Is China still reliable for the iron ore trade?
Iron ore is a prevalent commodity in Australia and an important export for our economy. Whether it is their recent real estate crisis in their internal economy or their complicated relationship with Australian mineral exports, what is highly relevant for Australians to consider is: Is China still reliable for iron ore trade?
Let's contextualise the story
Iron ore demand has plummeted amid China's reduction in steel use, according to ANZ commodities analysts. The pressure on the iron ore industry has even caused several Australian mining groups to shut down operations temporarily. However, the fall in the market is allusive to a much bigger problem regarding the world's biggest iron ore consumer: China.
China has made its aim clear; to reduce their pollution output by reducing an association with the steel production and the iron ore industry. The CCP has been open about aiming to keep its emission low by restricting steel output to 1 billion tonnes since 2016. As one of Australia's foremost consumers of iron ore, China's sudden lack of demand has caused dramatic shifts in mineral prices.
In a discussion with Samso CEO, geologist and mineral expert Noel Ong, he explains, "The EV (electronic vehicle) revolution needs iron ore. It is not just about Lithium. You cannot make the lithium factory, the lithium processing, etc. without steel". Hence, the goal of lowering pollution output may be noble, but the likelihood of such a rapid decrease in steel production seems unviable. He further explains, "The good news for iron ore is that China is dependent on iron ore. Growth in China will need iron ore."
These goals, some claim, were formed considering China will be hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics. Thus, the perception is that China wants to promote their nation as advanced in the global race to decarbonise during a time of great publicity. Yet, others have linked China's actions to a much more complex economic dilemma.
Evergrande: the next Global Financial Crisis?
This September, it was revealed that China’s Evergrande Group, the nation's most prominent real estate firm, had accrued a massive debt. The crisis quickly established itself as a dangerous catalyst for Beijing's property market, its investors and beyond. After the implementation of some policies in 2020, the real estate sector of China has been cracked down on by governments for their vast amassing of debt, with developer giant Evergrande having racked up over US$300 billion in liabilities. Quickly following Evergrande’s inability to make a scheduled bond payment to international holders, Evergrande was forced to cease trade - causing a reprieve in China's demand for iron ore.
The impact of a crisis not even fully formed has seen a significant injury to the Australian iron ore industry. Australia saw AUD $150 billion from exports, 80% of this coming from China in 2020, making even the slightest fall in iron ore value or demand a highly volatile blow to our economy. As a vitally important commodity to the Australian economy, the fate of iron ore (and much more) is now the ball in the court of the potentially collapsing Evergrande.
Which it really shouldn't be.
For many reasons, some compare the disaster that would follow Evergrande's collapse to another Global Financial Crisis. The iron ore market has been giving investors the run around for months, seeing the price of iron ore soar to US$200 in May, followed by a plummet in September to under US$100. Following the fall, it went public that Evergrande possessed the most immense debt pile in the country. With a debt of over US$360 Billion ranging in the form of bank loans and various borrowings, the second-largest real estate developer in China was exposed to be on the brink of bankruptcy. The global consequences of this concern those with stakes in the iron ore industry and beyond.
Evergrande risks leaving property underdeveloped despite 1.5 million people having already paid deposits with potentially nothing to show. Additionally, they are now selling their assets at significant discounts. Currently, Evergrande owes US$669 million in coupon payments by the end of the year and US$7.7 billion in maturing debt due next year.
China walks a thin line with recent legislation
The real estate giant's aggressive loan taking came back to them when the Chinese government in August of 2020 cracked down on leverage in the real estate industry to evade a financial crisis - ironically, potentially causing a different one (there's an iron pun in here somewhere). The CCP introduced a policy of "three red lines" to govern real estate developers.
The policies are designed to police the way investment companies rack up debt. By introducing a metric to measure a company's debt tolerance, violators will face restrictions on how much they can loan and from whom. They force deleveraging to improve the real estate sector, cause credit rating changes and create opportunities for bond investors. China implemented the lines as concern grew for rising debt levels and surging land prices to protect the Chinese real estate.
The reasoning behind the three red lines:
1. To lower house prices: China has seen a significant rise in house prices over the last few decades, making property largely unaffordable.
2. To lower land market prices: House prices rise when developers buy and hoard land to bid off later.
3. To funnel money into other economic sectors: China's real estate sector accrues massive capital. By moving funds away from real estate, the instability of the real estate sector (which is prone to fluctuation) is not as much of a liability. When the rest of the economy isn’t so dependent on one area, it is therefore not as vulnerable.
