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Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE:CLF)

Q1 2012 Earnings Call

April 26, 2012 10:00 am ET

Executives

Steven R. Baisden - Vice President of Investor Relations & Corporate Communications

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

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

Analysts

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Timna Tanners - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Arun S. Viswanathan - Longbow Research LLC

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Sohail Tharani - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

Jessica Fung - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Shneur Z. Gershuni - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Jorge M. Beristain - Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division

Operator

Good morning. My name is Shannon and I am the conference facilitator today. I would like to welcome everyone to Cliffs Natural Resources 2012 First Quarter Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] At this time, I would like to introduce Steve Baisden, Vice President of Investor Relations and Communications. Mr. Baisden?

Steven R. Baisden

Thank you, Shannon. 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 predictive 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 Forms 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, Finance and Administration, 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. A year-over-year volume increases in all of our business segments led us to achieve a first quarter global iron ore sales record of 8 million tons. In North America, we continue to experience healthy steelmaking utilization rates, with first quarter averaging around 78%. Conversely, many mills in Europe are operating at rates well below capacity, ranging from 60% to 70% with a number of announced permanent idles. Europe's lower rates will have a minimal impact on our iron ore sales volume and recent announcements suggest stable pricing in premium -- in pellet premiums. We continue to see the Platts index pricing for iron ore trading within a pricing band of $140 to $160 per ton. First quarter's average Platts price was $144 versus $180 per ton in last year's comparable quarter. Despite the year-over-year pricing headwind, we still recorded first quarter record revenues. Additionally, we anticipate the iron ore spot sale, spot price to increase throughout the remainder of the year. This is supported by our expectation of China's crude steel production of over 730 million tons. Although China's January and February crude steel production was lower than expectations, the momentum appears to be gaining. China's annualized steel production increased to 725 million tons in March with even higher annualized production suggested in April's early reports.

In the coal markets, spot pricing during the quarter was continually under pressure and softer relative to last year. However, we believe we have experienced the bottom. This will be especially evident if we see continued supply side shocks including industrial actions or adverse weather in primarily production basis. The softer market in the quarter required our global marketing group to seek out new customers in nontraditional markets for our North American Coal products. Although this environment is more challenging, it has created an opportunity to establish relationships with new coal customers in Asia. As you all know, we place significant volumes of iron ore into this region. However, our exported North American coal products have historically been placed into Europe. That means that during March and April, we sold 0.5 billion tons of met coal to these new customers in Asia. Our ability to swiftly place this volume reflects the quality of our coal products and the benefit of having a global marketing group.

Now turning to the performance of our core businesses during the quarter. Sales volume of U.S. Iron Ore increased 20% to 3.4 million tons from 2.8 million tons, primarily driven by vessel timing. The Great Lakes shipping season resumed on March 25. As most of you know, our first quarter sales volumes are typically the lightest when compared to other quarters. This is due to the winter weather and lot maintenance of our Great Lakes. Our U.S. Iron Ore volumes continue to deliver very consistent volumes and generating a significant amount of cash for the company. Eastern Canadian Iron Ore sales volume for the quarter was 1.9 million tons, that was made up of approximately 1.4 million tons of iron ore concentrate from Bloom Lake and 500,000 tons of pellets from Wabush. The year-over-year sales volume decrease at Wabush is attributed to major repair work to stabilize the mine's production reliability.

As reported on our last earnings call, during the quarter we experienced a minor fire at Bloom Lake's concentrating facility. This resulted in production downtime of approximately 10 days. In addition to repairing the damage caused by the fire, we used the downtime to advance planned maintenance originally slated for the second quarter. By compressing maintenance plan for future quarters, we expect to recover some of the production loss throughout the remainder of the year. While no personnel were injured during the fire incident, I do regret to say we had a fatality at Bloom Lake earlier this month. We are greatly saddened by this tragedy and we extend our thoughts and prayers to our employees' families and fellow colleagues. We take our responsibility of providing a safe work environment very seriously and we are currently investigating the cause of the accident.

At quarter end, we were nearly complete with the design work to reengineer our tailings management at Bloom Lake. Once the new design is implemented, it is expected to lower our future cash cost and will support our production expansion to 24 million tons per year. By improving ore recovery rates through blending and adjustments to the mine's flow sheet, we have increased Bloom Lake's production reliability. These are just 2 examples about Cliffs bringing its operating expense to bear on improving the long-term capabilities of the mine. We will continue making changes to the mining and processing flow sheets until operations are up to Cliffs standards. In our experience at [indiscernible] ore, we have found that it takes about 2 years to achieve optimal performance from our concentrator.

During the quarter, we delivered draw cargoes of Bloom Lake's ore to a handful of our current Asia Pacific Iron Ore customers based in Japan and Korea. We believe these steps will be successful and result in new stable customers for Bloom Lake's premium product. Our Eastern Canadian commercial strategy is to establish direct relationships with multiple mills. Similar to our Asia Pacific Iron Ore customer base, we believe investing the time to establish and develop these relationships is ideal for the long-term profitability of the mine.

