Articles in Category: Premium

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.

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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.

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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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Rainbow Rare Earths, which owns a rare earths mining project in Burundi, was listed on the London Stock Exchange at the end of January, according to the Financial Times. This has prompted speculation in mining and trading circles that China’s dominance may finally be challenged. We’re not holding our breaths, and China likely isn’t either, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the abundance of resources in Africa had been underestimated.

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The U.S. Geological Survey said in 2015 that China’s annual production of the key battery, magnet and conductor elements was slightly more than 100,000 metric tons. Australia came in second with 10,000 mt. Only three other countries produce more that 1,000 mt of rare earths a year. The US produced 4,100 mt but that’s sure to go down after the 2016 closure of the Mountain Pass mine, Russia produced 2,500 and Thailand checked in with a respectable 1,100 mt contribution to the production of cell phones, military hardware and wind turbines.

Rare Earths MMI

The FT points out that despite China’s dominant market position in refined exports, the same is not true of rare earth deposits. It’s estimated that China has no more than 30% of global deposits of the quite abundant, despite their name, elements. The problem that all new rare earths projects run into is the cost of bringing new deposits into production and the ability of one country with such a dominant position to flood the market and bring down prices, hitting the viability of new projects.

What’s Left of China’s Previous Challengers

Remember what happened to Molycorp, Inc. and how the Japanese threw a lifeline to Australia’s Lynas Corp.? Yet, the fact that Lynas is still trudging along and investment is still being made by a Japanese government and industrial culture that wants nothing to do with China’s rare earths industry may, paradoxically, be what sets Africa apart and its low-cost resource sector apart from others who have taken on the dragon.

Japan was de facto banned by the Chinese government from receiving any shipments of rare earths back in 2011 after the Japanese Navy detained a China fishing trawler captain. Since then, Japanese industry has not only aggressively replaced rare earths in its supply chains, depriving China of customers, but also supported Lynas and other non-Chinese manufacturers even to the point of keeping them in business. There is little doubt that both public and private Japanese money would automatically flow into African projects if significant deposits of rare earths are found.

Grudge Match

That China has lifted export quotas and prices have fallen to a low range means little to nothing to Japanese businessmen and women who remember having their supply chains cut off in 2011.

According to the FT, it is widely acknowledged that, outside North America and Australia, southern and eastern Africa offer the greatest potential for rare earth production, especially in South Africa, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Burundi, Zambia and Namibia.

Rainbow Rare Earths’ IPO is premised on its Gakara project in Burundi. The project is not yet producing and further exploration will be needed. The risks described in the IPO prospectus are a reminder of the difficulties of developing such projects, including pricing and environmental challenges and the need to produce ore at the required levels of concentration.

Rainbow raised $9.77 million (₤8 million) at its IPO.

The Rare Earths MMI broke eight straight months of flat performance and increased 1 point (5.9%) to 18 this month.

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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.

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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.

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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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We have long lamented that while solar energy production is a mature generation technology that should be used in nearly the entire U.S., the inability of our electronic grid in much of the country to store solar-generated energy limits its use to when the sun is shining. This almost always requires a backup (usually burning natural gas) for those hours when the sun does not shine.

Renewables MMIIt’s been a few years since we last talked about the baseline load problem that causes utilities that have abundant solar generation, particularly subsidized photovoltaic silicon panels on homeowners’ roofs, to bring energy costs down to zero during the day while the complete lack of generation at night forces them to give much of their short-term stored energy away before the sun goes down.

California Dreamin’: Solar for All

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that, stepping in where government and university research have failed to deliver solutions, for-profit California utilities — including PG&E Corp., Edison International and Sempra Energy — are testing new ways to network solar panels, battery storage, two-way communication devices and software to create “virtual power plants” that manage green power and feed it into California’s power grid. In California, real-time wholesale energy prices often hit zero during the day while the need for energy at night can spike them to as high as $1,000 a megawatt hour.