Overall, these policies have obviously been implemented to protect the real estate sector. This industry is one of China's most important aspects of the economy. The chain of reaction between real estate and other sectors of China is strongly linked, and therefore needs to be protected to be sustained. Despite the reasoning behind these rules, their implementation had consequences similar to those they have been set up to prevent.
Evergrande immediately violated all three red lines and is now unable to engage in any further loans. The stagnancy of this cash flow has tremendous implications on other companies and the economy's ability to execute a trade. China cut off the lifeline for Evergrande, but will they be able to pick up the pieces that fall in its wake?
For these reasons, many are making some alarming comparisons between Evergrande and the Lehman Brothers. Despite this extreme comparison, especially considering the safeguards that have been out in place since 2008, the uncertainty of Evergrande's fate is anxiety-inducing for those that would be affected by the shockwave of its possible collapse. The fate of Evergrande is mainly dependent on the Chinese government's actions which will have to choose between sticking behind its tough stance on debt restrictions or bailing out its real estate sector.
The Chinese property development crisis would have disastrous impacts on stakeholders and anyone connected to them. The Chinese real estate market would also take a hit as Evergrande would have to 'fire sell' its assets and property, causing a depression in the rest of the market. According to the Financial Times, the real estate sector makes up 29% of the country's GDP. Hence, a wound to China is a wound to all, as attested by the harm done to Australia's iron ore industry.
In economic terms, this is called 'contagion'—a name befitting, as this crisis's impact would have similar weight to the seriousness of COVID-19. Contagion is a financial phenomenon that acts similarly to bacteria's passing, but the infection is an economic failure. The missing of obligations by Evergrande could cause other companies and other countries to miss their commitments. As a result, predicting and planning finances becomes a lot more difficult, and debt accrues. Thus, it is part of the chain reaction despite sectors such as the iron ore industry not being directly exposed to Evergrande.
Although the Chinese government has made it clear they have no intention of rescuing Evergrande, what they have done is inject liquidity of US$18.6 billion into the banking system, according to a Bloomberg article. Additionally, Evergrande has an opportunity of negotiating with its creditors to haircut their debt, that is, to restructure the amount they agreed to pay back. Seen as unavoidable by some, a haircut to their debt may be agreed upon given the stakes are so high. Many countries' economies have not fully recovered from the impact of the recent pandemics and no longer have the funds to soften the blow of a financial hit.
In light of panic surrounding Evergrande, China has declared all cryptocurrency transactions, such as Bitcoin, illegal. The ban prevents any capital flight, where assets quickly flow out of the nation- causing an onset global financial crisis.
Moreover, the recklessness of the 'three red lines' policy seems to be more problematic for global powers who should heed the actions of China if they want to protect their trade.
What has China's property industry got to do with Australia?
When I first contemplated this topic, I was baffled how a Chinese real estate company's debt could affect Australian mining companies to close shop. However, upon researching, what opened to me was an extreme scepticism for how reliable China was as a trade partner. If the health of our economy relies so heavily on China's real estate market, Australian miners should look to the more promising urbanisation incline in India, Africa and Indonesia.
Look to December of 2020 for an insight into China's unreliability as a trade partner. Late last year, China set up a blockade against Australian coal imports that left ships stranded and mining companies confused, according to the New York Times. The game Beijing played with Australian exporters seemed in retaliation for Australia's demand for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19. The shipment later found trade in India, an increasingly more urban country.
People have never lived more in urban areas than today. According to the UN, in 2018, 55% of the global population lives in cities, a number expected to rise to 68% by 2050. The need for iron ore may be deteriorating, but this is likely to decrease after decades of increased urbanisation in India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Africa is also growing their cities, and Japan is still our major importer of minerals. So the need for steel is not going anywhere anytime soon. Noel Ong comments, "Non-China growth will happen, the US will have their second industrial revolution, the second and third-tier nations will grow and equilibrium will take its place again... iron ore will find a price medium".
What are the political implications?
The Australian relationship with China has been somewhat strained recently, some perceiving China's reduction in consumerism with iron ore being their pulling away from dependence on Australian commodities. In some ways, China's dependence on Australia's minerals has given Australia a sort of veto power over China- as the supplier to necessary materials; we hold the ability to restrict them.
This assessment was formed considering the various ethical conflicts Australia has called out China for in recent years; cyber-attacks and the Chinese made devices containing government spy technology being examples. This month, Microsoft has made major restrictions for China via their online service 'LinkedIn' over allegations that China has been silencing journalists via the website. Perhaps China has halted trade of coal, wine and wheat with Australia over the years out of sheer retort. However, China has had just as much power over us as major consumers of iron ore- an influence that mining companies should be wary of.
