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 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
So far, the decline has been limited, with prices holding above $5,500/mt. Although copper has lost some of its post-election gains, it still managed to end 2016 with decent yearly gains, suggesting that sellers are not totally in control.
Copper’s Bullish Narrative
One of the key factors supporting copper prices is the earlier-than-expected supply deficit. While most analysts were previously projecting the copper markets to move into deficit by the end of the decade, many of them are now expecting a deficit as early as this year.
Another factor supporting copper prices is higher energy prices. Oil prices, the main benchmark for energy prices, regained the $50/barrel level in December. Saudi Arabia said it could be ready to cut output more than originally agreed upon at the latest Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting. Non-OPEC countries, including Russia, also agreed to an output cut north of 500,000 barrels a day. Energy is key in the metals industry. For copper, energy can form almost 20% of the production costs.
President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed infrastructure investments are also positive for copper prices. However, in our view, the key demand driver continues to be China, by far the largest consumer of the red metal. China’s Caixin manufacturing purchasing managers’ index rose to 51.9 in December from 50.9 in November and beat market expectations. That figure marked the sixth straight month of growth and the strongest upturn in Chinese manufacturing conditions since January 2013.
What Could Add Pressure to Copper Prices
The better-than-expected demand from China explains the ongoing strength in industrial metal prices. However, there are concerns that the country’s demand growth rates could slow next year. The real estate and automotive sectors are the engine propelling this rapid growth. If the demand growth from these sectors slows, this could have strong repercussions on China’s demand for industrial metals.
Another factor to watch is the ongoing strength of the U.S. dollar. Copper is no different than other commodities that have a negative correlation to the dollar. Further appreciation of the dollar could negatively impact copper prices. Higher interest rates in the U.S. are among the factors contributing to a stronger dollar. In December, The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a quarter point, as expected, but policymakers signaled a likelihood of three increases in 2017, up from prior expectations of two moves.
What This Means For Metal Buyers
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.
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After surging in November, base metals fell across the board in December. That selling pressure spread into aluminum markets, limiting any upside moves into the year-end. Prices however didn’t give that much ground as aluminum’s fundamental story remains rather bullish. The drops look a lot like classic profit-taking.
The auto industry is a key driver of aluminum demand. Auto sales in US and China (the world’s biggest car market) finished the year on a strong note. Total vehicle sales in the U.S. hit an 11-year high in December, aided by a fourth-quarter surge in demand that exceeded expectations. In China, car sales hit an all-time record in November, up 17.1% year-on-year.
Although the figures came in strong, they should be taken with a pinch of salt. In the U.S., cars were sold at an average 10% discount off the original asking price and that’s an incentive level not seen since the beginning of the financial crisis. Similarly, in Q4, China announced a 50% cut in its sales tax on automobiles with small engines. The tax cut was effective only until the end of 2016 although some analysts expect China to extend the tax cut into next year.
One of the factors supporting higher aluminum prices has been that there were fewer smelter restarts than expected smelter in China. In addition, we foresee limited additional restarts this year due to rising production costs and pollution issues in China.
First, alumina seems headed for a supply deficit this year following Chinese curtailments. Second, coal prices have surged since China reduced the hours for workers in its coal sector, supposedly in a bid to control pollution and curtail its excess industrial capacity. Truth be told, though, China really relaxed the mining day norm simply to control skyrocketing — some would say artificially high — prices. However, we expect the maneuvers will keep China’s supply of coal and aluminum in check this year.
For years, China’s cities have been choking on the smog spewing from China’s industrial production sector but things have recently gotten much worse. Two weeks ago, authorities asked 23 cities in northern China to issue red alerts as inspection teams scoured the country. The scale of the red alert measure shows that the Chinese government is taking air pollution seriously. Given that coal burning is the biggest contributor to air pollution in China, industrial metals supply could shrink this year, particularly steel and aluminum.
What This Means For Metal Buyers
The massive existing overcapacity and questions regarding China’s ability to maintain its rate of growth are the main factors that could spoil the party for aluminum bulls. However, for the reasons explained above, it seems early to make a call on that. We still see upside potential in aluminum prices.
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U.S. auto sales set a new record in 2016. Automakers sold 17.55 million vehicles last year, as sales continued at a hot pace in December and topped analysts’ expectations.
Automakers eclipsed the record year of 2015 by some 70,000 vehicles or 0.4%, according to tracking firm Autodata Corp. Light truck sales totaled 59.5% of all sales last year, with cars representing 40.5% of the record. A year ago those percentages were 55.8% to 44.2% and each were about half just a few years ago.