Candidly, we recognize cash cost at Bloom Lake are higher than expected. While this is not ideal, we have a plan in place to optimally run and expand this operation. Within this plan, we will continue to adjust the Phase 1 flow sheet until we are satisfied with the products consistency and production reliability. In the shorter term, these adjustments could impact cost, as they did in the first quarter. Despite this, I believe our Phase 1 cash cost start up at $60 per ton is still realistic and achievable. Better yet, we will apply the knowledge we gain from Phase 1 to our Phase 2 ramp up.

I'm also enthusiastic to report our expansion to 16 million tons at Bloom Lake is progressing well. Today, construction of Phase 2 is nearly 30% complete with engineering-related work approximately 80% complete. Additionally, we have secured a rail agreement with the QNS&L to support our expansion to 16 million tons annually. We anticipate finishing the scoping study at Bloom Lake's Phase 2, 3 expansion to 24 million tons by the end of the year.

Turning to Asia Pacific Iron Ore. First quarter's sales volume were up 25%, achieving an all-time quarterly record of 2.8 million tons. With over 1 million tons shipped from Koolyanobbing in March, we are essentially complete with our expansion project to achieve 11 million tons annually. The construction of all passing loops and the rail yard facilities is complete, and we have commissioned the use of new logos and longer trains. Unlike the common trend in our industry, I'm extremely pleased to report this project was finished on time and on budget. We will now focus our efforts on optimizing the operations and blend for the products we market.

As reported in last night's release, we are increasing our Asia Pacific Iron Ore 2012 full year sales volume expectation by 400,000 tons to 11.4 million tons. The increase is primarily the result of transitioning to longer trains faster than we had initially anticipated. This has increased our ability to move additional volumes from the blending facility to our sheds at the port. We will draw down our stockpiles at both the mine and port to achieve our increased sales volume outlook.

Now turning to North American coal. I continue to be impressed by the consistent production achieved at our longwall operations which resulted in our increased sales volume. During the quarter, production volume increased 30% to an all-time quarterly high of 1.8 million tons. Both of our longwall machines are operating well. As a result of the operational success achieved at Pinnacle and Oak Grove, we plan on executing longwall moves earlier than expected. Due to the increased inventory stockpiles built at both Pinnacle and Oak Grove, the longwall moves are not expected to impact our sales volume outlook. Not only have the operational improvements at most longwall mines increased product availability, but the improvements have also meaningfully contributed to higher profitability due to the product's premium quality, along with lower cash cost per ton, which Laurie will describe in more detail.

In closing, as all of you know, our strategy has been and will continue to be, to sustainably grow this company. At times, this growth is fraught with challenges that we'll have to -- that we will have and we will continue to address head-on. We remain very excited about the current contribution and the potential growth at Bloom Lake. Additionally, with the consistency from our U.S. Iron Ore mines, coupled with the major operational expansion project completed in Asia Pacific Iron Ore, and the turnaround progress evident in coal, I believe 2012 is shaping up to be another promising year of success.

And with that, I'll turn the call to Laurie for her review of the financial highlights.

Laurie Brlas

Thank you, Joe, and thanks to everyone also for joining us. In addition to the operating performance demonstrated during the quarter, with the announcement of our significantly increased dividend rate, a new capital allocation strategy, I believe, the first quarter marked a significant milestone in the company's history. Going forward, we will make capital allocation decisions through a process focused on driving top quartile TSR performance. As part of this, we intend to strategically shift from M&A focused growth to organic growth, which includes developing assets within our existing project pipeline.

I believe the successful completion of our expansion project in Asia Pacific Iron Ore, along with our continued turnaround in North American coal illustrate an ability to deliver large-scale complex projects.

Now turning to the quarter's result, I am pleased to report first quarter 2012 revenues improved 7% to $1.3 billion, another first quarter record for Cliffs. The increase was driven by higher sales volume, partially offset by lower pricing. Consolidated sales margin was $304 million, and was unfavorably impacted by higher cost of goods sold rate, including higher mining, maintenance and transportation cost. I would also point out that last year's first quarter sales margin included a nonrecurring $179 million favorable impact from negotiated pricing settlements with 2 of our largest customers.

During the quarter, we recorded discrete tax items with a $255 million net favorable impact. The primary driver was the Australian federal government's recently enacted Mineral Resource Rent Tax or MRRT. The MRRT includes a provision which requires us to value our business and record a deferred tax asset which can be used to offset a portion of the calculated MRRT in future years. We expect to add approximately 3% to 4% to our effective tax rate with the duration of the life of Koolyanobbing. That effective rate increase would be larger without the partial offset created by this provision. For the current year, excluding the MRRT income tax benefit and other discrete items, our effective tax rate was approximately 23% during the quarter, comparable to last year's first quarter. Our first quarter 2012 net income attributable to U.S. or to Cliffs' shareholders was $376 million or $2.53 per diluted share versus last year's $423 million or $3.11 per diluted share.

