Wuhan Steel is first major mill to release March prices
* Baosteel also likely to lift prices - analysts
* Price increases mainly to pass on higher costs (Adds details, analyst's comment)
SHANGHAI, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Wuhan Iron & Steel Co Ltd (600005.SS), China's third-largest steelmaker, will raise prices of its major products by 300 yuan ($45.50) per tonne for March bookings as part of efforts to pass on rising raw materials costs to end buyers.
Wuhan Steel's announcement on Monday, which followed increases to its January and February prices, make it the first domestic integrated steel mill to announce price increases for hot-rolled and cold-rolled coil for March.
Steel mills in China, the world's top iron ore consumer, have been pushed to raise prices of finished steel products to reflect surging costs of raw materials, including coking coal and iron ore.
Indian ore with 63.5 percent iron content was quoted at $197-199 per tonne on Monday including freight to China, traders said, up 10 percent since the beginning of the year.
"Steel mills have struggled with surging costs of upstream raw materials and have had to raise prices to maintain their current margins," said BOC International Futures analyst Jiang Zhiwei. "The construction of affordable housing will also bolster demand for steel products in March and April, and we can't see any obvious signs of price falls in the near future."
China's top listed steelmaker Baoshan Iron & Steel Co Ltd (600019.SS), the traditional pricing leader for the domestic steel market, is also expected by market players to raise prices of its main product prices for March bookings.
Wuhan Steel shares closed up 2.5 percent on Monday, outpacing the broader Shanghai Composite Index's .SSEC 1.3 percent gain. Baosteel rose 3.4 percent.
Baosteel raises March product prices
SHANGHAI Feb 15 (Reuters) - China's top listed steelmaker Baoshan Iron & Steel (Baosteel) (600019.SS: Quote) will raise its main product prices for March bookings by around 300 yuan ($45.50) per tonne, steel consultancy Custeel.com said on Tuesday.
In a statement on its website, the consultancy said Baosteel would raise prices for hot-rolled coil by 300 yuan per tonne, while prices for cold-rolled coil would go up by 260-300 yuan per tonne.
It is the third month in a row that Baosteel is raising its prices, in a move to cope with surging raw materials costs, including coking coal and iron ore.
"The increases are within expectation as recovering orders from downstream sectors and higher raw materials costs have forced domestic steelmakers to raise prices," said Hu Yanping, an analyst with industry consultancy Custeel.com.
Despite the high cost of iron ore, China imported a record 69.0 million tonnes of the material in January, Chinese customs data showed on Monday. The monthly value of shipments rose for the third month in a row, skyrocketing to a record of $10.4 billion.
"We expect the problem with refractory material (cost-push and technical issues) to last for a while and prices for HRC/CRC could increase in short run," Citi Investment Research & Analysis said in a research note.
HEADWIND IN MARCH?
Spot iron ore prices rose to fresh record highs and were likely to extend their winning streak on Tuesday, prompting Asian steelmakers to increase product prices.
Outside of China, Japan's top steelmaker Nippon Steel Corp also raised February contract price for H-beam steel by 3-4 percent, joining the battle to pass on surging upstream raw materials costs to end users.
The most active October rebar futures on the Shanghai Futures Exchange touched a high of 5,196 yuan per tonne on Tuesday, near the record 5,230 yuan hit last Friday.
Despite sharp gains, some analysts believe the post-holiday rally in steel prices is likely to come to an end in March as traders and end users may not be able to accept aggressive price hikes as the intensifying monetary tightening measures continues to weigh on prices and demand.
Chinese inflation was lower than expected at 4.9 percent in the year to January, but price pressures continued to build and will force the central bank to stick to its course of monetary tightening.
"The most serious threat to the current steel price is the accelerating production pace of private steel mills," Henry Liu, head of Commodities/Metals & Mining of Hong Kong-based Mirae Asset, said in a research report.
"Steel mills are recklessly boosting their ex-factory prices, which further squeezes the margins of traders. The party will come to an end when traders find it difficult to finance their inventories," Liu added.
Citi also noted that marginal producers' cash profit for rebar continues shrinking as leading steel mills mainly produce high-end flat products. ($1=6.596 Yuan)