Another new sales record looked like a longshot just a few months ago, but a strong holiday sales period helped U.S. automakers forge ahead. Our Automotive MMI increased a point last month closing out a strong year.
Automotive metals are not just seeing robust demand from U.S. consumers. Automotive purchases in China are helping the strong economic recovery there, too. Sustainable growth in the world’s largest consumer of commodities is a bullish trend for all industrial metals and automotive alloys are no exception.
Ford Motor Company‘s recent decision to reinvest in a plant in Michigan rather than open a planned facility in Mexico may be the first salvo in an automotive trade war that has long been promised by President-elect Donald Trump.
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Why it has crisscrossed the globe remains a puzzle for American executives and investigators trying to unravel the logic behind its movements.. Now, a Dallas attorney’s correspondence suggests a surprising possibility: that the stash is Chinese billionaire Liu Zhongtian’s retirement fund.
Like all Chinese citizens, Zhongtian, the 52-year-old chairman of aluminum giant China Zhongwang Holdings Ltd., isn’t supposed to move more than $50,000 a year out of the Communist Party-led country. To get around the restrictions, Chinese nationals have used Hong Kong money changers to illicitly transfer cash between bank accounts, combined their $50,000 quotas to make large-scale transfers and even carried cash across borders in suitcases.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Zhongtian developed an industrial-scale approach involving boatloads of aluminum which he stockpiled with plans to sell the metal over time, according to the Dallas attorney’s correspondence and people who have worked for Mr. Liu whose accounts are supported by shipping and corporate records.
India is becoming a growing powerhouse in the base metals industry and — although producers seem more intent in expanding outside the country, witness Aditya Birla’s smart acquisition of Novelis — the country has the two significant advantages that encourage an expectation of rapid domestic growth. These are low current per capita consumption and the world’s fifth-largest domestic reserves of bauxite.
Obstacles to India and Base Metals
Assured rapid domestic growth is not a slam dunk, though. Power costs in India are high and competing demands for power in a country with a severe shortage of generating capacity mean refiners have to build their own captive power stations to ensure continuity and price competitiveness.
Both mining and plant construction then run into problems of land ownership and poor supporting infrastructure. Both issues that could be addressed if there was the political will and, as such, can be said to be self-inflicted. That’s cold comfort to producers struggling to get projects approved and developed on budget. So, maybe, it comes as no surprise that producers have been lobbying hard for protection against imports.
Sources: Bloomberg and World Bureau of Metal Studies
According to industry sources quoted by the Economic Times of India, imports of aluminum have increased by 159% in 2015 compared to 2011 levels. Possibly more worrying for the industry is that the country is importing more than 50% of aluminum consumed. While India has annual aluminum consumption of 3 million metric tons, half of that is supplied by imports. India’s production capacity is 4 mmt. Read more
As we continue to spotlight and republish our top posts of 2016, we travel way back to New Year’s Day 2016 for another metal price story. This one by our Editor-at-Large and MetalMiner Co-Founder, Stuart Burns noting an aluminum price increase from almost exactly one year ago today. — Jeff Yoders, editor.
Aluminum has since taken off with the rest of the base metals and we’re in a full bull market. It’s quite a contrast from situation just one year ago.
The London Metal Exchange (LME) aluminum price has risen from the low $1,400s per metric ton in October to the mid $1,550s this week.
At the same time, the Japanese have started settling first quarter 2016 physical delivery premiums at $110 per mt, 22% higher than the previous quarter, the first time they have risen in a year.
What is behind the increase in the aluminum prices? Adobe Stock/uwimages.
Meanwhile, probably not unconnected, Japanese port stocks have fallen at the country’s three major ports. Stockpiles fell in November by 7.5% to 401,000 mt according to Reuters. Over the in US, the Midwest transaction price, which includes the LME price and premium that buyers pay to take delivery of the metal, has risen steadily this month to $1,736 per metric ton by December 24, up from $1,599/mt on 28 October, which was its lowest point since May 2009. Read more
No greater debate has ever roiled our virtual pages than the one about Ford Motor Company and its use of the term “military-grade aluminum.” This post from last May is just one of several posts we have written about Ford’s ad campaign for the aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup and all not only rank high in our site stats but also seem to draw the most commenters willing to lend their expertise that, mostly, rejects Ford’s use of the term.
Enjoy this look back and feel free to post if you have any strong feelings about “military-grade” yourself as we look back at the year that was. — Jeff Yoders, editor
No term has brought up more discussion in the pages of MetalMiner than Ford Motor Company‘s insistence that the F-150 pickup truck is made of “military grade” aluminum.
