Australia's miners sees China iron ore demand flattening

Tue Mar 20, 2012 5:46am EDT
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By James Regan and Rebekah Kebede

PERTH (Reuters) - Australian iron ore miners, key beneficiaries of China's modern-day industrial revolution, on Tuesday signaled demand growth was finally slowing in response to Beijing's moves to cool its economy.

It was the strongest indication yet from an industry closest to China's phenomenal industrial growth over the last decade that the boom times, if not over, are tempering.

China has drawn iron ore from all over the world to feed its steel mills, offsetting a paltry home endowment of ore, but nowhere as much as Australia, where output has gone from 80 million metric tonnes (88.19 million tons) a decade ago to nearly 500 million metric tonnes now.

BHP Billiton (BHP.AX: Quote), the world's biggest miner, said it was seeing signs of "flattening" iron ore demand from China, though for now it was pushing ahead with ambitious plans to expand production even further.

Rival Rio Tinto (RIO.AX: Quote) said it too was sticking with plans to lift capacity from its mines in Western Australia's Pilbara iron ore belt, betting on a soft landing for the Chinese economy.

"The (Chinese) economy is shifting, it's changing. Steel growth rates will flatten and they have flattened," Ian Ashby, president of BHP's iron ore division, said ahead of the Global Iron Ore & Steel Forecast Conference in Perth.

China's demand for iron ore, a key steelmaking ingredient, will slow to single digit growth, but the country's annual steel output will still rise by some 60 percent by 2025, Ashby said.

The news knocked the Australian dollar down 1 percent and weighed on stocks in Asia and Europe. Markets are very sensitive to any hint of softening demand in China, given it is Australia's single biggest export market.   Continued...

A man walks past the head office of BHP Billiton in central Melbourne October 18, 2010. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas