Articles on: Metal Prices

Our March price trends report, which analyzes the entire month of February’s price data from the MetalMiner IndX, shows robust price increases in metals markets that are still running with the bulls.

March Price Trends

Our Stainless MMI led the pack, increasing 6.8%, but the copper, raw steels, aluminum and rare earths sub-indexes all showed strong gains, as well.

One area of concern this month is that oil prices have fallen back below $50 per barrel as U.S.
shale producers beat expectations by adding 8.2 million barrels to existing reserves. Low oil
prices would benefit metals producers by keeping energy and transportation costs lower, but
they also may drag down other commodities with them.

We don’t usually see investment metals such as platinum and gold increasing at the same time
as base metals, either, but positive sentiment about the economy had both increasing this month. So, until we see anything that points otherwise, a rising tide is still lifting all the (metals) boats.

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.

As one might misquote Mark Twain, we have been here before.

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

In 2016, analysts were queued up to predict the iron ore price was going to collapse only for it continue its relentless rise. The recent pull back from $90 per metric ton has brought a fresh crop of dire predictions. Yet maybe, just maybe, there is more validity this time around for caution as to future price direction. There are a number of factors, each of which individually does not signal a price reversal but collectively suggests iron ore prices later this year could be lower than they have been in the first quarter.

Why Iron Ore Prices Might Really Fall

An article in the Australian Financial Review quotes analysts saying, the strength of recent pricing is encouraging Chinese domestic production to increase. In the first half in 2016 it was averaging a 220 million mt per year run rate, but rose to 280 mmt per year in the second half of the year. At the same time, global supply continues to rise with not just increased shipments from Australia but also number three miner Vale SA expanding supply from its $14 billion S11D mine. Read more

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

U.S. M3 grain-oriented electrical steel prices dropped slightly with the M3 index moving from 200 to 197.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Though U.S. prices dipped slightly, China’s Baosteel announced a price hike for GOES close to $40 per metric ton, according to a recent TEX Report. Although the Chinese have led recent GOES and other steel product price hikes, others have not necessarily followed. Nevertheless, Chinese steel prices set the floor for global steel prices.

GOES MMI

Now that the Trump administration has begun to settle in, market observers have paid close attention to trade actions within the metals industry, particularly the cold-rolled coil circumvention case and most recently a case filed by the Aluminum Association against China involving aluminum foil. Both the domestic steel and aluminum industries have pursued trade cases to address overcapacity concerns.

GOES Prices and NAFTA

GOES markets follow some of these same patterns. Back in 2013, GOES from China accounted for about 10% of total U.S. GOES imports (by tonnage). Clearly, the trade cases filed by the domestic producers at the time limited Chinese imports, but that trade case sought to stop other countries’ imports as much as China’s.

Herein lies a big difference between the GOES case and the aluminum case as well as the prior flat-rolled product steel cases. The GOES trade case did not result in any finding of injury, so no anti-dumping and countervailing duties were assessed. Instead, domestic power equipment manufacturers shifted their global supply chains to source GOES globally and purchase transformer parts and wound cores from NAFTA countries.

Some have speculated that two years ago, the addition of two new harmonized tariff codes for both transformer parts (8504.90.9546) and wound cores (8504.90.9542) would set the stage for future trade cases brought by the lone domestic GOES producer. We think this looks like a “stretch” and, legally, we’re not even sure there is a case to be had as AK Steel currently does not manufacture transformer parts or wound cores.

Import volumes for wound cores have modestly increased, but imports for transformer parts have actually declined:

GOES imports from 2015 to today

GOES imports from 2015 to today. Source: Lisa Reisman/MetalMiner.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: Adding GOES Price Benchmarking Soon!

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Set of copper pipes of different diameter lying in one heap

The newly opened Cobre Panama mine in Central America could begin copper production as early as 2018 and reach full throttle by the end of 2019, which would be a much needed supply boost for a copper market that is set for its first deficit in six years and could be in shortage through 2020.

According to a recent post from Bloomberg, mine disruptions led to copper prices growing roughly 25% over the past six months. Demand in China and a boost in U.S. infrastructure have made copper the biggest gainer in Bloomberg’s Commodity Index.

Want a short- and medium-term buying outlook for aluminum, copper, tin, lead, zinc, nickel and several forms of steel? Subscribe to our monthly buying outlook reports!

“Good copper projects are scarce at these prices,” First Quantum President Clive Newall told Bloomberg in a phone interview Monday from London. “There is an incentive price to build new greenfield sites, which is significantly above the current price.”

A Citigroup report added that copper prices need to rise another 15% to about $6,700 a ton before mining companies commit to new greenfield projects, which translates to the industry not likely boosting capital spending until 2019.

Copper Prices Drop this Week

Hit by a supply overload, multiple sources are reporting that copper prices fell to a two-month low this week.

Wrote Leia Toovey for the Economic Calendar:

“Factors adding pressure to copper include a higher U.S. dollar, disappointing import data from China and a pile-up of LME-tracked inventories. Also, on Thursday BHP Billiton said it was considering bringing in temporary workers to bring some copper production back online that has been impacted by the strike at its Escondida copper mine.”

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:

U.S. infrastructure was given a near-failing grade of D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) yesterday, the largest trade association of the civil engineering profession in the U.S. This was the second time in two reports that our national roads, bridges, railways, airports, dams and other infrastructure sites barely avoided the dreaded F.  The criticism could give momentum to President Donald Trump’s vow of a $1 trillion investment to rebuild everything from roads to dams.

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

The D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers‘ (ASCE) is unchanged from its last report card in 2013, suggesting that only minor progress had been made in improving public works.

