Two bourses going all out for iron ore futures

Stock of iron ore in the port in Rizhao, China. The commodity sits at the heart of the global economy, especially in largest user China.
Stock of iron ore in the port in Rizhao, China. The commodity sits at the heart of the global economy, especially in largest user China.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Call it the iron ore wars.

Two of Asia's financial heavyweights are going head-to-head as Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing starts futures for a commodity that has seen extraordinary volatility and been a popular way to bet on China, challenging Singapore Exchange's leading position.

HKEX began trading the futures yesterday, pitting the new US dollar-denominated contract against those offered by SGX, which introduced its first swap contracts in 2009, and has become the world's largest clearer of the derivatives.

To add firepower to the opening salvo, HKEX has promised newcomers all trading fees for the new product will be waived for six months.

Iron ore sits at the heart of the global economy, especially in largest user China, and the commodity has attracted growing investor interest in recent years.

The derivatives are used by miners and mills for hedging, as well as traders and funds, and Goldman Sachs Group found in an 2016 study that it was SGX's product that probably swayed the global market, rather than the more restricted offering on the mainland's Dalian Commodity Exchange.

Given the lead, the HKEX may find it a hard task to break out of its beachhead.

"They're going up against a more established offshore contract in Singapore," said Mr Hui Heng Tan, an analyst at Marex Spectron. "It's too early to gauge whether the new contract will gain much traction. Some of that will depend on the terms they're able to offer, such as trading fees and margins, as well as the liquidity of the contracts."

The shake-up comes after the commodity's been on a wild ride.

In 2013, spot ore fetched more than US$100 a dry metric ton. By 2015, it fell below US$40 as supplies swelled and investors expected China's appetite to wane. This year, it has gyrated between almost US$95 and close to US$50, and last was at US$62.60, with China's environmental clampdown in focus along with booming mine output.

That has been a boon for SGX, where trading of iron ore derivatives jumped 59 per cent last year.

While HKEX has been building up its presence in metals - buying up the iconic London Metal Exchange - the new offering is its first ferrous product.

"HKEX believes this contract is going to be complementary," a spokesman told Bloomberg. "With very active onshore iron ore futures on the Dalian Commodity Exchange and the heavy weighting of China in the trading of iron ore and iron ore derivatives, HKEX believes a transparent offshore iron ore futures will allow more efficient and timely price interaction among the markets."

The Hong Kong contract will be settled in cash against The Steel Index price.

Trading will run from 9am to 4.30pm before a second session from 5.15 pm to 1am. The SGX product is priced against the same spot index, and trades from 7.25am to 8pm, with an overnight session that runs through 4.45am.

Beyond trading hours, there are other differences. Hong Kong's new futures are mostly traded electronically, unlike the SGX AsiaClear contracts, where more than 85 per cent of transactions are done over-the-counter, or OTC.

"If you look at volumes on the SGX today, the majority of that is coming from the OTC community - meaning buyers and sellers who execute the transaction through the broking community," Mr William Chin, SGX head of commodities, said.

Mr Chin says while any exchange launch helps to improve visibility of existing products, it will be important for the new contract to create value, such as bringing new trading participants on board.

"The ability to do that will be value-accretive, rather than looking at ways to shift the pie."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2017, with the headline 'Two bourses going all out for iron ore futures'. Subscribe