Iron fist of demand meets nerves of steel

There goes the price of iron ore down the shaft, so to speak, which unfortunately puts a different complexion on things.

Such as whether the dollar will be stronger for longer.

That's easy. No.

Another rate cut? More than likely. And no more budget surplus, not that the mining tax was ever going to raise a cent anyway. Uh-oh, there's always another tax.

Just as a rising iron-ore price lifted living standards - more jobs (without regard to what, where and for whom), lower inflation, higher wages and income-tax cuts, in case you'd forgotten - a decline will do the reverse.

It was only a few days ago, as the iron-ore price was on its way below $US90 a tonne - half last year's peak - that the big miners were saying it was impossible for it to go less than $US120.

Still they're saying it, allowing for the new spin: it's a spot, not contract, price and can't stay this low for long.

Never mind it was BHP Billiton that pushed contract pricing away from annual to quarterly to what became monthly, and now may as well be daily. Anyway, supposedly higher-cost Chinese producers can't afford to mine iron ore for anything less than $US120 a tonne.

Ah, has somebody told them? Not that they'd stop mining, necessarily, since they're state-owned, so have other considerations, such as preserving jobs. Besides usually they own the steel mills that use iron ore, so that settles that.

Only supply isn't the issue anymore. It's demand, or lack of it.

The biggest customers for our iron ore are the mostly loss-making Chinese steel mills, also state-owned, so normal rules don't apply. Except this one: if there's a glut in what you make, it's rarely a career move adding to it.

Mind you, whether losing even more by going full steam ahead, or cutting back and having to admit to sitting on a pile of iron ore that was bought at inflated prices just in case, it is a tough call. Preventing further losses sounds safer to me.

Steel prices will keep on falling due to the near-depression in Europe, which the European Central Bank's welcome but belated bond buying won't prevent. It even admits a recovery would be ''very gradual''.

Trouble is, to get any return from the mega billions they've been investing in the Pilbara, the miners will need to dig up more iron ore, which will depress its price, though at least they'll be selling more.

I love that about our miners: when the price drops they just dig up more. That's the spirit, I say.

Still, miners will be getting some unexpected help soon. The dollar has also peaked, and it's a surprise to no less than the Reserve Bank that it hasn't dropped faster and further. Only when it does will mining shares dig themselves out of their hole.

Follow David on Twitter @moneypotts

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