Now turning to U.S. Iron Ore's result. Excluding the favorable impact on both revenues and cost of goods sold due to the settlement negotiated in the prior year's first quarter, U.S. Iron Ore's revenues per ton decreased slightly to $117, while cash cost increased 20% to $51 per ton. The increase in cash cost was attributable to higher mine development and labor-related expenses. Despite the increase in cash cost per ton, we still achieved a gross profit margin of over 40%. The highest amongst all of our business segments.

With U.S. Iron Ore's strong cash cost performance, we are maintaining our full year 2012 cash cost expected range of approximately $60 to $65 per ton. In Eastern Canadian Iron Ore, revenues per ton decreased to $116, down 33%, when compared to the prior year's first quarter. This was primarily driven by lower year-over-year seaborne iron ore pricing and sales mix. The current quarter included a higher proportion of concentrate sales from Bloom Lake versus last year's comparable period, which was comprised entirely of a premium pellet product. Also keep in mind that the pricing environment was much stronger last year than it is in 2012. During the quarter, cash cost per ton decreased 9% to $104, reflecting Bloom Lake's relatively lower cash cost of $98 per ton. Bloom Lake's first quarter cash cost include approximately $16 per ton related to the fire and other nonrecurring expenses.

Looking ahead, we anticipate realizing significantly improved fixed cost leverage at Bloom Lake as expected sales volumes incrementally increase quarter-over-quarter throughout the remainder of 2012. As a result, we expect to achieve $60 per ton cash cost at Bloom Lake in the latter half of 2012.

Turning to Wabush. The year-over-year increase in cash cost per ton was primarily driven by increased spending related to the repair work completed during the quarter. Higher energy and supply cost over last year's first quarter also contributed to the cost increase. Similar to Bloom Lake, we expect the cash cost per ton to trend lower for the remainder of the year. With the respective cost increases at both mines, we are increasing our full year 2012 cash cost per ton expectation in Eastern Canadian Iron Ore by $10 to approximately $80 to $85 per ton.

Turning to Asia Pacific Iron Ore. During the first quarter, we realized a 17% decline in average revenue per ton to $130 from last year's $156 per ton. Again, this was primarily driven by the lower seaborne iron ore pricing that Joe discussed earlier. Average cash cost increased 31% to $74 per ton compared with $67 per ton in the year-ago quarter. The increase was attributed to higher mining expense related to the capacity ramp up and less favorable exchange rates. We are increasing our anticipated range for Asia Pacific iron ore's full year 2012 cash cost to approximately $70 to $75 per ton. Primarily driving this increase is the new reality of lower ore recovery rates as we are mining a much different mix of deposits when compared with historical production from Koolyanobbing. We are also seeing a stronger Australian dollar assumption of $1.05.

In our North American Coal segment, our revenues per ton were relatively flat at $122. The slight decline, when compared to the 2011's first quarter, was primarily due to the softer market pricing for coal products. As a result, we are decreasing our North American coal full year 2012 revenue per ton expectation to approximately $130 to $135. This expectation includes approximately 75% of our expected 6 million tons of met coal sales committed and priced at $143 per ton net back to the mine.

We achieved lower cash cost per ton of $97 compared with $109 per ton in first quarter 2011. This 11% year-over-year improvement reflected greater fixed cost leverage driven by increased production volumes from our longwall operations. Additionally, we estimate the higher cost tons sold from the crude coal stockpile we developed at Oak Grove throughout last year negatively impacted cash cost by approximately $4 per ton during the quarter. Excluding this, cash cost were approximately $93 per ton. All of our major capital projects in North American coal are now complete. These projects are directly impacting the segment's profitability which was illustrated by first quarter's results. We are very pleased with the production consistency we are achieving, and as a result, we are maintaining our full year 2012 cash cost per ton expectations of approximately $105 to $110.

Turning to the balance sheet. At the end of March, we held $122 million in cash and equivalents, and long-term debt with $3.6 billion. In the first quarter of 2012, we used $129 million in cash from operations versus generating $107 million in cash from operations in the first quarter of 2011. Last year's first quarter result did include additional cash receipts related to 2010 pricing settlement. Consistent with prior years, we anticipate generating the majority of our cash from operations in the back half of the year. We are maintaining our expected sales volumes for all of our reporting segments with the exception of Asia Pacific Iron Ore, but we are increasing our anticipated sales volume to approximately 11.4 million tons. In addition, we are maintaining our expected 2012 full year average spot price for seaborne iron ore of approximately $150 per ton delivered into China, and have narrowed our revenue per ton expectation range for all of our segments.

As I mentioned before, we are decreasing our full year North American coal revenue per ton expectation to approximately $130 to $135 due to market conditions. Included within last night's press release, you can find our expectations for all recordable segments along with the outlook from Cliffs' other reported minority interests.

