Cooling Chinese economy melts iron ore price
My social life has been particularly active over the past two weeks.
I've eaten a seven-course meal (the portions were tiny), cooked by a Michelin-rated chef from Singapore, at the San Court in the Sandton Sun Hotel; dashed down to the Oyster Box in Umhlanga to present to a gathering of oncologists; enjoyed a performance by a troupe of Mongolian acrobats at the Bidvest chairman's dinner at the Sandton Convention Centre; and danced the horah with my grandchildren on my shoulders at a family wedding at the Sandton Shul Hall.
Jet-setting at such a frantic pace takes its toll. I'm currently on a Symbicort Turbuhaler, puffing twice a day to clear the congestion in my chest. I am pretty sure at this point I probably have enough banned substances in my body to compete for the yellow jersey at next year's Tour de France.
On this trying social journey, I picked up a lot of war stories, some that raised my hopes, others that made me wish I had remained at the bar.
As has been the custom for 24 years, Bidvest released its annual earnings at a gala dinner that included a glittering entertainment extravaganza, matched only by the group's dazzling numbers. What I found even more impressive and heartening was that when CEO Brian Joffe addressed the several hundred managers at the function, not once did he consider the financial crisis in Europe, the weak US economy and the slowdown in China as obstacles to progress. The only thing the business could expect, he warned, was change. And the challenge facing his various divisional units was to embrace this change.
Michael (not his real name) didn't feel quite as upbeat as Joffe, especially about the local business environment. Seeking a few minutes' refuge in the lobby from the boisterous beat of the wedding band, Michael, a distributor of luxury sporting garments, cursed our labour legislation and the destructive influence of the trade union movement.
One of his staff had recently been caught on camera stealing, he told me, and, even though the evidence was clear and unambiguous, he could not summarily dismiss the culprit without going through a lengthy, costly and unnecessary dispute hearing at the CCMA.
Once an employer of more than 350 workers, Michael had reduced his staff complement to 11.
Unwarranted disruptions by the unions at his factories swayed him to outsource his manufacturing to China. His Chinese associates would love to open factories in South Africa, he admitted, but as long as the unions continued with their delusional demands, investing in South Africa remained a distant dream.
Michael's fears are legitimate, and our failure to redress these issues will certainly invalidate the confidence in our future, both Discovery CEO Adrian Gore and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan expressed assuredly at the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit last week.
But I was more distressed by an article mailed to me by my son from Australia, which I studied while waiting to board the plane back from Durban at the weekend.
Iron ore prices plunged below $100 a ton last week, falling to their lowest level in three years. Guidance from all the large producers, like BHP Billiton, was that prices should hold above $125.
As long as the Chinese economy grew annually between 7% and 8%, the belief was that steel production would increase by more than 4% per year, underpinning a strong demand for components like iron ore. But weaker consumption in Europe and an accelerating slowdown in China resulted in a major slump in demand.
Back in August 2007, iron ore was trading around $36 a ton. but surging infrastructure expansion in China drove the price to a high of $187 in February last year. Still, analysts forecast that as soon as the Chinese government was satisfied that inflation and the overheated property market were under control, measures to lift growth would be introduced, a move that could support a rebound in prices.
But according to the article, steel mills in China have been losing money since February. Despite oversupply, owners have delayed production cuts, fearing they would send customers elsewhere. Most mills built cash reserves during the good times and are now hanging on hoping to survive.
The big concern for both steel producers and iron ore miners is that Chinese steel demand might be near its peak, 15 years earlier than forecast and well short of the numbers around which big producers like BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto have developed expansion plans.
Chinese steel consultants consider the miners' estimates flawed and warn that a change in the nation's growth model away from creating low-skilled construction jobs could have a huge impact on the profitability of global resource companies.
For developing nations like South Africa, long-term Chinese demand for basic resources is the foundation upon which the cabinet's much-trumpeted transformation plans were laid, and any disruption would have far-reaching social and economic consequences. But the disturbances could also extend to nations like Australia, Canada, Russia and Brazil, where increased revenues from resources have lifted living standards.
Naturally, miners like BHP Billiton are confident demand will remain brisk well into the future.
No one is really sure.