Australian Iron Ore Rush

James is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

The race is on! The iron rush, in the Pilbara iron district of Western Australia, is in full force. Forget about watching the World Series, a horse race, or Monday night football. This race to increase iron ore production keeps me on the edge of my seat. The stakes are high and the profit potential is great.

There are three main players. We have two very large and very diversified companies; namely Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO) at the number one spot, BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP) at the number two spot and the underdog nipping at their heals, namely Fortescue Metals Group (NASDAQOTH: FSUMF). All of the players are exposed to the rise and fall of iron ore prices as a result of the vagaries of the big Chinese steel mills and the Chinese economy. RIO and BHP have diversified mineral plays across the globe, but tend to get the largest piece of their profit pie from iron operations. Both of the big boys have problems from other operations eating up their cash flow: RIO with its $14 billion dollar mistake in Mozambique and BHP's inability to act in a forward looking direction. In contrast, Fortescue is a pure iron play and well situated to cash in on the current and future iron needs of China, though it sees much larger swings in its share price with changes in iron prices than its competitors. Fortescue is motivated and determined in their pace of development. They will see the greatest rise in stock value over the next couple of years. FSUMF has just gotten out of the gate and they are the young purebred challenging the old guard resting on their laurels.

The current combined output from all three miners is at an annualized rate of about 500 mega tonnes. RIO announced January 15, having produced 253 mega tonnes in 2012. Based on 2012 company reports, BHP should come in at about 160 mega tonnes. Fortescue announced January 4 2012, having achieved an annualized run rate of 100 mega tonnes. Fortescue says they are on track for their goal of 155 mega tonne production level by the end of 2013.

January is a month of production reports for these iron miners. RIO reported full year results on January 15. BHP reports Q4 production January 23. FSUMF reports Q2 production results January 24.

February is the month of financials. RIO reports full year results February 14. BHP reports full year February 20. FSUMF reports half year results February 20.

All three miners have big expansion plans. The Australian Federal Government is predicting output from the Pilbara to reach 1,000 mega tons by 2020. RIO has goals of 290 mega tonnes by the end of 2013 and 360 mega tonnes by the end of 2014. BHP has a goal of 240 mega tonnes by the end of 2014 and 350 mega tonnes by 2020. BHP has put on hold their $20 billion capital expansion plans for port facilities, which is crucial to move beyond their 2014 goal. Fortescue has been building from scratch mining, milling, loading, rail, and port infrastructure to support their goal of 155 mega tonnes a year of production. Most of the costs and work are nearly finished, they are reportedly on track to meet their run rate of 155 mega tonnes by year end. Their production growth has been amazing: 2010 saw 27 mega tonnes shipped, 2011 saw 40 mega tonnes shipped, 2012 saw 55 mega tonnes shipped. January 4 FSUMF announced reaching the 100 mega tonne run rate. This at a time with $140 plus per ton iron ore rates.

To be fair, RIO and BHP have been in the Pilbara much longer and enjoy much cheaper production costs. Some put their costs in the $20 to $30 range per ton; whereas Fortescue's cost, when all is said and done, is in the $55 range. Part of why I believe there is a lot of money to be made on Fortescue's stock is they are actively keeping costs down while continuing with expansion. They are only in iron ore and don't have the giant losses from bad operations elsewhere. They are actively seeking a 50% partner in their port and rail facilities to raise cash to pay down debt. They are coming up to speed with production in what looks to be a very good year for iron. The stock is on sale as far as I can tell. Their fiscal year end is June 30 and we should see a near doubling in sales from last year and even greater profitability.

Iron ore is probably the most important industrial commodity behind oil. Growth is coming from emerging markets as we saw from General Electric's earnings report. Iron trades in a murky back room kind of way, but is beginning to trade with much more clarity. China is the largest producer of iron ore, but it is more expensive to produce from their mines and they are running out. Thus there should be a greater need for Chinese steel mills to import. Western Australia has the lowest shipping costs to China of any of the large iron ore deposits in the World.

I have put my money on FSUMF to be the clear winner. I am buying on the pullbacks.

jamesacoffman has positions in Fortescue Metals Group and General Electric. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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