We are maintaining our expected full year SG&A expense of approximately $325 million, and our cash outflow expectation of $90 million related to global exploration.

For our chromite project, we expect to spend approximately $75 million in 2012. We continue to make significant progress with this project, including constructive discussions with external stakeholders and government regulators. We anticipate advancing this project from the pre-feasibility stage of development to feasibility this summer. We continue to be excited about the quality of the deposit and value it will generate. As we move into feasibility, we will share portions of the project economics as well as other significant milestones achieved and expected as we bring this project to fruition.

We expect a full year effective tax rate of approximately 5%, which includes the impact from the Australian MRRT. Excluding this and other discrete tax items, our effective tax rate will be approximately 23% for the full year. We anticipate generating $1.7 billion in cash from operations, down slightly from our previous expectation of $1.9 billion, primarily due to our outlook adjustments in the full year business segment.

Our revised expectation more than covers our anticipated CapEx of $1 billion for the year, and our recently announced 123% increase to the quarterly cash dividend rate, which results in a total 2012 payout of just over $300 million. Steady pricing, coupled with project completion in Asia Pacific iron ore and coal position us to generate significant cash flows in 2012 and beyond. We will continue to look at ways to deploy this capital in a manner that is most impactful to shareholders. As you know, driving top quartile total shareholder return is our main focus in growing the company.

And with that, Steve, we think we're ready to open the call for questions.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Shannon, could you please prompt the call participants on how to ask a question?

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from Brian Yu with Citi.

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

You talked about Bloom Lake ramping up. So I have a couple of questions related to it. One, are all the repair works completed there? And then two, I think you're expecting about $60 cash cost. Would that reflect a steady date -- a steady state type of average? Or does that still incorporate some sort of startup so the steady-state is potentially lower than say at $60?

Laurie Brlas

I think, on the steady-state question, we can actually, definitely, get into the $50 range moving into next year.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, I think that's right, Brian. The repairs are complete. It was just the impact of the 10 days that we're down. It's not only the repair cost that went to complete the fix, if you will, from the damage that have incurred, but also as you know the resounding effects that we also get from both the loss of the volume that was the impact on the cost.

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

So this process of still ramping up the operations, I mean...

Joseph A. Carrabba

We are aware -- we're still balancing as we talk, Brian. We're -- things slowed down in the fourth quarter, as we all know, around the globe. We took advantage to really get into some blending schemes, if you will, on our mine. We ran intentionally some low-grade through the plant so that we can go ahead and get that bottom of the mine balanced. But we are still spending the time on getting the mine plan correct so we can get the blending through this ag mill. We don't have multiple mills. As you know, up there, it's just one mill that it goes through. So it takes some time for these low-grade deposits to get the blends right and get the kinks worked out. But once again, let me reiterate. We're very satisfied with the project we bought from Consolidated Thompson. We have not found any fatal flaws, if you will, or even major flaws in the flow sheet. We have found enhancements that we can make and we'll continually to steadily ramp this project up over the next few quarters. And as we said earlier, get it into the Cliffs standard, if you will, so that we can stabilize the operation and move forward.

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Okay. On Australia, the increase in volumes you mentioned at drawdown stockpile, so I was curious if this 11.4 is kind of onetime type of bump? Or is it a sustainable rate that you can keep in 2013 also?

Laurie Brlas

Probably a little early to make that judgment. But I would say, it's a possibility that we can get over $11 million. Because this year, we still do have some production from Cockatoo that will fall off.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, that's about 0.5 million tons that will fall off about midyear , the Cockatoo tonnage, the mines if you subtract that. Should be at a sustainable rate, this is a big transition year. Not only from moving to bigger trains and really getting the rhythm down, if you will, of the mines, but we also have to open several pits. Those are pretty small pits there and we had to develop some new roads. So we're also trying to get the new blending schemes down at the mine. So a big transition year in APIO [ph] as well.

Operator

Our next question comes Timna Tanners with Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Timna Tanners - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

I know you talk about being able to provide us more information on the pre-feasibility moving to feasibility stage for the chromite business. But I know there's a lot of interest in that topic and also the exploration activity, if there's any way you can give us a little further update, please?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, sure, I'll be glad to. We are progressing very closely, I think in the next month or 2. We will be out of pre-feas going into feasibility. We've had several independent studies done on the engineering concepts and the cost as we bring those into the plus-or-minus 10% to 15% range, which is the standard to go to feasibility. So all of that work is progressing very well and we still have a robust project even with the increased capital that we discussed with that as we go forward. We're having excellent discussions and we're very close to announcements on agreements with provinces on where we're going to site the smelter and the road and those types of things that will allow us pin down the feasibility that goes with it. We've had very good discussions around the world with numerous potential customers about the grade and the quality of the product that are coming out. Very good discussions with the external stakeholders and with the first nations with the government environmental impact study is moving along. So that's all the information I could give you at this point in time. As Laurie said, as soon as we have more information to run the feasibility, we're going to be happy to provide that because we're very excited about this project.

