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For all its riches, China has a problem that money cannot solve: its reliance on the world's biggest miners to meet its resources needs. While it is home to significant resources, it lacks a contender to BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Vale.
Hence Beijing's irritation recently when iron ore prices hit 16-month highs. Last week, its top economic planning body accused the world's biggest mining companies of manipulating the iron ore price.
In spite of moderating economic growth, China still has big resources needs. Just over half the population is urbanized – compared with more than 80 per cent in Brazil. On current urban migration rates, it needs to expand existing cities and build a further 1,000 during the next decade, reckons China Confidential. As a result, steel intensity has yet to peak, so iron ore demand could almost double to 1.9 billion tonnes by 2030, forecasts Raw Materials Group.
Yet unlike its oil sector, which is dominated by a few state-owned giants, China has thousands of mining companies. Output at its biggest iron ore producer, Anshan, for example, was just a 10th that of BHP's 161 million tonnes last year. Far-flung mines and regional protectionism have obstructed consolidation.
True, China has enough iron ore reserves to cater for 30 per cent of its needs, but its low-grade ore makes the cost of extraction more than twice that of the world's biggest mining companies. China needs its iron ore price to stay above $100 per tonne to keep smaller miners in business.
The lack of a large-scale mining group has also hindered China's ability to make the necessary investments overseas. Despite the fanfare over its forays into Africa, China controls barely 1 per cent of production from African mines, compared with Anglo American's 28 per cent, according to RMG. There will be more outbursts like last week's one.