Opening shots in the iron ore war games

WILL BHP Billiton pull the pricing trigger on iron ore, or has it even got a trigger to pull? Comment by Tim Treadgold.
Opening shots in the iron ore war games Opening shots in the iron ore war games Opening shots in the iron ore war games Opening shots in the iron ore war games Opening shots in the iron ore war games


Those are two of the questions left hanging after executives from the big mining company launched a remarkable proposal to totally overhaul the way iron ore is sold.

The initial reaction from close observers was to point out the tight market, and the high cost of shipping caused by a world ship shortage, could add up to $100 per tonne to the price of iron ore delivered from Australia to Asia.

This remarkably naive "guess" immediately sparked a recalculation of BHP Billiton's future potential earnings for iron ore, with the Australian Financial Review suggesting the company could be in the running for an extra $11 billion in revenue.

It won't. It never would, and it's astonishing that the reporters covering this corporate event couldn't see what really happened. In the stampede to find the biggest number, these points were overlooked:

- The BHP Billiton comments were made at the start of the annual price and tonnage negotiations with Asian steel mills, a traditional time for "ambit" claims, and for each side to talk up its position during an elaborate process known as the "mating game"

- The importance to BHP Billiton's new chief executive, Marius Kloppers, that he be seen by the Asian steel mills as a "man of steel", rather than an easily intimidated new boy.

By going for an outrageous price rise, and a complete overhaul of the pricing mechanism, BHP Billiton has put itself on the front foot, able to argue that any lower price agreed will represent a generous concession on its part.

Having used his minions to stake out his position (and no doubt enjoying watching it swallowed so gullibly by the media) Kloppers can now sit back and enjoy the response from his customers.

And in this context, ‘customer' is a key word and the Chinese (and let's not forget the Japanese and Koreans) will remind the miners of the slogan used by countless retailers over the past 100 years, that "the customer is always right"

What the world saw two days ago was nothing more than the posturing of a new chief executive at the start of his first price-and-tonnage fixing talks.

Kloppers knows that right now he holds a strong bargaining position because the iron ore market is tight, and there is every likelihood of a substantial price increase. He would also like to claw back some of the freight differential which is a major advantage to Brazilian exporters.

But, suffering a freight disadvantage, or enjoying a tight market can be ephemeral - here today, gone tomorrow.

The BHP position is that the world iron ore market will be tight for another eight years - an assertion which also falls into the category of "mating game claim"

Asian customers might, eventually, agree to some changes to the process by which iron ore is sold, but this week's salvo from BHP Billiton will not cause them to alter their position, yet.

Their concession will be a higher price, and an agreement to continue talking about issues which worry both sides - while on the sidelines they will be encouraging new entrants into the business of mining iron ore.

To test any of this claim and counter claim from BHP Billiton and its Chinese customers as they haggled over the price and delivery terms, look at what happened on the stock market.

If, as speculated a whopping increase in the iron ore price was on the way, or that Australian exporters would get a huge windfall gain, why did most of their share prices fall?

BHP, the antagonist, dropped the best part of a dollar after its Monday high when the story started to break. FMG fell $2, and Rio Tinto lost $3. The rest of the sector was also mildly weaker.

Storm in a teacup is a description too derogatory about what happened this week. Storm in a teapot is more accurate because there are moves afoot to address pricing imbalances, and a formula will be found.

But, it will not be what Kloppers and his people proposed. Everyone has too much to lose by pushing too hard on this issue, about which the former chief executive of BHP, Chip Goodyear, once famously said: "it's not something about which he would die in a ditch"

Let the mating game commence!