Author Archives: Raul de Frutos

Aluminum prices have risen around 15% since the beginning of the year.

Benchmark Your Current Aluminum Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

The metal is currently trading at a two-year high, just below $1,950 per metric ton. A slow but steady rise.

The aluminum 3003-H14 Sheet price. Source: MetalMiner Price Benchmark.

This year’s rally comes as markets tries to price in Chinese anti-pollution capacity cuts next winter. The world’s largest nation-producer of the metal will force about a third of aluminum capacity in the provinces of Shandong, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi to be shut down over the winter season, which runs from the middle of November through the middle of March, putting at risk about 1.3 million mt of production. Read more

Most base metals will finish the first quarter up, but nickel is one of those exceptions to the rule.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

The metal has traded up and down to finish the first quarter close to flat. Nickel prices are significantly higher than they were one year ago and traders are now finding little reason to be any more bullish than bearish due to a mix of news that helps both positions.

Nickel prices finish Q1 close to flat. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Philippines Threatens to Stop All Mining

On March 13, The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to stop all mining in the country while reiterating his support for Department of the Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez. Philippine lawmakers recently opted to postpone a decision to confirm or reject the ardent environmentalist as the head of the department. Further confirmation hearings are expected to take place in May. The country’s miners hope Duterte won’t reappoint Lopez and instead find someone more moderate.

Indonesia to Restart Exports

Despite additional closures last month and the potential for more, nickel prices fell this month. It could be that traders doubt that Duterte will enforce such strict regulations, but it also has to do with fears that the resumption of exports from Indonesia will compensate for any supply shortfall in The Philippines. Read more

US Cold-rolled coil prices since 2012. Source:MetalMiner IndX

U.S. Cold rolled-coil prices rose to their highest levels since March of 2012 this week. Spot steel prices saw some upward action in January, however, prices really came under pressure in early February.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

In March, U.S. steel mills are pushing for another round of price hikes. So far, they seem to be succeeding.

China Steel Prices

Hot-rolled coil price spread. Source: MetalMiner IndX

Back in November, we predicted a surge in steel prices as we moved into the new year. When international steel prices rise, U.S. mills can more easily justify a price hike. Chinese prices set the floor for international prices. Last summer, U.S. steel prices declined sharply while Chinese prices held well. That caused the international price arbitrage to come down to normal levels.

The price arbitrage started to widen again this year as momentum in U.S. steel prices picked up. However, the arbitrage is still relatively narrow compared to historical levels, especially in hot-rolled coil. Therefore, U.S. mills still have some room to hike prices. Still, for the rally to be sustained throughout the year, Chinese steel prices will need to keep rising.

Falling Chinese Steel Exports

In January, Chinese steel exports fell near 24% compared to the same month last year. In absolute terms, January steel exports were at their lowest level since June 2014. Exports fell by double digits in the last four months of 2016. While more countries act against the threat of a flood of Chinese steel, we could see further moderation in exports this year, which bodes well for global steel markets. What’s surprising is that exports have falling despite rising output.

According to the data released by the World Steel Association, China’s January steel production rose 7.4% to 67 mmt while global steel production rose 7% from a year ago. In addition, China’s operating steel capacity increased in 2016, since most of the announced cuts in capacity were already idle.

So far, solid demand in China has absorbed the increase in output, or at least most of it. The Caixin Manufacturing PMI in China rose to 51.7 in February, beating market expectations and marking the eighth-straight month of growth. In addition, there are rumors that China is stocking its excess steel production. According to SteelHome, hot-rolled coil and rebar inventories in China have surged so far this year.

All About Production Cuts

In conclusion, U.S. mills could continue to raise prices in the short-term. However, for a sustained bull market in steel prices, Chinese steel prices will have to rise as well. China’s domestic demand looks strong, but it won’t be enough to support a rising price trend in the face of rising output.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Beijing has ordered curbs on steel and aluminum output in as many as 28 northern cities during the winter heating season, as it steps up its fight against pollution, but we need to see if those cuts actually materialize this year. China will need to intensify its efforts to curtail excess steel capacity. Otherwise, if production continues to grow unabated, it could hamper this price recovery.

The U.S. dollar fell sharply last Wednesday against a basket of currencies as the Federal Reserve announced a rate increase of a quarter point.

US Dollar index: Source @stockcharts.com.

The move seems to contradict common economic wisdom. In theory, higher raters in the U.S. should make the dollar more attractive for yield-seeking investors when interest are rates are lower around the globe. Then, what caused the currency to weaken?

