NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Last week, the manufacturing-and-transportation supply chain that transforms rock in the earth into steel inside buildings and cars and refrigerators and the like underwent a major revolution that will have an impact on each point in that chain.
The shipping companies that transport the iron ore and the coking coal to the steelmakers of the world are, of course, caught right smack in the middle of the revolution, like some petite bourgeoisie in 1789 France.
In what appears to be a fait accompli at this point, the world's three biggest iron ore miners -- BHP Billiton (BBL), Rio Tinto (RTP) and Vale (VALE - Get Report) -- will soon sell their rocks and pellets and fines to steelmakers in Asia and Europe based on a quarterly system linked to the spot market. Gone is the old annual system in which the miners would ink supply deals with their customers, locking in ore prices for a year. (A small portion -- the leftovers -- would then trade on the spot market.)
Though the whole world will be affected by the changes, the drama played out as contest between the mining giants and China, whose steel industry has exploded to become the largest in the world as the furnaces roar to produce steel to service a billion-plus population.Specifics on exactly how the new pricing system will work remain unclear, but the results could be fiscally troubling for the ship owners, depending no how tightly the new contracts are linked to the spot market. Every big name in the dry-bulk sector has a stake in the iron-ore sea changes, from DryShips (DRYS - Get Report) to Diana Shipping (DSX - Get Report) to Genco Shipping & Trading (GNK - Get Report) to Eagle Bulk Shipping (EGLE) and Excel Maritime (EXM - Get Report). Before the outcome of this year's sea-change negotiation, we asked those readers of TheStreet who have a financial interest in the dry-bulk sector: What's best for the shipping business? The long-term status quo? Some kind of quarterly contract? Or a shift that brings the trade of iron ore close to the spot market, ala copper? Participants in our poll, it turns out, voted overwhelmingly with reality: 48% believed that a quarterly contract, with its implied compromise between steelmakers and miners, would represent the best outcome for those with a stake in shipping profits.