* Dalian iron ore falls as much as 5.1%
* Benchmark spot iron ore at 5-1/2-yr high
* Steel down but still near multi-year highs (Updates with closing prices, graphic)
By Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA, July 4 (Reuters) - Iron ore futures in China fell sharply on Thursday, taking a breather after a five-day rally that pushed prices of the steelmaking raw material to their highest in more than five years.
The most-active iron ore contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange, for delivery in September, slid as much as 5.1% to 856 yuan ($124.54) a tonne, before closing 3.8% lower at 868 yuan.
Dalian iron ore prices have doubled this year as port stocks across China shrank to their lowest since early 2017 due to reduced shipments from top exporters Australia and Brazil, as well as robust demand. SH-TOT-IRONINV
Benchmark spot iron ore for delivery to China SH-CCN-IRNOR62 jumped 2.4% to $126.50 a tonne on Wednesday, the highest since early 2014, data from SteelHome consultancy showed. Dalian iron ore rallied to 911.5 yuan a tonne on the same day, the highest since the benchmark’s launch in 2013.
Spot iron ore may surge more into a resistance range of $132.10-$134 a tonne next week, a break above which could open the way towards $147.50, a technical analysis shows.
Weather disturbances and operational issues have prompted the world’s biggest iron ore miners in Australia to lower their output and shipment estimates for this year, while supply from Brazil dropped in the wake of mine shutdowns by top producer VALE SA.
Shipments from the two major exporters, Australia and Brazil, showed a recovery in June, suggesting that the supply crunch is starting to ease, said Reuters columnist Clyde Russel, citing vessel-tracking and port data compiled by Refinitiv.
Some analysts, however, believe iron ore prices will remain supported as steel prices hover near multi-year peaks.
Increased purchases by steel mills have provided additional support to iron ore, as profit margins for steel production improved in June, a traditional off-season for steel demand, said Helen Lau, analyst at Argonaut Securities.
Steel prices rose in June amid output curbs in China’s top steel-producing city of Tangshan. The number of blast furnaces dropped due to production controls, resulting in higher margins, she said in a note.
“Looking ahead, this production control is expected to strengthen further through summer,” Lau said. “Therefore, the steel margin should continue to be well supported, which again will support iron ore prices in our view.”
Prices for other steelmaking materials were mixed on Thursday, with Dalian coking coal futures down 0.5% at 1,376 yuan a tonne, while coke futures rose 2% to 2,154.5 yuan.
Steel futures ended a volatile session slightly lower, with the most-active October rebar contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange down 0.4% at 4,024 yuan a tonne. The construction steel benchmark jumped to its highest in more than eight years on Monday at 4,148 yuan a tonne.
Hot rolled coil, steel used in cars and home appliances, dipped 0.3% to 3,892 yuan a tonne. It touched an all-time high of 4,049 yuan on Monday.
($1 = 6.8734 yuan)
Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Joseph Radford and Rashmi Aicg