BEIJING, Aug. 3 -- China's rising domestic iron ore output has been driving down imports since the second quarter, a senior official at the China Iron & Steel Association said on Tuesday, indicating success for the country's efforts to wean itself off expensive imports of the steel-making ingredient.
The top three iron ore miners -- Brazil's Vale SA (VALE5.SA: Quote), Australia's Rio Tinto (RIO.AX: Quote) (RIO.L: Quote) and BHP Billiton (BHP.AX: Quote)(BLT.L: Quote) -- may already have cause to regret their pricing policies, CISA Vice-Chairman Luo Bingsheng said, adding that their share of the Chinese market fell "noticeably" in June.
China, which consumes about half the world's iron ore output, was dealt a blow earlier this year when the top three miners ditched an age-old annual benchmark system and adopted a quarterly pricing scheme to take advantage of soaring spot prices.
Though domestic ore has a lower iron content and is more expensive to mine than most overseas supply sources, higher import prices pushed local output to 101.55 million tonnes in June, up 11.5 percent from May, while imported iron ore dropped to 47 million tonnes in June, down 9 percent.
"Because of growth in domestic ore output, prices for imported ore have fallen in the second quarter, especially in June, and this has an enormous impact on supply and demand on the global market," Luo said while addressing journalists at a news conference.
Since late April, a number of medium- and small-scale mills have reduced their import volumes because of much cheaper domestic prices and a fall in steel demand, triggered by Beijing's efforts to curb overheating in the property market.
Daily output from China's major steel mills fell 3 percent to 1.34 million tonnes during the middle 10 days of July from the previous 10 days, data from CISA showed.
However, major steel mills have tried to maintain production at high levels, despite expectations the steel sector's profits will fall in July from June.
Luo identified the third quarter of this year as a "key period" for China's steel enterprises in their struggle against overcapacity and falling prices.
"If China's steel overproduction is not put under control in the third quarter, industry problems and plunging prices will persist for the rest of the year," he said.
China's steel prices have rebounded over the past two weeks, but are still more than 10 percent lower than their peak in April and Luo said July mill profits were likely to plunge still further after a 37.8 percent collapse in June.
CISA members' steel product stockpiles rose 39.3 percent from the beginning of the year until the end of June, reaching 10.3 million tonnes, the association revealed, with output cuts not matching a fall in demand brought about by the new policies.
CISA: NOT YET BURIED
The Chinese steel association grew in prominence last year when it led the country's aggressive efforts to wring big price cuts from the three dominant overseas ore suppliers following a global financial crisis and a worldwide collapse in demand.
But since failing to impose its will on the three miners, which between them control around three quarters of the global seaborne iron ore market, the association has become increasingly marginalized, and it has been powerless to prevent the replacement of a decades-old annual "benchmark" pricing system with a new market-oriented quarterly mechanism.
CISA's position was further undermined when it quietly disclosed earlier this year that steel mills would be allowed to sign individual ore deals with overseas suppliers rather than wait for the country as a whole to agree to a common price.
But Luo insisted that price negotiations were still continuing, and reiterated China's "unwavering opposition" to the new price system, "forced" on them by the three miners, in which contract prices are settled on the basis of average index prices set in the previous quarter.
Iron ore prices .IO62-CNI=SI soared to a two-year peak near $185 a tonne in April, but fell as much as 36 percent from this high to levels in July last seen in December 2009.
"The big miners are chasing short-term profits. Their methods have broken the stable and long-term relationship between miners and steel mills," Luo said, adding that China objected in principle to any attempt to use index prices as the standard market benchmark.
"Index prices are not representative, are not authoritative and are not scientific," he stressed.