A clump of iron ore from a mine. Picture: REUTERS
A clump of iron ore from a mine. Picture: REUTERS

SINGAPORE — Iron ore is making a quiet comeback. Prices have climbed to the highest in three months as steel makers in China start to boost output after the Lunar New Year break and the biggest miners post slower growth in supply.

Ore with 62% content advanced 1.7% to $47.14 a dry tonne on Thursday, the highest since November 16, according to Metal Bulletin. The raw material has risen 8% this week, taking gains this year to 8.2%. The resurgence has helped to lift miners’ shares, with Fortescue Metals Group up 23% in Sydney since Monday.

The recovery contrasts with the run of three annual declines to 2015, when surging low-cost production from the world’s biggest miners including Rio Tinto Group, BHP Billiton and Brazil’s Vale spurred a glut.

China’s steel mills, which account for about half of global supply, may increase production after the Lunar New Year break, supporting demand for iron ore, according to Sinosteel Futures Company Futures in Singapore and China rose on Friday.

"The market has become more optimistic about iron ore and steel demand in the coming weeks as manufacturing activity generally improves after the winter," said Zhao Chaoyue, an analyst at China Merchants Futures Company. "Still, these are merely expectations. Whether the price rally can be sustained would hinge on downstream demand for steel."

Vale’s miss

Vale reported quarterly supply figures on Thursday that showed a drop from the previous period, trailing analysts’ estimates. Year on year, fourth-quarter output from the Rio de Janeiro-based company rose less than 3%.

"The lower output from Vale in the fourth quarter is a signal that supply growth has slowed, which bolsters sentiment," said Mr Zhao.

While iron ore has rebounded, it’s still trading at a quarter of its 2011 peak and the World Bank has predicted that prices may post the biggest loss among metals this year. The seaborne surplus is estimated at 45.8-million tonnes this year and 34.1-million tonnes in 2017, according to Morgan Stanley.

Liberum Capital is sceptical that the rally will last and advised investors this week there was now an opportunity to bet against miners. While the expected rate of growth in ore supply had moderated, it remained significant, particularly in the face of a declining demand environment, Liberum said.

BHP ended at A$16.61 in Sydney from last Friday’s close of A$15.09 while Rio stock rose 5.3% this week. Fortescue was at A$1.99 on Friday after gaining to A$2.10 on Thursday, the highest intraday price since November. The trio are Australia’s largest shippers.