Laurie Brlas

And on our other exploration expenses, Timna, that you asked about. The primary focus is in a couple of areas. One is actually in Australia, continuing to look at new deposits to extend the life of that project that mine, and also proving out the reserve that Joe mentioned. We've been very pleased with what we've found at Bloom Lake and we think there's going to be more reserves there but we have to do the exploration and the drilling to prove that out. And the third major area is our Decar project in British Columbia. So those are the 3 major areas inside a variety of small things that our exploration's looking at, but those are the 3 major ones.

Joseph A. Carrabba

It's a pretty focused work around the exploration of the this year. There's not a lot of outside-the-box type drilling going on or expense.

Timna Tanners - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

If I could just one more. Conceptually speaking, it's early in the year, and it's hard to know of course what the full year is going to look like in terms of iron ore prices and steel prices in the U.S. But can you give us some idea about the variability if we were, say, to see things in China not improve as we're hoping, and in the U.S., let's say the price is closer to 650, 700 instead of 700, 750 for hot rolled. You used to give some of that variability, but can you give us a little bit of idea about what the sensitivity might be on a little lower estimates on both those variables?

Laurie Brlas

About $10 is probably -- really not impact our U.S. Bio business. Too much has changed in the Platts index because, as you know, that's more longer-term pricing. So if you're looking at $1 to $2 a ton maybe, you'd probably get most jobs. If you have a $10 change you'd probably get $8 or so, most of the $10 would drop through on our other businesses which are more directly tied to the Platts pricing.

Timna Tanners - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Okay and on the hot rolled changes, would that have a big impact in the U.S.?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, the hot rolled price is not going to impact our U.S. pricing a lot.

Laurie Brlas

As you know, we've moved a lot of our -- some of our U.S. business to more different contracts and that's not a big material driver anymore.

Operator

Our next question comes from David MacGregor from Longbow Research.

Arun S. Viswanathan - Longbow Research LLC

This is actually Arun Viswanathan on David's line. I guess, I just want to understand. I mean, last year when we're in initial stages of Consolidated Thompson, I think that you guys said that Bloom Lake at some point did get down in the $40, $45 a ton range on cash cost. I mean, do you still see that happening? And as kind of corollary, what has happened over the last year that cost is really kind of what are -- what are you learned through this and what can we do to prevent some of these mishaps in the future?

Joseph A. Carrabba

I think, we don't see $40, $45 a ton that we initially expected when we came out of the mine. We've got a lot of transition to do where we're trading OpEx and CapEx-type positions, more putting capital such as I talked about the tailings management systems in place as we go forward. And as we do, we're building it not for 16 but for 24. So there are a number of decisions that have to go with that. We just found a lot more cost particularly in the labor side as Eastern Canada and all of Canada ramps up on labor cost that are coming up. And certainly on the fly in-fly out basis, the cost of having all of those folks out there and where you have to rotate them out is an expense that a little bit higher than we had anticipated before. So yes, we're settled with the $60 for this year. We feel confident in that and as Laurie said, getting into the 50s, but we don't see going to the $40, $45 range.

Arun S. Viswanathan - Longbow Research LLC

Right, so then in the next phase, do you expect a similar kind of cost ramp out or how does that kind of play out?

Joseph A. Carrabba

We think it's similar -- these are 3 distinct lines. I mean they're all in the same geography, I mean, within hundreds of feet of each other. But they are built of single trains, they're built distinctive. We don't see a lot of synergies that would will get out of it by combining control rooms or maintenance forces or anything like that. So we see similar cost coming down the line.

Arun S. Viswanathan - Longbow Research LLC

I'm sorry, you said that it would start out higher this $90 to $100 ton range or with....

Laurie Brlas

I think, our learning curve will be certainly a little bit faster because we will understand the deposit after having worked with it for 2 years by that point in time. So the learning curve will be much faster. But there is an absolute fixed cost component to all of this. So when you first start out and you're not running at the 8 million-ton run rate for the second leg [ph], we will not be leveraging the fixed cost. It will start out higher, but I would expect maybe not quite as high and I would expect that we would come down more quickly.

Arun S. Viswanathan - Longbow Research LLC

And then the concentrator, would that have a similar kind of 2-year learning curve or is that already kind of done with this buildout?

Joseph A. Carrabba

I think we'd get a steeper ramp up on the curve as Laurie had said, we are figuring out the mine if you will in the blending scheme. And again, it's the same plant set up, the same grinding system. So we should get a much steeper ramp up coming out of this.

Operator

Our next question comes from Michael Gambardella with JPMorgan.

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

A couple of questions. One, can you explain what happened at Amapa? Because it seems now you had previously forecast, I think, about $30 million equity income, now it's breakeven.

