NEW DELHI, Jan 3 (Reuters) - India's iron ore exports are likely to be 75 percent lower than previously expected in the quarter ending in March as a rise in export duties kicks in as part of the government's push to conserve supplies for domestic steelmakers.
Asia's third-largest economy announced a 50 percent jump in export duties on Monday to 30 percent, prompting traders to slash their forecasts for exports for the year to March 2012 to around 50 million tonnes from 65 million. That was already down from 97 million tonnes last year.
Given that India had exported about 45 million tonnes in the nine months to December, it is likely to ship only another 5 million tonnes in the three months to March 31, top industry body, Federation of Indian Mineral Industries, said on Tuesday.
India is one of the world's biggest exporters of iron ore, with much of it bought by China, which has the world's largest steel industry. The shortage is expected to push up global prices by 7 to 10 percent over the current $140 a tonne, traders said.
"We are shocked at the decision to hike export tax on iron ore as such volatility in policy does not promote India's image as a reliable supplier," said Glen Kalavampara, secretary of the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters' Association. Goa is India's biggest exporter of iron ore.
"Absence of supplies from India will help Australian and Brazilian suppliers to consolidate their domination of the global market."
Indian exports were already down around a third from last year primarily due to legal wrangling over stalled shipments from a key producing state and efforts to conserve supplies.
Shares in Indian exporters Sesa Goa and NMDC slid on Monday after the announcement of the tax hike but closed up on Tuesday on fund buying at lower levels.
Deutsche Bank sharply reduced its earnings estimates for Sesa Goa -- by 29 percent this fiscal year and by 24 percent for 2012/13 -- on Tuesday, factoring in the increase in iron ore export tax among other reasons.
Steel companies continued Monday's gains. Tata Steel Ltd rose 6.1 percent to 361.85 rupees. Credit Suisse upgraded the world's No. 7 steelmaker to 'neutral' from 'underperform', citing valuation comfort at current levels.
The government has shown an inclination to conserve resources, though it does not support a blanket ban on exports, largely because the domestic steel industry does not have the technology to use ore fines. India mostly ships fines to China.
New Delhi also hopes that sustained Chinese demand means buyers would be willing to pay a slightly higher price.
"We think global demand will be able to absorb a slight adjustment in prices on the upside, which leaves a bit of room for us to adjust duties," an Indian ministry official said.
Chinese steel mills had been expected to replenish stockpiles before their New Year holidays, which start on Jan. 22. Chinese markets are closed on Jan. 2.
China's iron ore imports are expected to rise 6 percent to a record 720 million tonnes in 2012, according to a Reuters poll conducted in December.
India's government is trying to cut down on illegal iron ore mining and shipments but favours better tracking and monitoring along with higher taxes rather than blanket bans on exports. It last raised the export duty in February 2011.
In April, the Supreme Court overturned an export ban imposed by Karnataka's state government in July 2010, but shipments have yet to pick up because of administrative delays.
The court has itself banned mining in some parts of the state due to environmental worries and allegations of illegal mining, allowing only state-run NMDC to mine in the areas.
Such regulatory uncertainty deflates industry confidence of India being a stable supplier.
Indian exports could slump below 10 million tonnes within three years as more ore is earmarked for domestic consumption, according to David Flanagan, managing director of Australian iron ore miner Atlas Iron.
Indian ore exporters say the government policy makes little sense as domestic steelmakers can hardly use fines.
Moreover, India's steel demand is likely to grow by only 6 percent in the current fiscal year, nearly half the earlier forecast, as higher interest rates squeeze demand from the automobile and construction sectors.
"Low-grade iron ore should have been free for exports," Kalavampara said.