Indonesia issued significant new mining rules last Thursday that will relax its ban on exports of nickel ore. Over the weekend, I went to check analysts’ opinions on this new development. Not surprisingly, almost everyone thinks this is bearish news for nickel prices.
I am often a contrarian and this time, of course, I have a different opinion. I think the outcome of this revision is bullish for prices. What’s more, I think this is a great opportunity to buy nickel since prices might trade above today’s levels for the rest of the year.
Indonesian Nickel Ban
Before we get to analyze the price impact of the new rules, let’s quickly review what the ban was about in the first place:
Indonesia imposed an export ban for unprocessed material — essentially raw ore — back in 2014. A year before the ban kicked in, Indonesia exported around 60 million metric tons of nickel ore. Nickel ore contains an average of 1 to 3.5% of nickel. Indonesia banned exports to encourage downstream investment as this would eventually be better for the country, as it would make more revenue as the material is processed domestically and it would build a local processing industry. Read more
Last week, tin prices on the London Mercantile Exchange increased but the real story has been overall commodity pressure to begin 2017.
According to a recent report from the Economic Calendar, tin has ebbed and flowed in a narrow range to begin the year with last week’s upward move attributed to “a slight pullback in the value of the U.S. dollar.”
Donald Levit wrote: “Tin experienced a positive performance in 2016 amid solid demand from China with idled domestic tin capacity resulting in the need for higher imports. However, concerns are that China will start to ramp up its idled capacity, and that will change the market.”
China’s manufacturing PMI registered higher than expected recently, adding to tin’s momentum. In November, China imported more tin ore and concentrates with refined tin imports falling off substantially, the news source stated.
How will tin and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth copper price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:
Indonesia introduced new rules last week that will allow exports of nickel ore and bauxite and concentrates of other minerals under certain conditions in a sweeping policy shift by the key global supplier, Reuters reported.
A ban on unprocessed ore exports was imposed in 2014 to, the thinking went, encourage investment in mills and smelters in the islands. The government of Southeast Asia’s biggest economy has faced a hefty budget deficit since and missed its 2016 revenue target by $17.6 billion.
The resumption of shipments may have been drafted to help stop the gap.
The new regulations, which took effect on Wednesday, sent nickel prices tumbling more than 5% to a four-month low of $9,660 a metric ton before they recovered.
Aluminum on the London Metal Exchange has been trading broadly between $1,700 and $1,750 per metric ton for much of the fourth quarter. Maybe not to the same extent as copper or zinc, but aluminum along with most of the base-metal sector benefited from renewed investor interest as 2016 went on. Although net long positions have been trimmed back following some recent significant deliveries into LME warehouses, the consensus remains positive regarding prices for 2017. Read more
The price you pay for your steel pretty much depends on two things:
Prices in China, since they set the floor for international steel prices.
How much of a premium U.S. mills are able to justify over that price.
Graphic: Raul de Frutos/MetalMiner.
Prices in China are moved by supply and demand dynamics. We’ve explained in previous posts that overall, things are setting up for Chinese prices to continue to trend higher. While demand has been better than expected, China met its 2016 capacity cuts goal and further cuts are expected to take place this year as the country tackles its pollution issues.
However, in this post we’ll focus on the premium that U.S. customers pay. This price spread between U.S. and international prices is also very important and could make your purchases more expensive in the coming months.
Spread between HRC US and HRC China. Source: MetalMiner IndX.
Spreads have fallen sharply over the past few months. The spread between U.S. and Chinese hot-rolled coil (HRC) prices is now $97/ton. To put this in context, consider that this spread was $276/ton just seven months ago. Read more
Set of copper pipes of different diameter lying in one heap
Copper prices increased last week on the heels of Chinese data indicating inflation growth, reassuring strong demand from the world’s largest consumer of the metal.
According to a report from MarketWatch, copper for March delivery grew 2.9% on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange last Tuesday, which was the largest one-day increase in nearly two months.
“The 2017 growth rate was supported (by) much faster than expected project ramp ups in Peru in particular, and much lower than statistically normal rates of production losses through the year,” Citi wrote, according to the news source. “We believe both of these factors will be difficult to replicate in 2017.”
Overall, a weaker dollar was supporting metals and, in the short-term, a reduction in copper stocks in LME warehouses indicates a tighter market, which could further boost prices.
Copper Bounces Back from December
Our own Raul de Frutos wrote recently that copper prices declined some in December, along with other industrial metals, but the bull narrative is still in effect:
“The recent price decline in copper prices wasn’t that dramatic. So far, it seems like the bulls are still in control. A strong dollar and a possible slowdown in Chinese demand are factors that could bring prices down. Up until now, China’s demand looks strong and the dollar hasn’t had a big impact on metal prices. Therefore, we need actual reasons to turn bearish on copper,” he wrote.
How will copper and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth copper price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:
As the new year dawns, we turn our eyes toward the metal markets of 2017. Will the bull run of 2016 continue? What will be the standout performer of the metals we track? Will New Coke finally make a comeback as Even Newer Coke? Only to re-reintroduce Coke Classic in all its aluminum-encased glory? We have predictions. Lots of them.
Steel on Wheels
That’s right, the North American steel market is picking up steam and chugging toward expanded production and renewed profitability for many of the companies we track. Contributor James May said this week that flat products will enjoy higher demand while hot-rolled coil capacity will expand thanks to a combination of new capacity going online (Big River Steel‘s plant is set to open) and the trade policies of the incoming Trump Administration.