Laurie Brlas

Yes. The first thing is there were some tax reserves that were for local taxes that have been reversed. And that is why the first quarter, and this was unexpected, as you know, we don't manage that mine. But that was something we did not anticipate when we gave our original guidance. And so that resulted in a loss for the quarter. We do expect to be profitable for the balance of the year. With pricing being down not quite as profitable, but the major impact is the offset here of what happened in the first quarter.

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Okay. And then on Bloom Lake, in terms of the product sales that you've had to date, how is the pricing premium going compared to what you thought?

Joseph A. Carrabba

The pricing premium, Mike, is -- has shrunk as it has around the world right now and particularly with introduction of the product going to new customers. As you know, we're working with the pricing to get the test cargoes in. But it's a quality product that continues to move into the marketplace because of its quality, but certainly the premium is getting lower.

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Is there a premium to the Wabush material now?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Well there's an iron content premium, but there's a discount because it's concentrate versus color.

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Okay. And just on the chromite project. Are there any possibilities for other major minerals in the deposit that you're looking at right now?

Joseph A. Carrabba

There is, Mike. There's the area, the Ring of Fire, as you know, as it's called up there. In the purchases we made of the juniors that we bought out, we've got a lot of extended land and there's a lot of potential up there for copper, nickel, there's been some small finds up there. I don't think anything economically yet. But certainly with the PGMs [ph] as well that could come through. We have not stepped out and gotten into any of the drilling campaigns there yet. We've stayed very focused within the chromite deposit itself. So we can do all the infill drilling and make sure that we've got that right so in the next year or so we'll start stepping out looking for other minerals.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Sal Tharani from Goldman Sachs.

Sohail Tharani - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

Joe, on the chromite project getting back to it. Is there a opportunity possibility to get a joint venture partner who would also be your off-taker of the product, a lot of big standard steel/new company in the world who are big buyers of chrome?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, Sal, it's a great question. There are numerous opportunities to do that. We've had conversations around the world, early stage, if you can imagine. And there are opportunities within this deposit because of the size and the quality of it, and being open pit, and in Canada that, we have numerous options that we're exploring at this time.

Sohail Tharani - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

So you have been in conversations with some of these?

Joseph A. Carrabba

We have.

Sohail Tharani - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

Okay. The next question, if I may, on the Bloom Lake. Couple of things. First, what is your sort of goal into China and Asia as you're starting to say that you're trying to develop some relationships long-term? And in terms of the mix of what you're doing and different blending, do you see any upside in terms of your -- of getting better revenue per ton by going through -- by doing some better blending over time?

Joseph A. Carrabba

On the first question, yes, we're taking the same philosophy that's important and which is now our Australia iron ore unit, it took many years ago and it's been very successful. We're trying to move the tons around to a lot of quality producers of steel within the area. So we don't want to get fixated on 2 or 3 very large customers, and be beholden to that if the industry or the company itself goes down. So we are exploring this with numerous customers, as we say, in Japan, in Korea, in Taiwan. And as you know, there's 17 to 20 customers that we have in China. So that is the -- that is our strategy is to mix the product around with high-quality steel mills as well as we go through the region and do that. The blend will take the variability. The iron content will not go higher, but the variability on the quality, which the steel makers really like to have, as anybody would, is really what we're striving, Sal, of that. And again, when markets weaken slightly like this, what the quality product and taking the variability out is it allows -- if all things are equal on pricing, that high-quality product is going to enter the market. And that's what we're striving to do.

Operator

Our next question comes from Jessica Fung from BMO Capital Markets.

Jessica Fung - BMO Capital Markets Canada

I wanted to ask Laurie about the MRRT, I guess the value of the asset. And can you give us sort of a general explanation about how that's calculated?

Laurie Brlas

It's actually a market value of our Australian business units. So we did that using our consistent pricing, and there's a lot of factors that go into it, but that's how you start.

Jessica Fung - BMO Capital Markets Canada

So is that considered sort of fee asset allocation that you start with, and then that just gives you sort of credits going forward on the tax?

Laurie Brlas

Yes, that's exactly the way to think about it, Jessica. So our tax rate, I said, will go up 3 to 4 points next year. It would have gone up significantly more if we didn't do this evaluation and use it as credit against it.

Jessica Fung - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Okay, perfect. And my second question is, on capital allocation. I mean, obviously you guys are -- have the $1.7 billion in cash flow this year, with a $1 billion in CapEx and the dividend. But going forward, we still forecast quite significant cash flows being generated by you guys. How focused are you on paying down debt versus increasing a returns to shareholders, et cetera?

Laurie Brlas

Well, we continue to reply a balance philosophy around that, Jessica. We do think that we said numerous times our investment-grade rating is very important to us. So I think paying down some of our debt would be prudent. But I think you continue to see the board look at the dividend as they've done over the last year and continue to look for opportunities to return it to the shareholders as well.

Operator

Our next question comes from Shneur Gershuni from UBS.

