Articles in Category: MetalMiner IndX

The industrial metals complex saw prices slip nearly across the board in August as volatility
returned to stock markets and investors lost confidence in central banks’ ability to increase


Even the vaunted Global Precious MMI, which has enjoyed large gains this year due to safe
haven status, dropped this month. It experienced a 4.5% loss. Our Construction MMI and the Grain-Oriented Electrical Steel MMI indexes saw increases this month, but every other sub-index either saw a 2-5% loss or held flat.

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This was somewhat expected as metals such as steel and aluminum remain in a global oversupply situation and metal prices don’t move in a straight line. They zig-zag. Our metal price benchmarking service has thousands of transaction prices to reference as evidence of that.This could be merely a one-month correction or it might signal that the weakness in metals markets is finally denting the bull run of strong price performers such as gold and platinum. Stay tuned next month for more.

“The biggest hurdle renewables have to overcome is not the cost of production, but the curse of intermittency. Where does the power come from when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine?”

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Those are the words of MetalMiner Co-Founder Stuart Burns writing last month about how efficient and cost-effective energy storage could allow intermittent power sources such as renewables to play a baseload role in energy delivery. The U.S. Department of Energy is funding 75 projects developing electricity storage, funding research at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the elite Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge national labs in a bid for achieve a breakthrough. But haven’t we heard this all before?


Research has long been touted as the key to unlocking the potential of renewables for at least a decade now. There are plans for hydrogen bromide, zinc-air batteries, storage in molten glass, next-generation flywheels, to name but a few with many claiming “drastic improvements” that can slash energy storage costs by 80–90%, but it will be — at best — years before we see any of these technologies and work.

Our Renewables MMI dropped a point to 52 this month, reflecting the general low-demand market the specialty and rare earth metals used in solar panels and wind turbines are in. We remain skeptical that, even with such a research investment, that a breakthrough in energy storage is imminent. Existing technologies — such as Tesla’s powerwall home batteries — hold the most potential for renewable energy storage right now.

India’s Solar Panel Turnabout

Meanwhile, in an example of turnabout is fair play, India has decided to take its case against U.S. solar subsidies of photovoltaic panel companies to the World Trade Organization and the world’s largest democracy, honestly, has a good chance of winning.

The complaint alleges the states of Washington, California, Montana, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Michigan, Delaware and Minnesota prop up their renewables sector with illegal subsidies and domestic content requirements – an obligation to buy local goods rather than imports.

India lost a case at the WTO earlier this year after the U.S. complained about local supplier requirements to provide silicon photovoltaic panels for India’s massive new national solar power initiative. We said, at the time, that the U.S. might want to rethink taking the case to the WTO and even accepting the win.

Now, India is saying what’s good for the goose has to be good for the gander, and that the U.S. shouldn’t be able to subsidize its solar industry at the expense of Indian panel importers. It’s difficult to see how our nation will argue the exact opposite of what it said about free trade and market forces just one year ago when U.S. panel manufacturers were salivating over the prospect of providing of the 4,5000 megawatts of panels needed for three phases of India’s massive. Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission and didn’t want India’s local subsidies to keep them out.

U.S. Protects its Interests in India

SolarWorld and several other U.S. panel manufacturers cried foul and the Commerce Department and International Trade Administration appealed the case all the way to the WTO and won. Now, those chickens have come home to roost. By filing the complaint, India has triggered a 60-day window for the U.s. to settle the dispute, after which India could ask the WTO to adjudicate.

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California’s clean energy law, alone, has some of the richest solar subsidies in the world. Not only does the state offer cash back for installation of panels, it also doesn’t include rooftop generation by homeowners as mw that go toward meeting the state’s ambitious energy targets (50% of all energy from renewable sources by 2030). That means utilities creating their own solar parks get more impact toward meeting government goals, and rewards and lawmaker consideration, than homeowners and businesses do. Ratepayers essentially subsidize utility companies toward meeting the state’s renewable goals.

21 states and the District of Columbia include rooftop solar panels in their mandates for clean energy but not California.

What Does This Have to do With Renewables?

