Iron ore exports to China up at Australia's Port Hedland

SYDNEY, March 4 Sun Mar 4, 2012 4:24am EST

SYDNEY, March 4 (Reuters) - Iron ore shipments to China through Australia's Port Hedland rose modestly in February compared with January, according to data released by the port authority, suggesting steady demand from the world's largest steel industry after signs of a weak start to 2012.

A cloudy outlook for steel demand curbed China's appetite for iron ore recently as mills opted to run down inventories instead of booking new orders, according to commodities traders.

But in recent weeks signs have emerged that steel mills were back in the market, albeit cautiously.

Iron ore with 62 percent iron content was up 0.1 percent to $143.20 a tonne as of late last week, according to Steel Index, matching a level last seen on Feb. 8.

February shipments of iron ore to China via the port totalled 14.58 million tonnes, after falling 15 percent in January to 14.0 million from December, according to port figures.

South Korea was a distant second, importing 2.65 million tonnes in February, the data showed.

Total iron ore shipments from the port in February rose to 19.58 million tonnes versus 17.4 million tonnes in January, according to the data.

BHP Billiton is the port's biggest user, followed by Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. Both companies ship the bulk of their ore to China.