On this Memorial Day, we thought we’d revisit whether military grade was actually a specification or a simple marketing ploy on Ford’s part. Since the aluminum-bodied F-150 was introduced in the 2015 model year, more information about its actual construction has been shared by Ford.
Individual dealers are now touting the strength and research that went into the cab and other body parts of the F-150. “Military grade” is still sprinkled throughout the the video, but they also concede the alloy is also part magnesium and silicon. Ford also mentions that a large portion of the F-150 is, in fact, high-strength steel.
Ford has also admitted that the F-150 is primarily built from 6,000 series aluminum alloy, the strength of which is increased by heat-treating after it is formed.
The “military grade” refers to the specs that military applications of 6,000 series alloy is used in. In fairness to Ford, manufacturers and fabricators have been promoting their products as “military grade” for decades, and that’s really no different than Ford’s use of the term.
We certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone take an aluminum-bodied F-150 into a war zone to test just how “military grade” it really is, but, from a specification standpoint, Ford seems to have good reason to be proud of the rigor of the processes it uses to produce the F-150.
Over the holidays, we are republishing and revisiting some of our most well-read posts of 2016. While this one technically doesn’t fall into the 2016 (it was initially published December 14, 2015) but we are still looking back at it anyway since it deals with predictions about metal prices for the year we’re about to leave behind. It also gathered the second-most traffic of any post we published in 2016 despite predating the year by a few weeks.
At the time, my colleague Raul de Frutos wrote “Currently, some key Chinese indicators we are tracking are giving us no reason to expect higher metal prices in 2016.”
Yet, we have seen higher metal prices in 2016 and we are now in a full metals bull market. The reason we are is because of everything Raul cited in his post. He was 100% right that “the longer it takes China to clean up its mess, the later metal prices will hit bottom.”
China cleaned up its mess, hit bottom early in 2016 and turned global commodities demand around remarkably fast, all things considered. This reminds us that markets can make a turn around quickly. The future is unpredictable and we need to take the market day by day. Just four months after this post, we went from bearish to completely bullish on industrial metals. Enjoy the second of our Best of MetalMiner in 2016 series. -Jeff Yoders
As you well know, the main cause of the commodities meltdown has been China’s slowdown. Since China makes up half of the world’s demand for commodities, the economic slowdown means lower demand which has led to a situation where a glut of materials can’t find a home.
The role that China plays in commodity prices is so big that the future of metal prices is totally dependent on China. The longer it takes China to clean up its mess, the later metal prices will hit bottom. Currently, some key Chinese indicators we are tracking are giving us no reason to expect higher metal prices in 2016.
Imports to China dropped 8.7% to $143.14 billion in November from a year earlier, extending a slump in imports to a record 13 months, suggesting that government stimulus measures are failing to boost growth.
China Imports (millions $) Source: TradingEconomics.com from Customs Administration Data.
Meanwhile, Chinese exports declined 6.8% to $197.24 billion in November from a year earlier, marking the fifth straight falling month. The fact that China is struggling to increase its exports demonstrates that global demand is weak and that China will have to find a more painful solution to balance its surplus. The trade surplus and the inability to find a home for the excess of materials flow will continue to keep a lid on China’s growth, depressing commodity prices.
China Exports (millions of dollars). Source: TradingEconomics.com
Yuan Falls To Four-Year Low Against The Dollar
Chinese authorities want to see a smooth depreciation of the yuan/renminbi as China faces external pressure not to devalue its currency too quickly. A sharp depreciation would probably hurt the country’s credibility at the same time China wants to attract more foreign capital. In addition, it would raise criticisms that China is keeping its currency artificially low to encourage more exports.
Yuan versus dollar. Source: Yahoo Finance.
Recently, China’s central bank cut its reference rate to the lowest level since 2011. The yuan fell against the dollar to the lowest level since 2011. Although China has said that it has not allowed the yuan to slide to boost the economy or increase exports, it seems that the market is taking these developments as desperate actions from China’s government to help the economy, raising concerns among investors that the country’s slowdown might worsen.
China’s Equity Markets’ Slump Continues
We believe that equity markets are the best benchmark for the performance of China’s economy, or at least investors’ sentiment about China. We’ve analyzed before the link between China’s stock market and commodity prices. Currently, this link is even more noticeable.
China FXI shares continue to fall. Source: @StockCharts.com.
After the huge slump this summer, equity prices mildly recovered, but since October we see that equities are heading south again. The poor performance of Chinese stocks demonstrates that investors are still worried about the future of the country and not lured by its government actions.