Shneur Z. Gershuni - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

My first question, I guess, is about your guidance with respect to the U.S. And I understand that a lot of it has to do with pricing of iron ore and so forth, as well as some of the legacy contract indexes. But in your prepared remarks, you talk about a capacity utilization for the U.S. steel complex of about 75%. It's been running quite a bit above that at this point right now. I'm trying to understand, are you baking in a bit of conservatism into it? Is it really a function of your pushing out all the tons that you can anyway so it doesn't really matter if it goes higher? Or is it a reflection of some of the maintenance that we've been hearing about from some of the other steel mills and you're kind of expecting utilization to take down in the back half of year? I was wondering if you can sort of give us some color with respect to that?

Laurie Brlas

We really don't have much additional tonnage to sell. So from a volume standpoint, that's where our guidance comes from. That's what we've got. And our contracts are fairly well set to increases in capacity utilization. It's not likely to impact the pricing in the United States.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, we're very pleased, obviously, as I think we all are to see the steel industry starting to rebound back to hit those healthy utilization in the high 70s and the low 80s reported last week. That just bodes well for the industry. We do have nominations early in the year that can be adjusted in the first half of the year by the steel industry. And all of the known plan maintenance work is all baked into those nominations, as you can imagine. The way we have to plan and those steel mills have to plan. So we don't see anything lagging in the second half of the year. As you know, we're always on a slow start on the first year with the seasonality, with the locks being closed until the end of the first quarter. And we see those gains coming on. But as Laurie said, I just need to continue to reiterate, we are sold out this year going forward. So it's not conservative. That's just the position we're in.

Shneur Z. Gershuni - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

Great, and my follow-up question, I was wondering if you can talk about the U.S. Iron Ore cost performance. You saw a nice step down. It was a surprisingly good cost number and so forth. If you can give us some color on what's driving this, and will this trend continue as things get rolling again? And is any of this is related to Empire and so forth?

Laurie Brlas

Well, we reported $51 which is, as you noted, on the low end of our expectation. We still expect to be within that range. It's the early part of the year and many things happen in this industry. So I don't think we want to put a finer point to it than to say we're very comfortable that we will be staying within it. Empire is one of our higher cost mines and in the future it cycles off. Most likely, that could impact our cost in the future.

Joseph A. Carrabba

We're seeing the same inflationary pressures on just about in every area of the business that you can imagine going through. We do get a little bit of an offset from the natural gas, which is very nice. But also have a lot of increased pressure on the electrical power pricing as well that goes with it. It kind of offsets things. The increased diesel fuel certainly isn't helping things. It's not as dramatic as other mines as most of our mines are electrified, if you will, the shovels and the drills. It's just the trucks and the ancillary equipment. So we are seeing the inflationary pressures of the Mining business.

Operator

Our next question comes from Nathan Littlewood from Credit Suisse.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

I've got a few questions about Bloom Lake and also a clarification on the MRRT. So first thing on Bloom Lake, the pricing of -- was it was 1 16? I suspect that's a lot lower than what most people on this call were looking for. If we start with a Platts cost of about 1 44, I think you said, and you take off, say, $30 a ton freight, you get an FOB price for index funds of about 1 15, 1 16? There should have been a premium for the grade and there should be another premium for the pellets at Wabush. So I'm just wondering if you could give us a bit more color on why it was so low.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Well, we talked about what's the grade. Those premiums are shrinking as the market has tightened up with that. And the other thing that I explained earlier on the call was, as we put these trial cargoes in, obviously there are some negotiation to get the first draw cargoes in as well. So you would anticipate that at any time you're trying to get an entry point to going in from there. We've also seen the pellets premium shrink as well, around the world, and particularly those pellets that might be going into Asia which are always the first that are cut off in the market tightened, but our sales folks have been to continue to supply those as they come through the Wabush pipeline.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay. So it looks as though, I guess, a customer placement discount is entirely offsetting any grade or quality premium and also the pellet premium for the time being. How long do you think it would take for that customer placement discount to start eroding?

Laurie Brlas

We haven't changed our assumptions for the full year. And if all of this sort of was built into our plan and so we still got an expectation of $144, $145 revenue per ton for the full year. But this was part of the plan that our marketing team had in place.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay. And on the tonnage, you mentioned there was 10 days downtime due to the fire, 10 over 365 is 2.7% of the year, but the production volume's down 10%. Just wondering if you could help us close the gap between 2.7% and 10%.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, sure. As I said, again earlier on the call, within the fourth quarter, which I don't think they immediately shifted the mine from the lower grade ores that we're running to on 12/31 at midnight. We continued to bleed the mine in and to experiment in the first quarter to get our blending right. So I think you've got to take that into account as part of the first quarter as they brought their rates back up and got their blending schemes in place.

