Bush Gives Big Iron a Steely Grip on a Key Sector of the Economy

Iron ore prices have recently been in the headlines, having jumped eighty-five percent. This news is troubling as such price increases threaten to raise steel prices, which will add to cost inflation and further undermine economic activity.

Behind these price increases lies the unusual structure of the iron ore market which is best characterized as bi-lateral oligopoly. That structure makes enormously troubling the Bush administration's decision to give regulatory clearance to a combination of the number two (Rio Tinto) and number three (BHP Billiton) ore producers.

Unlike other commodity markets, iron ore prices are set through annual negotiations between the ore producers (Big Iron) and the ore users (Big Steel). Recent contractual negotiations have resulted in huge price increases that reflect the ore market's structure.

On one side is Big Steel, consisting of an increasingly few large steel producers. On the other side is Big Iron, made up of an even fewer number of ore producers. Thus, the top three producers -- Vale do Rio Doce, Rio Tinto, and BHP Billiton -- account for seventy-five percent of total global production. Moreover, the oligopolistic power of the producers is reinforced by geography. Vale do Rio Doce is Brazilian and located in the western hemisphere, while Rio Tinto's and BHP Billiton's operations are in Australia. That creates a geographic split that helps Big Iron's profits.

In recent years steel production has been marked by significant mergers and right-sizing of capacity, combined with growth of state-directed steel capacity in China. The result has been a huge boom in steel profits that is reflected in steel company stock prices. For instance, consider U.S. Steel that traded at twelve dollars a share five years ago, and in June 2008 peaked at one hundred and ninety-six dollars a share.

Big Steel's earnings rolled in first, being at the end of the production chain. Now, Big Iron is trying to muscle in on the action and grab a share of those profits for itself. It is able to do so because of its bargaining power, and it would be no surprise if there also were some informal collusion among ore producers given their small world.

With limited alternatives, Steel has been forced to cough up some of its oligopoly profits, turning them into Iron's mining rents. That is a bad switch. Higher earnings in iron ore mining will have negligible impact on their economic plans as the industry was already earning large excessive profits. However, higher ore prices will raise steel prices, undermining manufacturing and causing inflation. Meanwhile, lower steel profits will reduce steel investment.

Lastly, speculation may also have contributed to the jump in ore prices, albeit not the speculation associated with other commodity markets in which speculative trading is rampant. Since iron ore is not traded on global commodity markets, financial speculators cannot be responsible for higher prices.

Instead, iron ore speculation is best characterized as 'joint speculation' by the ore producers and users about the continuation of steel profits and the ability of steel companies to pass on higher costs. In this light, the jump in ore contract prices can be viewed as a combination of profit capture by the ore producers plus a big bet on future macroeconomic conditions.

Such user-producer speculation is hard to argue against, but one can argue against an oligopolistic market structure that amplifies speculation's destructive effects. That makes the Bush administration's decision to approve a Rio Tinto-BHP Billiton combination another terrible public policy decision.

The approval of combination reveals the worst proclivities of the Bush administration, which is peppered with extractive industry boosters, particularly oil. The quest for combination shows that the much maligned Karl Marx was right about capital's proclivity to combine.