California’s subsidies for providing panels to solar projects are also quite rich. The California Solar Initiative offers rebates to buyers of the panels whether they are installed on homes, businesses or in utilities’ solar parks. The value of each rebate is defined by a complicated equation, but if India can prove those subsidies are against WTO — especially considering how much more consideration big buyers like utilities receive than homeowners and businesses — the case could be a serious slam dunk against U.S. solar subsidies.

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Many grain-oriented electrical steel market participants know that macroeconomic drivers and general steel price trends often diverge from GOES trends.

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Comments from the most recent Steel Market Update summit at the end of August suggest it may be hard to “buck the trend.”

Macro Trends

What are these macro trends?

  • Steel demand looks weak overall and overcapacity will continue unabated. According to Tony Taccone, Partner at First River Consulting, “global steel demand has stalled and there will be no growth going forward.” In addition, Taccone indicated the world has 700 million metric tons of overcapacity and the problem is set to become worse.
  • Trade cases will put the kabash on Chinese export growth. China has produced too much steel at unsustainable prices and has exported materials at the marginal cost of production, according to Taccone.
  • Automotive demand may have peaked and aluminum demand may weaken steel demand.

Despite weak demand in some sectors, others paint a more positive picture. According to Alan Beaulieu, Principal of the Institute for Trends Research, many factors look more positive for demand including light vehicle production, U.S. industrial machinery production (recently turned positive), a booming office building construction market, a stabilized oil and gas extraction market and healthy global demand for crude oil.


In addition, Beaulieu pointed to rising mining, electricity generation and manufacturing sectors, that certainly bodes well for power equipment production and demand.

Micro Trends

With the loss of Allegheny Technologies, Inc. capacity for GOES, the uptick in electricity generation and construction, and the more bullish outlook for other commodities and non-ferrous metals, we might expect GOES prices to creep up accordingly.

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Though the macro trends paint a slightly more negative picture for steel prices in general (negative for producers, positive for buying organizations) for the near term, GOES markets don’t cleanly align with steel markets. September marks the second month of a rising price trend.

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The sole major U.S. rare earths mine will stay safely mothballed even as its former owner, Molycorp Inc., exits chapter 11 bankruptcy freed by the process of the obligations of owning it, likely ending for some time any attempt by a U.S.-based company to locally produce the specialized battery and magnetic elements on a mass scale.


We believe in you, Texas Mineral Resources Corp., but we’re waiting on the results like the rest of the country. Also, we love the new name.

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Molycorp failed to sell its Mountain Pass mine in San Bernardino County, Calif., as part of its bankruptcy case. Molycorp became Neo Performance Materials after it exited bankruptcy and no longer has any connection to the Mountain Pass mine and facility where it shut down production a little more than a year ago.

Paul Harner, the chapter 11 trustee in charge of the mine, warned recently there was no point in continuing a separate bankruptcy for it as there was no money to do anything with the property even if the trustees wanted to.

Zombie Mine Lease

Lexon Insurance Co. offered to lend Mountain Pass’ estate $4.2 million to maintain the mine and continue the search for a buyer. The mine still costs money to keep in a safe condition and California environmental authorities are watching. Until the maintenance fund runs out — or prices change enough to make it able to reopen and don’t take that bet (see below) — Mountain Pass will exist in a state limbo, neither fully closed nor able to be restarted.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, part of California’s network of water safety overseers, said that it least wants to keep the lights on, the gates locked and the pumps running.

Pumps at Mountain Pass confine groundwater contaminated with barium, nitrate, radium and uranium.

Low Prices = Closed Mines

The open-pit mine was the sole U.S. source of rare earths. When rare earths prices were high back in 2011, Molycorp plowed $1.5 billion into the Mountain Pass facility but shut it down last year as prices continued to erode for both light and heavy rare earths. Before declaring bankruptcy, Molycorp vowed to focus its production on its operations in Estonia.

Prices have stayed low for the last three years so it’s no surprise that Molycorp and the bankruptcy court couldn’t find a buyer. Our Rare Earths MMI registered another 17, charting pretty much the same flat course it’s coasted through for the last three years.

China removed export quotas on producers of the magnetic and battery metals at the end of 2014 and — while demand from cell phone, computer and defense manufacturers has remained steady to up ever since — supply of heavy rare earths from China and Australia’s Lynas Corp. has more than filled the gap.

