Exports soar as iron ore enjoys revival
"Executives from Rio Tinto and Fortescue suggested prices were being pushed up by Asian customers building up stockpiles."
The authority in charge of Port Hedland in Western Australia revealed on Thursday that the 25.995 million tonnes of iron ore shipped during December was the highest monthly trade in history.
Port Hedland is the nation's most prolific multi-user port for iron ore, playing host to the export operations of BHP Billiton, Fortescue Metals and Atlas Iron.
The December result easily eclipsed Port Hedland's previous monthly export record of 22.8 million tonnes set in August, and was about 22 per cent higher than the volume exported in December 2011.
The result reflects the expansion plans that BHP and Fortescue have underway, and a similar rise is likely to have been achieved at Rio Tinto's nearby port at Cape Lambert.
The rising tide of exports has coincided with a revival in the benchmark iron ore price since its well-publicised slump in September.
The benchmark price was $US144.90 per tonne on Thursday according to data compiled by Bloomberg: nearly 70 per cent higher than the $US87 per tonne that was recorded at the nadir of the slump in September.
Iron ore is crucial to the Australian economy, and not merely because it ranks as the nation's most lucrative export.
The commodity is one of two products captured under the federal government's new mining tax, and the prospect of improving prices and rising export volumes increases the chances that the Gillard Government will enjoy some revenue flows from the new tax regime.
The combination of higher prices and export volumes in recent months has helped iron ore miners repair much of the damage done to their share prices last year.
Rio Tinto shares rose by $1.63 to $69.25 on Thursday, lifting the stock to its highest since February 14.
BHP shares rose by 31¢ to $38.15, their highest since February 6.
Fortescue tested its highest peaks in eight months during Thursday's session before closing 12¢ higher at $5.04.
Arrium, which exports from Whyalla in South Australia, was also testing six-month highs when its shares closed 3¢ higher at 96¢.
Executives from both Rio Tinto and Fortescue suggested that iron ore prices were being pushed up by Asian customers stocking up ahead of both their own winter and the traditional cyclone season in Australia's north.
A cessation of that stocking trend could see prices slip moderately lower again in the months ahead.
The iron ore market does appear to have some cyclical trends, with the price tending to rise between December and March in recent years, while also slumping between July and September.