All About Expectations

A rate increase came as no surprise to U.S. markets. The real surprise came in the language that wrapped the announcement. Fed officials intend to keep raising rates, however they want to keep the economy from getting too hot… but also not too cold.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Investors were probably betting on an acceleration in the path of raising interest rates, not a warming down. Read more

3-Month London Metal Exchange zinc price. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Zinc prices climbed last week. The metal is now trading near the milestone of $3,000 per metric ton. The last time prices hit this level was in September 2007.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Zinc has doubled in price since it hit bottom in January of last year. As prices climbed, many buyers probably made the mistake of thinking prices were too high, missing this spectacular rally. However, buyers that subscribe to our monthly outlook, didn’t miss this rally. We recommended buying forward starting in April of 2016. Ever since, prices have risen without looking back. Read more

If I was a copper miner, I would be rubbing my hands because copper prices are looking healthy as a horse.

Supply Disruptions

Workers at Cerro Verde mine in Peru put down there tools on Friday, halting output of 40,000 metric tons per month in a dispute over labor conditions (here’s a video interview and analysis I did about it for Swiss Financial Television). The strike stretched into its fourth day yesterday after a meeting between the union and management failed to resolve it on Monday. The mine is currently making about half as much copper as it normally does, because owner Freeport-McMoran hired contract workers to operate key areas.

Benchmark Your Current Copper Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

The action adds to disruptions at the world’s two largest copper mines, Escondida in Chile and Grasberg in Indonesia, which are losing production daily due to a strike and an export ban respectively.

The Technical Picture

Three-month London Metal Exchange copper. Source:MetalMiner analysis of fastmarkets.com data.

The technical picture is important because it tells a lot about what buyers and sellers are doing. Copper rose nearly 30% in November. Usually, after such a huge run it’s normal to see some selling but we haven’t really seen that yet.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Since November, prices are holding pretty well and that’s a sign that bulls are still in control. A sharp price decline in oil prices last week would normally bring other commodities down but copper held its ground well. The red metal continues to make higher highs and higher lows, a textbook definition of a healthy uptrend.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The diagnosis is that while copper’s bull market doesn’t show real signs of weakness, we continue to expect further upside moves. Buyers should keep an eye on the ongoing supply disruptions because they could hurt your budget.

Following two consecutive hearings last week, the Philippines’ mining industry expressed its confidence that the Commission on Appointments (CA) will reject Gina Lopez as the Environment secretary, emphasizing that she was unable to persuade the members of the committee. Lopez is among just a few of President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointees yet to be confirmed by lawmakers. Nickel prices fell 10% as bears believe there will be a rejection.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Nickel’s bull market started when Duterte became president of the Philippines in June. Prices gained throughout the year as Lopez led an environmental crackdown on the Philippine mining industry.

Developments in the nickel industry. Source: Raul De Frutos/MetalMiner analysis of LME data.

The Philippines is the top nickel ore exporter and Lopez’s approval would probably sustain worries over supply disruptions that could lift global prices this year. On the other hand, a rejection would give miners a key win in the battle against environmentalists, adding pressure to nickel prices.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

President Duterte continues to throw support to Lopez, but at the same time he is hoping for a happy compromise between environmentalists and the mining industry, amid rising concerns over job and revenue losses. Read more

Aluminum led industrial metals in February. Prices on the London Metal Exchange rose above $1,900 per metric ton for the first time since May 2015.

Benchmark Your Current Aluminum Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

In February, China finally approved its Air Pollution Control regulations, which came into effect on the March 1.The world’s largest nation-producer of the metal will force about a third of aluminum capacity in the provinces of Shandong, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi to be shut down over the winter season, which runs from the middle of November through the middle of March.

Aluminum MMI

The idea was first proposed in January and initially there was skepticism. Markets know that in the aluminum industry it takes time to ramp down and ramp back up production with smelters taking significant losses. This time, China is committed to enforcing the new law and it will prevent local authorities from protecting local smelters.

Capacity Crunch

Some 40% of China’s total capacity is potentially affected and analysts estimate that a 1.3 million mt of output will be lost. However, this figure could be larger since the new law will also impact the supply of raw materials such as alumina and carbon anode plants. Other industry analysts see a loss of 3 mmt of aluminum capacity.

The previous years of supply surplus might provide some cushion against the sort of disruption planned by Beijing. However, this potential supply shock is unprecedented in the aluminum industry and could translate into a complete game changer in terms of aluminum’s fundamentals.

