Mining stocks are still dicey

Australia is more optimistic about iron ore prices this year, but other analysts think the price has peaked.

By Jim J. Jubak Mar 20, 2013 6:07PM
The worry is in the long-term.

Australia’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics bucked the recent Wall Street trend by upping its forecast for iron ore prices in 2013. On Wednesday, the bureau raised its forecast to an average of $119 a metric ton for 2013, up from a December forecast of $106 a ton. (The bureau forecasts prices at Australian ports.) Iron ore shipments will rise to 554 million metric tons in 2013 from 488 million tons in 2012.

Tuesday, Goldman Sachs cut its estimate to $139 a metric ton, and on March 7 Morgan Stanley projected the price of iron ore had peaked and would decline for the rest of 2013. (Goldman Sachs uses a price pegged to iron ore delivered in China, so its figure of $139 a ton isn’t comparable to the Australian $119 a ton.)

Shares of the world’s big iron ore miners, which have been under pressure lately, were mostly up Wednesday on the Australian projections (and on optimism that the crisis in Cyprus won’t take down the global economy.) Shares of BHP Billiton (BHP) are off 0.5% as of noon on Wednesday, New York time, but shares of Rio Tinto (RIO) and Vale (VALE) are each up 1.2%.

But to me the big news out of the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics isn’t the optimism on this year’s price for iron ore, but the bureau’s longer-term pessimism. The bureau sees a wave of new supply from projects already underway hitting the market over the next five years. By 2018, it projects, the Australian port price will fall to $96 a metric ton.

The bad news in this may actually be worse for companies that sell mining equipment than for the miners themselves. Mining companies have reacted to falling prices for ore—and projections of big increases in capacity—by scaling back their capital spending plans. That will increase their margins at least in the short term. Mining equipment makers, such as Joy Global (JOY) and Caterpillar (CAT), don’t have that option. Lower capital spending by miners means slower revenue growth.

I don’t think we’re reached a long-term turning point for either iron ore mining stocks or for equipment makers. In the short-term, though, these stocks are likely to fluctuate with optimism/ pessimism about economic growth in China and the country’s demand for iron ore.

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. When in 2010 he started the mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), he liquidated all his individual stock holdings and put the money into the fund. The fund may or may not own positions in any stock mentioned. The fund did not own shares of any stock mentioned in this post as of the end of December. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here
Mar 20, 2013 8:50PM
This was a nice safe article for Mr. Jubak who was smart not to risk it all like Mirhaydari betting against Ben Bernanke!!
Mar 21, 2013 5:38PM
I disagree with this article,  if we don't start fixing our bridges and everything else that rusts, then nothing is going to help our economy!
Mar 20, 2013 8:49PM
Just like the whip & the buggy were replaced by the automobile you will soon see mining ore stocks lose value. China's Communist system requires equal building in each political area of the country which so far has led to empty villages and empty hi-rises with nobody living in them. The really big hit will be as carbon fiber replaces steel, iron and aluminum in automobile manufacturing. Caterpillar is down on lower growth in China already. If we begin selling carbon fiber agricultural vehicles iron ore will get hit even harder. Even irons for ironing clothes aren't iron anymore. They're plastic and non-stick coating material.
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