The ASCE estimated in a statement that the United States needed to invest $4.59 trillion by 2025 to bring its infrastructure to an adequate B- grade, a figure about $2 trillion higher than current funding levels.

Chinese Steel Exports Plummet

Chinese steel exports tumbled to a three-year low in February, customs data showed on Wednesday, lower than expectations, as steelmakers in the world’s top producer shifted to meeting rising demand at home.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Shipments for the month were 5.75 million metric tons, the lowest since February 2014, data from the General Administration of Customs showed. It was down 29.1% from a year ago and down 22.5% from January.

With aluminum premiums on the rise in the U.S. and Europe, and Japanese inventories falling amid growing demand, producers are upping the ante by charging the Pacific Rim a higher premium for the second quarter in a row.

According to a recent report from Reuters, three global aluminum producers offered buyers in Japan a premium of $135 per metric ton for shipments of the metal in Q2. This would mark an increase of 42% quarter-over-quarter.

Want a short- and medium-term buying outlook for aluminum, copper, tin, lead, zinc, nickel and several forms of steel? Subscribe to our monthly buying outlook reports!

“The producers claimed that the rise mainly reflected higher premiums in the U.S. market, but we think $135 is too high as we don’t feel much supply tightness here,” a source at an end-user told the news source, adding that his company would aim for premiums at around $120-125/mt.

Aluminum Leads the Charge in February

Our own Raul de Frutos wrote this week that of all the industrial metals, aluminum performed the best in February with prices on the London Metal Exchange growing above $1,9000 per metric ton. This marks the first time since May 2015 prices have been this high for the metal.

Wrote de Frutos: “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.”

How will aluminum 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:

 

The Aluminum Association, the group that represents the North American aluminum production industry, today filed a trade enforcement action against the People’s Republic of China seeking relief for domestic producers of aluminum foil. This action is part of the industry’s broad trade strategy to address Chinese overcapacity throughout the value chain.

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

The Aluminum Association’s Trade Enforcement Working Group filed anti-dumping and countervailing duty petitions alleging that dumped and subsidized imports of aluminum foil from China are causing material injury to the domestic industry.

“Today’s action marks the first time the Aluminum Association has filed unfair trade cases on behalf of its members in its nearly 85-year history,” said Heidi Brock, President & CEO of the Aluminum Association. “This unprecedented action reflects both the intensive injury being suffered by U.S. aluminum foil producers and also our commitment to ensuring that trade laws are enforced to create a level playing field for domestic producers.”

The anti-dumping margins alleged by the domestic industry range from 38% to more than 134% of the value of the imported aluminum foil. The domestic industry’s countervailing duty petition alleges that Chinese producers benefit from 27 separate government subsidy programs.

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The industry group previously said it wanted to avoid filing the trade actions if it could via meetings with its Chinese counterparts but, apparently, there simply was not enough progress in curtailing injurious imports.

The World Platinum Investment Council‘s bullishness on platinum as a key investment and industrial asset, which we reported on last fall in an interview with the Council’s Director of Research Trevor Raymond, seems to be bearing fruit as we approach the end of Q1.

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

Platinum bar prices and a couple other precious price points led MetalMiner’s Global Precious Metals MMI to rise 2.4% for March 2017, landing at a value of 84.

Global Precious MMIIndeed, the U.S. platinum bar price, up by nearly 3% this month, has been on an upward trajectory for the past three months, starting the month out above the $1,000-per-ounce level for the first time since October 2016.

A Focus on Platinum

Worries over supply shortages of the namesake of platinum group metals (PGMs) are still behind the investment opportunities that the WPIC foresees — so much so that the Council is pushing new initiatives on two separate global fronts.

Although holdings of platinum-backed exchange-traded funds (ETFs) fell to their lowest since mid-2013 last October, Reuters reported that WPIC “plans to launch an ETF in China, the world’s biggest consumer of the precious metal, and a coin-based fund in Europe in 2017,” according to an executive of the council.

“We are working on two deals in China for investment products. (An) ETF and retail platinum bars with a big state-run enterprise,” Marcus Grubb, director of market development at WPIC, told Reuters. The ETF itself was formed by leading platinum producers to develop investor demand for the metal, according to the news service.

Grubb told Reuters that India’s platinum jewelry sales are rising by 25-30% a year. The PGM’s star has been rising on the subcontinent, with some questioning whether it will overtake gold as the go-to in jewelry demand in India (which is the world’s second-biggest gold consumer, so not likely anytime soon…but still).

The council will also launch a $50 million coin-based platinum fund in Europe, he told Reuters.

Auto Market Fine…For Now

It helps that car sales still appear to be cruising along, even if at, well, only cruising speeds. Even though U.S. car sales dropped 1.1% in February over the same month last year, total vehicle sales in China, including trucks and buses, came in 0.2% higher year-on-year to 2.5 million units.

But, as my colleague Jeff Yoders reported, China is also entering the planned final year of a major government automotive purchase rebate which could affect sales as the incentive winds down. What this will mean for platinum use in vehicles remains to be seen.

The Supply Game: Latest Producer Moves

Back to the supply side. Shortage concerns have recently caused companies such as South Africa’s Northam Platinum Ltd. to buy up more platinum assets including mines, in this case from Glencore, Reuters reports.

Glencore’s Eland mine, containing some 21.3 million ounces of the metal, play into the Northam’s long-term production strategy — which, of course, banks on continued demand and higher platinum pricing.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

However, Northam said that the global economic outlook and low-dollar metal prices “remain a concern for them, at a time when it faces increasing power and labor costs,” according to Reuters. As of this writing, $1 = 13.08 rand, worse than last month.

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