Can cost-cutting break Rio Tinto’s link with iron ore price? – by Clyde Russell (Reuters U.S. – December 1, 2014)

LAUNCESTON, Australia – (Reuters) – Rio Tinto launched a stirring defense of its iron ore strategy last week, with the basic message that it will still make huge profits even as the price slumps to five-year lows.

Leaving aside, for the moment, that some of Rio Tinto’s price and demand assumptions for the steel-making ingredient still look heroic, the real question to be answered is can the company convince the market that it’s on the right path?

To do so, Rio Tinto will have to break the shackles of the strong correlation of its share price to that of Asian spot iron ore.

Since the 2008 recession the Australian-listed shares of the world’s second-biggest iron ore miner have moved pretty much in lockstep with the price of the steel-making ingredient, although this year the correlation has shown signs of breaking down.

Iron ore has fallen a dramatic 48 percent this year, with the close on Nov. 28 of $69.80 a tonne only marginally above the $68 reached on Nov. 26, which was the weakest since June 11, 2009. Rio Tinto’s shares ended at A$59.10 ($49.64) on Nov. 28, down just 13.3 percent for the year.

The question is whether the nexus between the share price and iron ore has broken or whether the relationship is likely to be restored, most probably by the shares losing value since the prospect of iron ore rebounding is slim given the huge supply overhang in the market.

Rio Tinto Chief Executive Sam Walsh and his team would probably prefer you to believe that the relationship has changed on a fundamental basis, mainly on the back of the miner’s success in delivering additional tonnes at what are very low prices.

Rio Tinto’s investor seminar in Sydney on Nov. 28 showed that the company expects its iron ore business to remain hugely profitable.

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