Rio Tinto sees increased volatility as China reopens

A sign adorns the building where mining company Rio Tinto has their office in Perth, Western Australia
A sign adorns the building where mining company Rio Tinto has their office in Perth, Western Australia, November 19, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray

MELBOURNE, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Rio Tinto (RIO.AX) on Tuesday said that China's reopening from COVID-19 restrictions is set to raise near-term risks of labour and supply-chain shortages, while it also flagged a strong start to iron ore shipments for 2023.

The Anglo-Australian miner said consumers remain cautious of China's property market, which has been supportive to the economy, and that slowing global demand poses some risk to its exports. Shares fell 1% in line with a lower materials index (.AXMJ)

China's property sector was severely mired last year as debt-ridden developers failed to finish projects, but a flurry of property support measures coupled with Beijing's abrupt removal of its zero-COVID policy last month cheered the market.

Rio looks set to retain its crown as the world's biggest iron ore producer as quarterly iron ore shipments came in slightly ahead of expectations, near the bottom of the year's guidance.

"Results are broadly in line," said Glyn Lawcock of Barrenjoey in Sydney. "It's good to see they made their iron ore guidance. Rio has also noted that system inventories are healthy. ... That puts them on track for a good start to 2023."

Shipments of iron ore rose slightly in the final quarter of 2022, benefiting from a continued ramp-up at Rio's Gudai-Darri mine in Western Australia, which is expected to reach its nameplate capacity, or the capacity the mine is designed to produce, during 2023.

Iron ore shipments for the final quarter of 2022 rose 3.8% to 87.3 million tonnes (Mt), bringing full-year shipments to 321.6 Mt, which beat a Visible Alpha consensus estimate of 320.2 Mt.

Rio Tinto maintained its full-year iron ore shipments forecast of 320 Mt to 335 Mt.

Inflation, led by diesel and labour costs, is likely to have pushed the company's Pilbara iron ore unit cash slightly above the top end of its $19.5-$21.0 per tonne guidance range, it said.

Rio expects refined copper production at its Kennecott operations in Utah in the United States to be challenged until it rebuilds its smelter operations, which is planned for the second quarter of 2023 and is expected to take approximately three months.

"The market was probably disappointed by mined copper and obviously they are flagging a tough first half with a major smelter rebuild in Kennecott," Lawcock added.

Unplanned maintenance was required at Rio's anode furnaces leading to extended downtime and continued poor anode production, which is likely to result in weak cathode production in the first quarter of 2023.

Reporting by Melanie Burton, Harish Sridharan and Harshita Swaminathan; Editing by Leslie Adler and Deepa Babington

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