorge in the Turner River, I noticed that the walls looked to me to be solid iron and was particularly alerted by the rusty colour of it; it seemed to be oxidised iron. When companies like Western Mining Corporation and Rio Tinto Mining Australia got involved in the late 50s, iron ore mining in Australia took off. 

As a snapshot, in 1960, Australia shipped 500 tons of iron ore overseas; in 2013, it exported 300 million tons at a value of $30 billion. But fast forward to 2024, and after a series of booming decades, Australia’s iron ore export business may finally be past its peak, or at least in for a rough ride in the near term.

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

But what’s to blame? It’s complicated, so let’s explore. 

Iron Ore Has a China Problem

Iron ore remains vital to Australia’s national economy and has virtually transformed Western Australia’s business and economic landscape. And while hugely successful as an export business, the industry has come to rely heavily on one commercial partner.

China is by far the world’s largest buyer of Australian iron ore. It takes 85% of everything we mine, which means the communist state has itself become reliant on Australian products for over 60% of its total Fe supply.

But in a relationship built around co-dependency, things can get messy. For example, the Chinese don’t like being so hooked on Australian iron ore and have been known to cringe at handing over super profits to major iron ore companies like BHP, Rio Tinto, Fortescue, and Hancock Mining. 

This angst isn’t without reason, either. Over the last decade, BHP and Rio Tinto essentially forced Chinese steel mills to ditch annual contract price fixing talks in favour of a price set by the market, which is good for them.

Beijing has tried to reduce its dependence on Australia by expanding its domestic iron ore mining and increasing its scrap steel use but to no avail. The knife cuts both ways, however, and on the other hand, Australia has become reliant on Chinese purchasing power.

This leaves the country vulnerable to supply shocks and the ebb and flow of Chinese demand, which largely hinges on domestic construction and industrial performance. These two businesses have seen a significant slowdown of late. But let’s dive a little deeper into the issue. 

China Has a Growth Problem

In early 2024, the broader Chinese economy suffered some meaningful setbacks. Not the least of these is a dramatic domestic real estate market slowdown.

The source of the problem is fewer people signing up for mortgages on new homes, meaning less work for construction developers. When builders aren’t building, they don’t need steel, and steel is made with, you guessed it, lots of Australian iron ore.

The Chinese Government has taken some steps to alleviate the problem by lowering interest rates, but the problem persists. After years of epic growth and a real estate boom, the dragon may have stopped roaring, at least for now.

But what does this all mean for Australian iron ore miners in 2024?

In short, softer demand for their product and lower prices. Until late February, iron ore prices have tumbled, underperforming other Chinese-linked commodities like lithium and copper. 

Down over 13% in just two months and trading at around USD 120 per tonne, iron ore remains one of the poorest commodity performers on the market. With lower domestic demand, Chinese iron ore stockpiles are full to overflowing, while their steel mills are struggling to make ends meet with reduced profit margins, driving prices down.

According to Bloomberg, the value of new home sales among the 100 largest Chinese real estate companies has decreased by 34.6% year-on-year, compounding the problem. This leaves demand for steel in a slippery spot, as officials at the Chinese Metallurgical Institute say the country consumed 890 million metric tonnes of steel in 2023, leaving it with a considerable surplus.

Summary and Iron Ore Outlook

By taking in the entire supply chain, from upstream mining to downstream steelmaking, we can better understand Australia’s place in the iron ore market. And while we are the world’s foremost player, having come a long way since the early days when exports were measured in ‘hundreds of tonnes’, the industry must now face a reckoning.

The co-dependant relationship with China has led to massive wealth for both nations; however, the downsides are also apparent. If one stumbles, so does the other, and right now, Australia must take the fall with its partner as the Chinese economy slows.

This fact matters not just to iron ore majors in the Pilbara; they will survive, but it will ripple out Australia-wide, as Chinese demand for Australian iron ore has underpinned our high living standards. 

To quantify that statement, every US$10 shift in the iron ore price means an A$500 million change to the Australian government’s bottom line. Figures like this highlight how prominent iron ore’s role is in the broader Australian context.

And with a hundred-plus history of success behind it, you wouldn’t want to bet the house on the iron ore industry disappearing from the stage just yet. 



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