China, The WTO and more
There is indeed a delicate symbiosis between China and Australia. Some could argue it is currently in an imbalance that could affect us just as badly in the global political arena. Personally, I find it a stretch by miles to argue that China would sabotage their largest economic sector to jab countries in the process of their own destruction.
Indeed, I even think the nation has a right to reduce its carbon footprint as quickly as possible, as does any country. Their attitude towards pollution and attempt to control their real estate sector could even positively influence Australia.
However, the recklessness of their policies, the bullying of smaller nations, and the petty disruption of trade are cause enough to provoke Australia to drift from Chinese markets. However, these actions are not different to those used by other "big brothers" of the past.
We all know that China's legal system is entirely inaccessible. Narratives would be correct in saying that it is too ambiguous to stay in a trade agreement with China if you are a small company because a breach in the contract is difficult to reprimand via a government as unforthcoming as Beijing.
Sovereign states have issues so a small company would have no chance. At the time of China's barricade in 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed that China banning iron ore would breach World Trade Organisation rules.
Australia took China to the WTO for bans on wine and barley trade, which hasn't met a conclusion yet. China's relationship with the WTO is one of broken promises and these actions are the same of all "big brothers".
According to the Information Technology and Innovative Foundation, "China has failed to meet numerous WTO commitments on issues such as industrial subsidisation, protection of foreign intellectual property, forcing joint ventures and technology transfer, and providing market access to services industries".
Australia is still following up with the WTO regarding wine and barley and advocate for some reprimanding for China's leniency on the rules. From here, the WTO could make an established ground for China to exit trading with Australia in terms of iron ore safely and fairly.
Additionally, China has been taking action in Africa to establish an iron ore mine in Africa's Guinea iron ore province. The idea of the new mining hub is for China to establish a different source of iron ore trade to assert independence from Australia. Although sparking fear, the enterprise is arguably a strategy in the trade war. Samso CEO Noel Ong reassures, "African iron ore will not be economically competitive, and unless China wants to be competitive with growing markets, it will buy from Australia again. Remember, it is not about price alone; it is also about the quality of the iron ore."
Not all doom for Iron Ore in Australia
I claim to be an expert in the mineral market or global economics no more than economists claim to be fortune-tellers. From my research on the topic, the consensus on this issue seems to be coming from a place of panic. However, the ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute) claims that there is ground for some optimism regarding this story.
David Uren of APSI reassures that despite the plunging iron ore market, the possibility of it surging as it did in May of this year isn't entirely unlikely. He also mentions that despite China having a 2016 5-year-plan to reduce steel output, the enterprise currently is not going to schedule for them.
While the Chinese government planned for the top 10 steelmakers in the country to produce 60% of the steel used for Chinese infrastructure by the end of the 5-year-plan, local steel production only rose 2 per cent from 36%, according to ASPI. So reducing dependency on Australia will come both as a struggle and for a price.
"Commodity cycles exist because it is cyclical" - Noel Ong, Samso CEO
It is a scary thought to imagine the damage that could be done to a global economy having already been hit with two years of a pandemic, but the Evergrande crisis provoked thoughts on this and so much more. Indeed, for Australians, Australian miners and stakeholders, the plummet of the iron ore market has confronted us with contemplating our future with China, their reliability as trade partners and the extent that we should be reliant on them.
Industrialisation and mass urbanisation is yet to hit many countries. Australia will benefit as we pivot to these precious markets to offload our abundant resources. China is set on their steel output decreasing. Their trade with Australia is being challenged; yet, as hard they pull away from Australia, the mining industry is still more experienced and contains higher-quality products here than in most countries. I have optimism for Australia's mining industry, but China's Evergrande crisis should be heeded cautiously by China and all, for when big things fall, they fall hard.
Author: Lucia Darcy, Samso Insights Contributor
Lucia Darcy is an up and coming writer, columnist and essayist with her roots in social and philosophical academia. Lucia is a current Literary Studies student who aims to start her career as a copywriter and freelancer by engaging with various companies and topics. Her involvement with Samso is based on a shared curiosity for investment, mining and global economics. She believes that although her approach to each blog is from a place of learning, her writing is for people like herself - novices and autodidacts who wish to educate themselves on a range of matters.
The information or opinions provided herein do not constitute investment advice, an offer or solicitation to subscribe for, purchase or sell the investment product(s) mentioned herein. It does not take into consideration, nor have any regard to your specific investment objectives, financial situation, risk profile, tax position and particular, or unique needs and constraints. Read full Disclaimer.
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