Economists may teach that low prices and declining demand encourage producers to decrease supply, but the iron ore industry appears to have skipped class that day.
"The combination of a further increase in global iron ore supply this year and only subdued demand growth suggests iron ore prices will continue to drift lower," said Caroline Bain, an analyst at Capital Economics, in a note Monday. She forecasts iron ore prices at $60 a tonne by year-end, with risks to the downside. Iron ore touched a more than five-year low Monday of around $63.30 a tonne, although some forward contracts are already pricing it under $60.
Output has picked up over the past few years, encouraged by expectations China demand would continue to post strong growth and by low production costs in Australia and Brazil, she said. She noted Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton put their average production cost in Pilbara, where most of Australia's iron-ore production is located, at around $25 a tonne, compared with 2010-13 average market prices at $145 a tonne. Even at current prices, these producers are still profitable, Bain noted. Australia is the world's second-largest iron-ore producer after China.
Despite 2014's around 50 percent decline in iron ore prices, the big four producers -- Vale, Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue – continue to expand production and other companies are also bringing projects on line this year, she said, forecasting Australian production will rise 6 percent this year, although that's down from 2014's 20 percent rise.
Don't count on China
At the same time, despite China producers' higher costs and lower ore grades, production there isn't likely to see much slowdown, especially as many steel plants have "vertically integrated" operations, owning mines nearby, Bain said. Closures on the mainland are likely to focus on less efficient operations, leading to a leaner and meaner industry there, she said.