Iron Ore Overseas
China consumes over 70% of the world’s seaborne iron ore and a strong year for the Chinese economy bolstered the steelmaking raw material from from $40 per metric ton to $70/mt in global markets last year, an increase that helped re-energize the bottom lines of mining majors Rio Tinto Group, Vale SA, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group.
This week, Sohrab Darabshaw pointed out that that was cold comfort to smaller miners in India who are still hamstrung by high export taxes and can’t get their ore into China or other lucrative world markets. That could change soon, but MetalMiner Co-Founder Stuart Burns was even more cautious, reminding us that physical iron ore prices were influenced by a rampant futures market last year.
Source: Adobe Stock/Geargodz
“The interplay of the futures market, physical demand from steel mills, and seaborne iron ore supply has too many variables to predict 2017 and ’18 with any certainty,” he said.
While some of the markets are still murky, one thing we all agreed on this week was, once Donald Trump is installed as President of the United States, 2017 certainly won’t be boring when it comes to international trade. Read more
The Obama administration also launched a formal complaint Thursday against the Chinese government with the World Trade Organization over subsidies it says Beijing provides to the country’s vast aluminum industry.
The move against the stockpile of aluminum connected to Chinese billionaire Liu Zhongtian, the owner and CEO of aluminum company China Zhongwang, is the strongest action yet by federal authorities probing whether U.S. companies connected to the Chinese magnate illegally avoided nearly 400% tariffs by routing the metal through other countries.
An aluminum stockpile like this one has been seized by Homeland Security.
We previously reported the whereabouts of the aluminum stockpile as it curiously moved around the globe. China Zhongwang has denied any connection to the stockpile or its movements, but hundreds of shipping containers of aluminum were seized this week by the Department of Homeland Security. The containers are owned by Perfectus Aluminum, Inc., a California company founded by Mr. Liu’s son, Liu Zuopeng. Perfectus is now run by one of Liu’s close business associates, Jacky Cheung, who runs several companies with connections to Liu.
Homeland Security is conducting laboratory tests on the aluminum to determine whether the metal is restricted under U.S. law, according to federal court documents. The seized aluminum is in the form of pallets and court records don’t state which company manufactured the aluminum. The WJ saw shipping records which show that a separate company called Peng Cheng — which later became part of Perfectus in a merger—imported the metal from an affiliate of China Zhongwang in 2013 and 2014.
Homeland Security and the Justice Department are investigating whether the companies committed criminal or civil violations that could include smuggling, conspiracy and wire fraud. The WSJ reported that Homeland Security agents have also questioned former employees of the companies associated with Liu, according to people familiar with the investigation.
WTO Case Against Chinese Aluminum Subsidies
As for the subsidies case, the U.S. Trade Representative‘s office said in a formal complaint that China’s actions in the aluminum sector violate WTO rules prohibiting subsidies that cause “serious prejudice” to other members of the trade body. Read more
Average grain-oriented electrical steel surcharges fell for the third year in a row. 2016 average surcharges took the biggest hit because Allegheny Technologies stopped production of GOES. AK Steel did not implement a surcharge until July 2016.
Our own GOES M3 MMI showed only small price movements from month to month. The index hit a low of 181 back in July and today shows a modest recovery to 192, a 5% gain.
GOES follows its own fundamentals (e.g. supply and demand) and does not always follow the price arc of other more common forms of steel such as cold-rolled coil or hot-rolled coil. In fact, some of the wider trade dynamics for those forms of steel had little to no impact on GOES.
Which brings us to a larger issue. Will President-elect Trump, who is arguably pro-steel and who has gone on record against China’s trade practices, implement any policies that will likely impact GOES markets?
To begin, the nature of trade between the two countries, the U.S. and China, appears more complicated than what can be seen by the naked eye. Raw material/commodity-like supply chains lack the complexities of supply chains found in industries such as electronics. Blanket tariffs are easy to issue and calculate for commodities that move from point A to point B. But electronics industry supply chains involve components, parts, sub-assemblies, final assembly, etc. across multiple countries and locations. A blanket tariff on electronics will harm China much more than other countries as the tariff would apply to the “final point of assembly.” This could create all sorts of electronics shortages and problems here in the U.S.
Why Are We Discussing Electronics Supply Chains?
Because it would be easier to get tougher on China for commodities such as steel. And though China has curbed excess capacity in recent years, we could see a scenario in which tough trade policies such as a tariffs could significantly limit Chinese imports, which currently make up about 10% of domestic steel demand according to a recent analysis by Stratfor.
China will retaliate but a scenario exists that China could account for far less steel imports into the U.S. than it currently does (China has cut excess capacity already). In terms of grain oriented electrical steel, however, China does not represent the bulk of GOES imports into the U.S., in fact, Japan, Russia and the U.K. are far bigger GOES exporters to the U.S.
Therefore, any President Trump trade policy that goes into effect (no pun intended) will likely have a bigger impact on the broader steel markets and a far less significant impact on the U.S. GOES market.
Next month, we will examine the potential impact of NAFTA changes on GOES markets.
Grain-Oriented Electrical Steel M3 retook last month’s loss rising by more than 3%.
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At the beginning of the year, it’s always fun to look forward and pick out some of the themes for the year. 2016 was certainly volatile as hot-rolled coil pricing went from $360 a ton to $600/ton, then back to the low $400s/ton before recovering to $600/ton. Phew! Read more