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Hedge Funds Circling Iron Ore

By Ari Chaney

With the price of iron ore tumbling to a new low this week, it’s safe to say that all iron ore miners are suffering from the commodity’s collapse, even the few that are still profitable at current levels.

But as we noted last week, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd (ASX:FMG) was the first of the mining giants to cry “uncle,” as fellow heavyweights Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO) and BHP Billiton Limited (ADR) (NYSE:BHP) pursue a ruthless strategy that involves boosting production even as the price of iron ore continues to decline.

In fact, BHP CEO Jimmy Wilson told The Australian that the company would “unashamedly” ramp up its output of iron ore for at least another two years.

And now the fourth-largest iron ore miner in the world is suffering a severe beatdown.

First, there were the inept remarks made last week by Fortescue Chairman Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest. At a dinner held by the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, Mr. Forrest called for miners to cap iron ore production in order to drive prices back up.

That prompted sneering from both Fortescue’s competitors as well as the financial media, and it also caused concern by the country’s regulators that Mr. Forrest was attempting to engage in cartel-like behavior.

Beyond that, his comments were tantamount to an admission of weakness, perfect chum for the financial media, since his words amplified the company’s woes in a way that even non-investors might understand.

Partly as a result of that episode, Fortescue was one of the most heavily shorted stocks this week on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), and now 27.1% of its float is held short.

It should be noted that Fortescue’s float is less than half its number of shares outstanding, since Mr. Forrest still owns roughly one-third of the company’s shares, while a couple of other entities also have sizable minority stakes.

Absent that limiting factor, the carnage might have been even worst. The Australian reported that the share price found temporary support thanks to a scarcity of shares available to sell short.

The head of one hedge fund told the paper that the recent action in the stock looks like a “slow-motion train wreck.” Shares of Fortescue have fallen more than 65% over the trailing year.

To Mr. Forrest’s credit, as The Sydney Morning Herald notes, he’s been known to pick up blocks of shares of the company’s stock to stave off similar attacks in the past. After all, given his substantial holdings, he’s certainly incentivized to do what it takes to support the stock.

The billionaire chairman, who was listed as the richest person in Australia in 2008, took just five years to transform Fortescue from a sleepy penny stock in 2003 into a major player in the global iron ore market.

But that required continual borrowing, with Fortescue’s total debt eventually ballooning to nearly USD12.8 billion in 2012, at the height of the resource boom.

The company has since pared its debt by nearly one-third. But a recent attempt to refinance debt coming due in the next few years fell flat, when management decided to scrap a USD2.5 billion bond issuance as some investors spooked by the commodities crash were reportedly demanding a rate as high as 9% on the investment-grade offering.

CEO Nev Power claimed the company was in no rush to refinance. “We are still making a reasonably good cash margin. One of the keys is that depending on the iron ore price, we can use cash flow from our operation to continue to repay debt,” he told reporters at a recent mining conference.

That condition, of course, is key. The price of iron ore fell to a new low this week, trading near USD47.08 per metric ton, based on the generic front-month contract according to Bloomberg. The base metal is now down 66.1% from its last peak in December 2013.

At current levels, the price of iron ore is dangerously close to Fortescue’s breakeven point of USD41 per metric ton. Management has said they believe the company can cut costs and push that threshold to USD35 per metric ton later this year.

But with some analysts predicting that the price of iron ore could retreat to USD40 per metric ton, or even lower, that barely keeps Fortescue ahead of the game.


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