Other nations are still interested in developing their own rare earth resources as no one wants to experience a Japan-style Chinese producer boycott, which actually happened in 2011 when Chinese producers cut off their neighbor with no official statement or explanation why. The boycott ended just as mysteriously as it began, but one thing it did do was inspire major Japanese manufactures such as Honda Motor Corp. to find substitutes for heavy rare earths so they could scale back reliance on their testy neighbor.

Why Didn’t Molycorp Fail Earlier?

Molycorp probably stayed alive longer than it should have due to such sentiment. It even got kid-glove treatment on 20/20 in a last-ditch effort to avoid bankruptcy, one that MetalMiner Co-Founder and Executive Editor Lisa Reisman poked several holes in when it happened. The concern over rare earths was actually a market distortion caused by hype and not a reflection of the actual availability and abundance of the materials.

Canada’s Rare Earth Quest

Yet, in Canada — as with TMRC’s Round Rock, Texas, deposit — exploration is continuing and there is plenty of investor interest in providing manufacturers with a source of yttria, neodymium and dysprosium oxide.

Quest Rare Earth Minerals, a Canadian company, has vision for a mine at Strange Lake, on the Labrador-Quebec border, and it inched a bit closer to reality this month after submitting environmental impact statements to the Canadian government.

The company hopes to mine rare earths there and process them in a facility they will construct very similar to the what Molycorp did at Mountain Pass. Yes, they’re planning to do the exact same thing Molycorp did only with a government that will likely place even more restrictions and market disadvantages on the project than the U.S. federal government slapped on Molycorp. There are caribou where Quest wants to mine, so hold onto your wallets, investors!

Quest President Dirk Naumann, however, acknowledged that the market environment might be a bigger hurdle than any environmental hurdle such as local caribou paths.

“The economy around the globe (as far as) mining and resources is concerned, faces lots of difficulty,” he said.

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If that’s not the understatement of the year, he should also note the difficulty the PARTICULAR rare earths market faces. Being able to produce and refine its own rare earths is a laudable goal for any nation’s government, just as supporting local manufacturing and enough farm capacity to feed all its people in case of a disaster is, but to blindly throw money into an oversupplied market in hopes of prices coming up someday in the future?

That’s just called bad economics. Check out that chart. We usually expert our price curves to, well… curve. It really does all come down to the third rule of acquisition.

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Our Copper MMI fell 5% during the month of August. The price drop is no surprise. Copper has struggled near $5,000 per metric ton multiple times this year and as we pointed out last month, buyers could expect prices to retrace in August.


Weaker Chinese imports over the past few months and the bearish calls of some major banks have contributed to the recent price fall. Unlike other base metals, sentiment about copper is still sort of bearish, making this metal the worst performer among its peers this year. In our monthly outlook, we haven’t recommended buying copper forward yet.

Chinese Imports Lose Momentum

China isn’t self-sufficient when it comes to its copper needs and is the largest importer of the red metal. Rising Chinese imports signals increasing demand for the metal. In metals such as zinc and nickel, we’ve witnessed a surge in Chinese imports this year, adding fuel to the bull (market).

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In Q1, China’s copper imports were running at record levels but over the past few months imports are coming down. In August, China imported 350,000 mt of unwrought copper and copper products. This is the fifth consecutive month that imports have declined on a monthly bases and the lowest figure in a year.

The Non-Ferrous Laggard

Unlike zinc and nickel, remember we pointed out earlier this year that the increase in Chinese copper imports in Q1 wasn’t exactly backed by end user demand. Some of the Chinese refined copper imports found their way into the Shanghai Futures Exchange system, with inventories rising to record levels.

Now, as Chinese refined imports start to taper down, we are witnessing inventory buildup in the London Metal Exchange‘s warehouse system, with copper stocks in the LME rising to a one-year high. Combining LME, SHFE and Chinese bonded stocks, most would agree that global copper inventories have risen this year, keeping a lid on prices.

Supply Runs High

Copper is among the metals wherein top consumer China actually gains if prices stay lower, unlike aluminum or steel. The country is the largest copper importer. Therefore, lower copper prices bode well for China. This also helps explain why Chinese copper imports rose earlier this year. When prices are low it makes sense for China to import more copper instead of producing more domestically.