Chinese citizens have previously protested about pollution issues, but tensions are getting much worse. In February, more than 200 people chanted and held banners outside the Daqing city government headquarters to protest against a new aluminum plant. Although the plant would produce more than 30,000 jobs to locals, they now prioritize pollution reduction over employment. As we’ve warned in previous reports, it’s hard to put a limit to aluminum’s price potential as smog moves to the top of Beijing’s policy agenda.

Midwest Premiums Hit $0.1/Pound

Midwest premiums rise to $0.1/pound. Source: MetalMiner IndX.

Midwest premiums continued to climb in February, hitting an almost three-year high. As we warned last month, in addition to higher aluminum prices due to supply cuts, we could see higher aluminum premiums this year due to ongoing trade tensions, just as we saw the spread between domestic and international steel prices widen.

The U.S. experienced a sharp contraction in aluminum smelting capacity over the past year. This has created a case of supply shortfall within the U.S., which now depends on aluminum imports to satisfy its rising domestic demand.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

This year, the U.S. launched a formal complaint against the Chinese government with the World Trade Organization over subsidies it says Beijing provides to the country’s vast aluminum industry. The fight against imports is getting more serious and this is something that could support domestic aluminum premiums this year.

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Our stainless MMI gained in February as nickel prices rebounded. Prices had fallen in December and January as Indonesia relaxed its ban on exports of nickel ore. But nickel bulls ran over the bears last month as the Philippines ordered more mine shutdowns. As we expected, the shutdowns in the Philippines are a great driver of prices.

Stainless MMI

On February 2, the Philippines ordered the closure of 21 mines, and seven others could be suspended. The nickel mines recently ordered to shut down account for about 50% of the country’s annual output. As a result, investors sent nickel back to $11,000 per metric ton by the end of February.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Stainless buyers will need to monitor nickel’s supply. These two major producer nations’ actions will continue to move the gauge on price direction this year. Meanwhile, the demand side of the equation will likely limit any significant downside in nickel prices this year.

The Caixin Manufacturing PMI in China beat market expectations in February, rising to 51.7 from 51 in January. It marked the eighth straight month of growth, driven by faster rises in output and new orders. In addition, stock markets in China hit new highs, signaling that investors’ sentiment on China’s economy remains strong. This is usually a bullish sign for industrial metal prices, including nickel. This relationship has been really strong since China became the world’s top producer and consumer of commodities. In the U.S., the closely watched ISM manufacturing index hit 57.7 in February, marking the highest level since August 2014.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Also in February, the Department of Commerce placed final, affirmative anti-dumping and countervailing duties on imports of stainless steel sheet and strip from China. Domestic flat-rolled mills are benefiting from these actions, with lead times of eight weeks.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Industrial metals continue to rise on robust demand and shrinking supply. The supply/demand fundamentals of the nickel industry look more complex than those of other base metals. However, higher import duties in stainless markets and the ongoing bullish sentiment on industrial metals will at least, prevent nickel prices from significant downside moves.

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Copper prices remained supported in February, trading in the ballpark of $6,000 per metric ton as a return to production at two top mines — which are combined responsible for some 8% of global output — looks increasingly doubtful in the near term.

Escondida Mine

A strike at the Escondida in Chile, the world’s largest copper mine, appeared far from ending during February. The strike increasingly turned more violent as protesters blocked roads and battled police. The events reflect the increasing bitterness and division between the two sides, as positions still appear to be far apart after almost four weeks of strike. Key differences include disagreement over changes to shift patterns and the level of benefits new workers receive.

Grasberg Mine

Meanwhile, Freeport-McMoran is under a concentrate export ban as it negotiates a new operating license from the government of Indonesia. Having limited storage capacity, the company will be forced to drastically cut output if Indonesia doesn’t give the company an export license to send material to its local smelter for processing.

Copper MMI

In late February, the company announced that it sees “no returning to business as usual,” as the miner cut output and laid off workers. Copper concentrate production at the mine has been stopped since Feb. 11, and ore output is being limited to stockpiling for future processing.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

In a memo, The company stated that during February it revised its operating plans, slowed its underground expansion and announced plans to drastically reduce manpower levels in an effort to cut costs as the company needs to survive while it works with the government to achieve a mutually viable solution to resume exports. So far, that agreement doesn’t seem close to coming together in the near term.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

This year, there will be other temporary suspensions at smaller copper mines such at El Soldado mine in Chile. In addition, some major contract negotiations in large mines are due this year.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Copper prices might look expensive compared to what they were just three months ago, however sentiment in the industrial metals complex remains quite bullish and current supply issues could turn into large deficits if stoppages and disruptions are prolonged. It’s seems early to call for an end on copper’s bull market.

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