Steel is the most widely used of all metals. In 2008, world crude steel production decreased by 1.2% to reach a total of 1.33 billion tonnes. Until mid-September, when global economic conditions suddenly worsened, steel consumption for the year had been set to grow materially. However, for the first time since 2001, month on month output declined in September and carried on declining through the remainder of the year and into 2009.
In response to declining demand, major steel producers across the industry, led by ArcelorMittal, announced and implemented deep production cuts (>30% of capacity). For the first time in a decade, the decline in production has been synchronised across the world, including Europe, Japan, North America and China.
The seaborne iron ore market, which is driven by the global steel industry, grew from 454 Mtpa in 2000 to 768 Mtpa by the end of 2008. This increase arose mainly from Chinese demand growth. In the final quarter of the year, however, demand declined by 13% year on year.
The global market for iron ore has seen a change from supply shortage to demand destruction in the period of a few months. This is expected to result in softer contract iron ore prices in 2009. In the medium term, however, supply shortages could return, as juniors are currently finding it hard to raise finance for new capacity and majors scale back capital expenditure on long dated expansion projects. Logistical constraints associated with rail and port capacity and shortages in dry bulk vessel capacity at times, could compound the impact on the supply side of the seaborne iron ore market.
In the longer term, Anglo American expects that steel demand will revert back to trend growth rates of around 4% globally; requiring seaborne iron ore supply to grow by 5-6%.
As 96% of manganese ore is smelted to produce manganese ferro-alloys (such as ferromanganese and silicomanganese), the performance of the manganese alloy industry is the key determinant of ore demand. Manganese alloy is used in steel alloying applications. As with iron ore, 2008 was a mixed year, with strong growth in the months up to August and rapid demand decline for the remainder of the year. Samancor’s response was to curtail production in line with market demand.
Should steel production decline further in 2009, manganese ore and alloy prices are likely to remain under pressure. Lending support to prices is the expectation of reducing exports from China, as the government there continues its efforts to curtail alloy production through such measures as increased export tariffs.