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Another factor weighing down on investors’ sentiment is the recent bearish calls by investment banks such as Goldman Sachs. The bank notes that the majority of the major global copper producers have already increased output by 5% during the first half, and it estimates that those same producers will ramp up supply by 15% over the next year.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Any price rally could continue to be limited this year, especially if Chinese demand does not pick up and we see the supply increase that some banks are forecasting. On the other hand, an improving sentiment in the metal complex this year should support and keep copper prices from experiencing significant declines.

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Our Aluminum MMI finished the month flat.

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Aluminum prices rallied into August but they failed to breach $1,700 per metric ton for the third time this year. Aluminum is up 7% this year but unlike other industrial metals, prices haven’t really made that much progress. With the ongoing debate of whether aluminum markets will be in deficit or surplus this year, investors seem hesitant to chase prices much higher.

China’s Exports Fall

Aluminum’s fundamentals look much better than at the beginning of the year, especially when we look at the supply side which has always been the biggest concern for the markets over the past few years. The biggest challenge for the aluminum industry was Chinese exports and they have started to come down.


China exported 390,000 mt of unwrought aluminum in July, down 9.3% from July of last year. Chinese aluminum exports have fallen around 7% for the first seven months of 2016. Lower aluminum exports are supporting aluminum prices this year.

Chinese Aluminum Production Falls

According to data released by the International Aluminum Institute, China’s aluminum production declined 2.4% in July compared to the same month last year. For the first seven months, production in China has fallen by 3.1%.

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This is the first time the markets have witnessed a fall in China’s aluminum production since 2010. This fall in production is good news for aluminum bulls, which see a market headed for deficit in 2016. However, there is also the other side of the coin…

Fears of Rising Production

Fears of rising Chinese aluminum production in the second half seem to be putting pressure on aluminum prices, limiting any price rally. Whether markets are in a deficit or a surplus this year depends on China’s production. While producers such as Alcoa projecting a record deficit for 2016, Goldman Sachs sees a record surplus in the year.

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After gaining sharply in June and July, our Stainless MMI retraced last month. Nickel’s rally cooled down in August after a pick up in Indonesian ferronickel supply rekindled previous fears of a global supply shortage.

Philippines Supply Declines

In June and July, nickel rallied as the Philippines reviewed all existing mines in order to close those that had adverse impacts on the environment.

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At least eight nickel mines have been shut down so far this year, cutting around 10% of the country’s capacity.


The Philippines is by far the largest nickel ore supplier to China since Indonesia imposed an export ban for unprocessed material back in 2014. Recent numbers are already showing this decline in production. For the first seven months, China imported 13.84 million metric tons from the Philippines, down 27% from the same period last year.

The current disruptions in the Philippines have no doubt tightened the market for nickel ore triggering a price rally this year. However, in August investors questioned whether this shortage in China’s nickel-pig iron industry will actually translate into a shortage of nickel in the global market.

Indonesian Refined Nickel Supply Picks Up

While supply of nickel ore to China is declining due to current disruptions in the Philippines, supply of refined nickel to China is rising as Indonesia ramps up production.

China’s imports of ferronickel from Indonesia came at a five-times higher-rate than the amount taken in the same month a year earlier. For the first seven months, China’s imports of ferronickel from Indonesia surged more than four-fold to 390,700 mt. Comparing apples to apples, the nickel content of the year to date of ferronickel exports equals about 4 million mt of nickel, slightly less than the 4.13 mmt loss in the Philippines so far this year.

For this reason, we hear some analysts saying that China isn’t importing less nickel, it is just changing the form in which it imports the metal. And, as prices retrace, it’s no wonder that this reminds us to what happened just two years ago when nickel prices soared to then fall precipitously.

Is This Time Different?

Back 2014, nickel prices surged as Indonesia prohibited ore exports. However, prices sold-off later on as miners in the Philippines moved into the trade. This time, it’s the other way around. Environmental restrictions are shrinking supply in the Philippines while Indonesia is making up for that loss.

