India's once vibrant iron ore exports to China have slowed to a trickle because of a crippling export duty imposed by New Delhi, and orders may dry up entirely if world prices retreat from recent highs.The policy move may leave Indian ore producers, who have been expanding production in the hope of more overseas sales, struggling with surplus material, as Chinese buyers shift their focus to relatively cheaper cargoes from Australia and Brazil.
"There is buying, but it is quite subdued. They are really quite wary," said Rahul N Baldota, vice-president of the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries.
Orders from China, which buys nearly two-thirds of India's iron ore exports, are vanishing after the government slapped an export duty of 300 rupees, or $7.21, per tonne in this year's federal budget.The Indian government, after intensive lobbying by the country's booming steel industry, is trying to discourage exports of the commodity to protect against over exploitation of the resource.Nearly 80 percent of India's exports of iron ore are fines, which need to be made into pellets or sintered before being used in steel mills blast furnaces.Since few Indian mills have the processing facility for using iron ore fines, piles of the commodity, the powdery raw material that comes out along with high-grade iron ore lumps, have started accumulating near the mines, said Sidharth Rungta, president of Rungta Mines Ltd.
Small shipments were still being sold to China as the country was straining to buy cargoes from Australia because of port congestions, which has pushed up world prices by $8 to $65 a tonne for medium-grade ore.This has so far kept Indian prices competitive, despite the new export tax, but prices are expected to fall back soon, traders and analysts said. India is currently offering iron ore fines at around $60 per tonne, free-on-board.
"The congestion in Australia is only a temporary phenomenon. The signs are that it will be over soon and international prices will fall again. It could take the wind out of whatever is remaining of India's exports," said Baldota.Traders said the landed cost of iron ore imports from Australia was at $85-90 a tonne and prices could ease by $10 once the port congestion ease.
China's iron ore imports in the first three months rose 23.4 percent to 100.19 million tonnes, customs figures showed.In March, China imported a record 9.84 million tonnes of iron ore from India, despite the introduction of the export tax, as most of the cargoes were contracted before the tax was announced. But Chinese imports of Indian iron ore are likely to halve in April, compared with March figures.
A Shanghai trader said he was seeing some Indian ore traded in the Chinese market, but volumes had dropped substantially.An official at the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters said Chinese mills were not signing fresh contracts to buy Indian ore.While international iron ore prices were high now, Rungta said he was not bullish in the longer term as Brazil and Australia were expanding mining capacities.
"These are bound to put pressure on Indian exports," Rungta said.Senior ore industry officials, who did not want to be identified, said that they were hopeful that the government would soften the blow from the iron ore export duty as a high-level panel was reviewing the move.