Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. (CLF)

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Cliffs Natural Resources (CLF)

Q3 2011 Earnings Call

October 28, 2011 10:00 am ET

Executives

Laurie Brlas - Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President of Global Finance & Administration

Joseph A. Carrabba - Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President

Steven Baisden - Vice President of Investor Relations & Corporate Communications

Analysts

Timothy P. Hayes - Davenport & Company, LLC, Research Division

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Jorge M. Beristain - Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division

Jessica Fung - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Kuni M. Chen - CRT Capital Group LLC, Research Division

Mark L. Parr - KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc., Research Division

Unknown Analyst -

Mitesh Thakkar - FBR Capital Markets & Co., Research Division

Timna Tanners - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Arun S. Viswanathan - Susquehanna Financial Group, LLLP, Research Division

Shneur Z. Gershuni - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

Presentation

Operator

Good morning. My name is Meme, and I'll be your conference facilitator today. I would like to welcome everyone to Cliffs Natural Resources' 2011 Third Quarter Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] At this time, I would like to introduce to you Baisden, Vice President, Investor Relations and Communications. Mr. Baisden?

Steven Baisden

Thank you, Meme. I'd like to welcome everyone to this morning's call. Before we get started, let me remind you that certain comments made on today's call will include predicative statements that are intended to be made as forward-looking within the Safe Harbor protections of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995.

Although the company believes that its forward-looking statements are based on reasonable assumptions, such statements are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially. Important factors that could cause results to differ materially are set forth in reports on Form 10-K and 10-Q, and news releases filed with the SEC, which are available on our website.

Today’s conference call is also available and being broadcast at cliffsnaturalresources.com. At the conclusion of the call, it will be archived on the website and available for replay.

Joining me today are Cliffs' Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Joseph Carrabba; and Executive Vice President, Global Administration and Finance and Chief Financial Officer, Laurie Brlas.

At this time, I'll turn the call over to Joe for his initial remarks.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Thanks, Steve. And thanks to everyone for joining us this morning. Last night, Cliffs reported the strongest quarter in the company's history. Third quarter's results were driven by strong demand for our products throughout 2011. North American blast furnace utilization rates averaged 76% during the quarter, 5% higher than the prior year's comparable quarter average of 71%. Additionally, the Platts index for iron ore pricing averaged $178 per ton during the quarter, 31% higher than 2010's average third quarter pricing. Both of these factors, coupled with the additional sales from Bloom Lake's operations, drove our exceptional third quarter results. However, we do acknowledge the recent softening of iron ore spot prices. This is not entirely surprising given the immediate macroeconomic concerns over future growth rates in certain world economies and volatility in virtually all industrial commodities.

As many of you know, since the end of the annual benchmark pricing mechanism, Cliffs has been moving sales agreements to more narrow pricing periods that are closer to the shipping date. We anticipate our industry will continue in this direction, moving away from lagging pricing periods and towards those that are closer to shipping or landing dates. For Cliffs, while lower spot pricing will directly impact results given our exposure to the seaborne market, we expect to run a very profitable business at these iron ore spot prices. Fluctuation in pricing is expected and current reduced spot pricing is still very healthy and indicative of a strong global demand. We believe the megatrends underpinning our industry, in general, remain intact, including industrialization of emerging economies which continues to support our growth and expansion initiatives.

After the deterioration of benchmark pricing, we have often stated our belief that iron ore will trade within a pricing band, affected by certain realtime market conditions and dynamics. Barring any further material deterioration in European or North American economies, we expect 2012's pricing band will remain relatively consistent with 2011's range.

Now turning to the performance of our core business during the quarter. Sales volume in U.S. iron ore increased to 7.9 million tons compared with 6.9 million tons sold in last year's third quarter. This includes approximately 0.5 million tons of pellets from our U.S. operations going into the seaborne market during the quarter. Due to vessel availability and adjustments in customer pellet requirements, we are revising our full-year 2011 U.S. iron ore sales volume expectations to 24 million tons, down from our previous expectation of 25 million tons.

In 2012, we expect to see steelmaking utilization rates range between 70% and 75%. Based on this, we expect to produce and sell approximately 23 million tons from our U.S. iron ore business segment next year.

Now turning to Eastern Canadian Iron Ore. Sales volume for the quarter was 3.1 million tons, a 294% increase over last year's third quarter. This increase was a result of approximately 1.8 million tons of concentrate sales from Bloom Lake, an increased year-over-year sales volume at Wabush Mines. During September, Bloom Lake reduced at an 8 million-ton run rate for 10 consecutive days. Given that, we feel confident in reaching the 8 million-ton annual production rate previously indicated.

Despite our ramp-up progress at Bloom Lake, we are reducing our full-year 2011 sales volume expectation in Eastern Canadian Iron Ore to 8 million tons from our previous expectation of 9 million tons. This lower sales volume expectation is partially attributed to pellet availability from Wabush and partially related to a transition in our marketing strategy to work more directly with end-users of the product and less with trading customers in Asia. We have delivered Bloom Lake concentrate to 2 of our Asia Pacific Iron Ore customers during the quarter and we'll continue working with our customers to test trial cargoes. We believe this strategic shift will provide increased sales flexibility over the long term and build stronger relationships among large seaborne customers.

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