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While prices fell in August, we need to be reminded that prices don’t move in a straight line and that, so far, the decline seems like normal after nickel gained over 30% in June and July. Also, there are two other factors that make us think that the decline won’t be as severe as back in 2014:

  • Back in 2014, nickel prices rose independently while the rest of the industrial metal complex was falling. This time, it’s not only nickel but we also see many industrial metals rising. The bullish sentiment on base metals this year should help limit nickel’s fall.
  • It’s barely been a month since the Philippines started to shut down mines and volumes may be squeezed further after the shutdowns accounting for about 15% of output. Recently, the Philippines’ mining minister said that there will absolutely be more suspensions following the eight already suspended.

For these reasons, we wouldn’t turn bearish on nickel just yet…

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Our Raw Steels MMI fell 7% to 53 points last month. This is the first time we have seen a significant decline in steel prices this year. August brought some interesting developments for the steel industry.

Raw-Steels_Chart_September-2016_FNLUS prices Down, While China’s Prices Rise

By the end of the first half, domestic hot-rolled coil prices had risen 70% while prices in China were up by just 30%. The main driver of this price gap was trade cases, which made U.S. steel imports plunge this year, inflating prices domestically. Read more

U.S. construction spending during July came in at an annualized rate of $1,153.2 billion, nearly the same as the revised June estimate, which was $1,153.5 billion, the Census Bureau reported ahead of the Labor Day holiday. Even so, the July 2016 figure is 1.5% higher than the July 2015 construction spending total.

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July’s numbers could be attributed to spending on private construction projects, which was up 1% compared to the revised June total. Public construction spending, by contrast, was down for the month by 3.1%. For the year, private construction spending gained 4.4%, while public spending dropped 6.5%.


The Construction MMI reflected healthy U.S. demand for construction metals and jumped nearly 5%. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast construction spending rising 0.5% in July but keeping its gains from June is still good news for construction.

The upward revisions to the May and June construction spending data could see the second-quarter gross domestic product estimate revised up from the 1.1% annual pace reported last month and economic growth is good for construction and the economy as a whole.

Aluminum, Surcharges Up

Construction received a boost from the aluminum components of the sub-index, which posted strong gains despite the Aluminum MMI turning in an overall flat performance this month. Fuel surcharges were up across the board as oil’s taken a bit of wild ride lately. Products such as rebar and H-beam steel were also up.

Despite individual product strength, steel remains a very bifurcated market with prices up in the U.S. and down globally. Despite promises to wind down production in the second half of the year, China is buying up coal for steel production. The price of coal needed to make steel has surged more than 45% over the past three weeks, to its highest level since early 2013.

Major Shipper Close to Insolvency

South Korean shipping giant Hanjin Shipping Co. appears to be sailing toward oblivion as we’re writing this, a move that reflects weaker global steel demand or overall excess capacity. In the past week, creditors pulled the plug after $900 million (1 trillion Korean won) in support failed to keep the company afloat, forcing Hanjin to file for bankruptcy protection. Seoul Central District Court, which will decide the fate of the company, has set a Nov. 25 deadline for it to develop another restructuring plan, but many experts think liquidation will be the most likely outcome.

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Even though construction product demand looks strong, there are a lot of other factors that could plague these metals in the near future.

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U.S. Automakers sales numbers were down substantially in August. The drop is something that’s usually expected as the summer sales season winds down, but the steepness of said drop is what’s more concerning to economists and automotive executives.

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Ford Motor Co. saw the biggest drop, down 8% year on year for the month of August to 214,482, General Motors was down 5% to 256,429 vehicles and Volkswagen was the most down 9.1% to 29,384 vehicles. Of the majors only Fiat Chrysler showed any growth, buoyed by a strong line up of SUVs to post a 3% increase to 197,000.


While automotive metals remain a lucrative and sought-after market for both steelmakers and aluminum smelters, the pace of sales is slowing. Sales are still on a pace to beat last year’s record of 17.5 million, but the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate dropped to 17 million last month, according to Autodata Corp. That’s the slowest pace for an August since 2013, and far below the 17.9 million pace set in July and 17.7 million in the same month last year.

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Increases in precious metals had buoyed the Automotive MMI for much of this year, but the catalytic converter metals stalled this month and that was the cause of much of the drop in our index. Steel prices remain bifurcated between U.S. and global prices and a summer of uncertainty over U.S. Steel‘s section 337 case has led to little clarity for metal buyers of Chinese automotive steel. U.S. Steel’s case centers on an allegation that Chinese steel companies stole the formula and process for an automotive alloy.

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