How to invest in Iron Ore

Potential ways to invest in iron ore and benefit from price increases include;

1) Iron ore futures contracts
2) Iron ore stocks
3) Businesses exposed to or reliant on iron ore miners for revenue
(e.g. contracting services in engineering, construction or accommodation/ hospitality.)

Iron ore is a major export earner for Australia with total export value topping $61.3 billion in 2017/2018 (Source; DFAT 17/18) and as the key ingredient in steel it is an important bulk commodity worldwide.To an extent the iron ore price and by extension the steel price, can also serve as a proxy for global economic growth. Since construction relies heavily on steel, an increasing iron ore price can be indicative of a global surge in infrastructure pending.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of iron ore with 50.4% of total seaborne Iron Ore in 2018, followed by Brazil (21.8%) and South Africa (4.6%). The iron ore price has a major impact on the Australian government budget so much so that each $10 per tonne movement shifts the federal budget position $3.6 billion. Movements in the budget position have clear political consequences so political commentators along with investors watch the iron ore price closely.

Iron ore production

The state of Western Australia dominates the global iron ore market and according to a WA Government Iron ore profile (WA Dept JTSI, Dec 2019).

  • WA is the largest supplier in the world accounting for 38% of global supply. It also has 48 billion tonnes of reserves that could sustain production for 53 years.
  • Growth in WA supply was more than double the growth of the rest of the world during the past 10 years.
  • 2018-19 Iron sales were 792 million tonnes and are forecast to rise to 862 million tonnes by 2022-23.
  • Leading WA producers include; Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) 324 million tonnes, BHP (ASX: BHP) 280 million tonnes and Fortescue (ASX: FMG) 166 million tonnes in 2018/19.

The Iron Ore Price

Predicting the iron ore price has proved notoriously difficult for analysts with many predicting ongoing low prices post 2014 due to the massive increase in supply from new mines brought online in WA’s Pilbara region by established miners and also new market entrants such as Fortescue metals Group (mines inc; Cloudbreak, Christmas Creek, Firetail, Kings Valley with Eliwana forecast for late 2020) and Hancock Prospecting (Roy Hill).

However, by July 2019 the price had hit 5 year highs of USD $130 per tonne with some analysts attributing this to a major mining disaster in Brazil curtailing global supply and as of February 2020 the price still sits at USD $81.35 per tonne- a highly profitable price (the 2018 average total cash cost of WA’s exporters was $31.50 p/t) (WA Dept JTSI, Dec 2019).

Despite the current highs and apparent bullish demand from China, global analyst sentiment appears negative with Bloomberg (Krystal Chia, Sept 2019) reporting analysts forecasts of USD $75 p/t by the end of 2020 and USD $55 p/t by 2024.

Below are three possible options or vehicles to invest in iron ore.  (Note; if investors held a bearish view of the future price then the below options could still be used through short selling (assuming the companies were publicly traded and the brokerage account in question offered this service).

1) Iron ore futures contracts

Iron ore futures are traded on the Dalian Commodity Exchange (DCE, based in Dalian, Liaoning, China), the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). At expiration these contracts are settled financially except for Dalian contracts, which are based on physical delivery (of the iron ore).

CME Group promotes use of its iron ore futures stating;

‘trading iron ore futures is a cost efficient method for hedging steel prices and taking a position on macro global trade”.

A typical CME iron ore futures contract example is TIO (code) 62% Fe is quoted in $USD with a contract size of 500 metric tons (settled financially).  As pointed out by CME (above), contracts are commonly traded by iron ore producers and steel mills looking to hedge prices. Futures market participants also include speculators buying and selling contracts for profit.

Exchange traded funds (ETF’s) typically offer a simple means of investing in commodities but at the time of writing there was no dedicated Iron Ore ETF, however, investors can obviously gain exposure through the stock market.

2) Iron Ore Stocks

There are a number of iron ore companies listed on the ASX that are producing and or exploring for new resources, which may become mines in the future. Iron ore producers range in size from huge companies like BHP and Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metal Group, through to smaller producers like Mount Gibson Iron (MGX) and explorers planning to develop a resource like Carpentaria Resources (CAP).

3) Invest in businesses reliant on iron ore mining companies for revenue

It is logical that companies (publicly traded or private) who contract to iron ore miners (especially the larger miners) can also benefit from a rising iron ore price. Large miners like BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue require lots of contractors for shutdowns (maintenance), repairs to or upgrades to critical infrastructure (port and or rail) and even accommodation and hospitality for their large workforces in remote areas of Western Australia.

The stock market provides the simplest means for retail investors looking to invest in iron ore and futures markets are typically left to industry professionals or specialist market participants.

Standard stock broking accounts are available from most banks and there are also many specialist broker providers (both online and full service). Retail investors can then choose from a range of iron ore miners and explorers or alternatively choose a contracting company with new or existing contracts with iron ore miners.