Laurie Brlas

And also, keep in mind that guidance we gave is for all of Eastern Canada. So it would take into account Wabush as well as Bloom Lake.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay. And on the Bloom Lake cash cost, I'm just trying to understand how you'd get to the $60 a ton longer term. So if we take out the impact of the fire, then that would suggest that the Bloom Lake cash cost went from $98 down to $82 a ton, because you said there was $16 a ton due to the fire. You multiply that by 1.1 million tons and you come up with $115 million worth of costs for the quarter. You multiply that by 4, you get $460 million operating costs, so for that operation at an annualized rate of 5.6 million tons per annum. So if we said that the cost base was entirely fixed, so the $460 million doesn't change and just divide that by 8, then you get $58 per ton, which is roughly...

Joseph A. Carrabba

Rather than bogging the call down with algebraic gymnastics, maybe we'll -- maybe I can follow-up with you after the call, I will tell you that there was...

Laurie Brlas

It is a significant volume impact and Steve can walk you through the details afterwards. But you're headed in the right direction. It is primarily volume. And there are still improvements. Joe talked about some of the work that's being done. So you got the -- the onetime things need to go away. You need to get the volume up and then there are some improvements that we need to make. So it's really those 3 buckets and I think Steve can walk you through the details.

Steven R. Baisden

Yes, for everyone on the call, the volume impact we think is worth about $12 per ton on a cash cost basis.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay. I guess the intent of the question is to ask on a dollar million basis, what are the potential improvements that you see being realized over the next little while because..

Steven R. Baisden

I have to dig into it and follow-up with you offline, I don't know what the dollar million amount is. But I would say in the second quarter, we'll see cash cost coming down into the $70 range and then progressive improvement in the second half of the year.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

[indiscernible] with clarification on MRRT. So am I right in saying that using the market value method for MRRT because there are some options there?

Laurie Brlas

There are options and we have collected the market value method, yes.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay, and so if you generated a tax credit. Does that mean that the market value is lower than the previous book value for these efforts?

Laurie Brlas

No, it means it's higher.

Nathan Littlewood - Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Okay. And why are we seeing the MRRT adjustment now. I didn't think it came into effect until 1st of July?

Laurie Brlas

The law was enacted in March, which essentially creates this for us that we need to record it as part of the quarter. So there's been some things like in the U.S., the Medicare part B, there are some other things that have happened in the past where a law changes, most people think of a tax when I owe it. But this changes a value on our balance sheet as of the end of March.

Operator

Our next question comes from Jorge Beristain with Deutsche Bank.

Jorge M. Beristain - Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division

Jorge with Deutsche Bank. My question was related to Valley and their announcement about bringing down that pellet premium last week. I think they went from $35 to $32. But importantly they switched back to an annual pellet premium-setting mechanism and I was wondering if it would have any effect on your U.S. pellet pricing formula? And if on a going-forward basis if you're kind of disconnecting from the international pellet premium that Valley's charging versus what you've negotiated in the U.S. in your recent contract?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Jorge, we've read the same thing in publications that I'm sure everybody on the call, the market has read as well. We have not seen the statements directly from Valley nor have we been able to validate that as versus the publication. So that kind's of the step 1 in this. We'd like to see the validation from Valley that indeed this is the deal that they struck and what they've done. And we would certainly strive then, if that is true, since they are the market leader, is that's where we would strive to put the pellet premium in place in our business in the spot business we have around the world with that.

Laurie Brlas

And we don't know if that applies to 100% of their customers or what geographies. And our contract says our commercial payments gone through working them. They take into account various different factors and pellet premiums in publications. So we're early days in trying to understand if it has an impact. But I don't think it's going to change our guidance expectations directly at all.

Jorge M. Beristain - Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division

Would it be fair to say though that your current pellet premium in North America from what I recall, I thought it was mentioned on the conference call 1 or 2 quarters ago, that you've kind of worked out it with a $15 pelletizing premium in the U.S, And so if this turns out to be true and Valley is again now publishing a new international benchmark, if you will, north of 30, does that give you guys any upside kind of opening in your contract. Is your contract's set up to allow this for this eventuality of reestablishment, if you will, of an international pellet benchmark after it had kind of disappeared for the past 2 years.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Jorge, they're all good questions. Again, I think this announcement came out 2 or 3 days ago. Again, one, it hasn't been validated by us anyway as that's what's in the market from Valley, so that's step 1. Step 2 is I wish I had answers and I don't with a 2- or 3-day announcement and publications. Our guys, as you know, our contracts are very complex. And we have to work through all of those with this new change of philosophy, if you will, for pellet premium back to an annual pricing, if that's correct. We got to dig into the contracts and see where they're at. I don't have any answers for you today.

Steven R. Baisden

Shannon, with the hour approaching being up, why don't we go ahead and end the call? Jessica, Miranda and I will be available for any of those participants that have additional questions throughout the day. So please feel free to reach out to us. Thanks, everyone for attending today's call.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Thank you.

Laurie Brlas

Thank you.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes today's conference. Thanks for your participation, have a wonderful day.

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