Production Is Falling Off a Cliff

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After watching in agony as iron ore and coal prices took a nosedive in recent months, the miners who feed steelmakers with their raw materials have decided to toss their production levels over the precipice.

This week, Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF  ) announced a 39% reduction in the annualized rate of iron ore production from its North American mines from the previously anticipated 2008 levels. Affecting six operating mines in Michigan, Minnesota, and Canada, the cuts are the latest in a string of similar developments from the world's leading iron-ore suppliers, as steel production has been abruptly curtailed. Brazilian miner Vale (NYSE: RIO  ) has halted approximately half of its domestic iron-ore pellet capacity, including some joint-venture operations with BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) , while Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP  ) cut 10% of its total iron-ore production last month.

With about one-third of Cliffs' total iron ore production costs fixed -- meaning they are not affected by production volumes -- the company now expects costs to rise in 2009 from the anticipated 2008 cost of $57 per ton.

Despite these ongoing challenges, Cliffs' shares continue to participate in a broader near-term rally in mining stocks. They've gained more than 90% from their November lows after canceling the proposed acquisition of metallurgical-coal miner Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR  ) . Given the ruthless punishment of Teck Cominco (NYSE: TCK  ) shares following that company's untimely coal purchase, investors may have breathed a sigh of relief when Cliffs halted the Alpha deal.

Speaking of coal, Cliffs also announced plans to cut about 100,000 tons of annual coal production and 100 jobs from the company's Pinnacle mine in West Virginia. Since it makes up less than 3% of Cliffs' total U.S. coal production, though, the move is more a shave than a haircut. Alpha Natural Resources announced a West Virginia mine closure of its own last week, though the company cited regulatory issues and poor mine conditions as the leading causes. Since a shortage of worldwide metallurgical coal supply prevailed before global demand suddenly fell, I expect to see fewer production cuts for met coal than for other commodities, as stockpiles are replenished with cheaper products.

A 90% run makes it clear that shares of Cliffs Natural Resources are a hot commodity right now. While I expect great things for the company in the long run, I am wary of short-term volatility after a run like this.

Further Foolishness:

The "Coal" tag within the Motley Fool CAPS community lists 21 coal companies. Find out what other investors are saying about the stocks you're watching, or share your Foolish thoughts with us. CAPS is free and fun!

Fool contributor Christopher Barker captains yachts and writes about stocks. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He owns no shares in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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