If California wants to stand as a land of free-flowing solar without even the need of the fossil fuel industries that the Trump administration says it wants to re-energize, then it will need a way to store its solar power, particularly if it wants to retire its last nuclear plant in 2025. Power company AES brought 400,000 lithium-ion batteries online last month in Escondido, Calif., (near San Diego) where Sempra plans to use them as a “virtual power plant” to smooth out its energy flows over the 24-hour service day.

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Electric car manufacturer Tesla, Inc. is supplying batteries to Los Angeles area network that will serve Edison International, to create the largest storage facility in the world if no one builds a bigger one by 2020 when it’s slated to be completed. The facility will be able to deliver 360 mw/h to the grid for a full day on short notice.

The 2,2000-mw Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is owned by PG&E, which wants to retire it by 2025 to meet stringent state energy codes as well avoid costly upgrades to the aging plant. Its first unit began churning out power in 1986 for the company then known as Pacific Gas & Electric.

Many utilities avoid building lithium-ion battery virtual plants because they remain considerably more expensive to build and set up than traditional power plants. California’s state laws make them more desirable there because of both environmental policies (read, climate change goals) and the regulatory hurdles and costs of just building a new plant in the Golden State. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the state from approving and building them, but the utilities that have shuttered plants early are now turning to the virtual plants to shore up their own bottom lines. PG&E Is testing batteries, software and several technologies to upgrade its grid and replace Diablo Canyon.

Intermittency, What is it Good For?

If Tesla, PG&E, Sempra and Edison can solve the grid intermittence problem in California then economies of scale could reduce the costs of virtual plants elsewhere and incentivize grid modernization via market prices rather than regulation. The costs of energy from a virtual plant will still likely cost more per mw/h than those of a new gas peaker plant, but only experimentation in cost reduction from actual working plants providing energy 24/7 can bring down those costs and deliver the innovation necessary to both optimize and right-size battery-based virtual plants. The utilities deserve praise from both customers and investors for boldly going where none have gone before. Once again, the market provides.

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The Renewables MMI inched up 1.9% this month in the very mature actual metals market.

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U.S. construction spending unexpectedly fell in January as the biggest drop in public outlays since 2002 offset gains in investment in private projects, pointing to moderate economic growth in the first quarter.

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The Commerce Department said on Wednesday that construction spending declined 1% to $1.18 trillion. Construction spending in December was revised to show a 0.1% increase rather than the previously reported 0.2% decline.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast construction spending gaining 0.6% in January rather than the loss that was booked.

Construction MMI

Our Construction MMI held steady this month despite the falling spending. The component metals of the sub-index still have bulls behind them, despite the flat performance. Steel construction materials such as rebar and h-beams are still posting big gains but scrap and others saw a loss.

It’s almost as if construction products are still in demand, particularly in China’s construction sector, even as U.S. construction experiences a pullback.

In January, public construction spending in the U.S. tumbled 5%, the largest drop since March 2002. That followed a 1.4% decline in December. Public construction spending has now decreased for three straight months.

Outlays on state and local government construction projects dropped 4.8%, also the biggest drop since March 2002. This could be an ominous sign for construction spending this year, provided, of course, that a major infrastructure plan, such as the $1 trillion plan President Trump continues to promise, doesn’t pass quickly enough to boost construction prices. The longer that it takes to pass an infrastructure plan, the less likely it is to boost contractors’ bottom lines this year.

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That boost is needed for our aging infrastructure, too. Spending on state and local government construction projects has now dropped for three straight months. Federal government construction spending plummeted 7.4% in January, the largest decline since May 2014. The drop snapped three consecutive months of gains.

Spending on private construction projects actually rose 0.2% in January, but could not make up for the loses in government projects.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Steel prices have been on a tear since November. However, prices came under pressure in early February.

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After having lost some ground over the past month, U.S. steel companies now seem to be pushing for another round of price hikes. But, can U.S. steel prices rise from current levels?

Production Rises

In February, new findings by Greenpeace East Asia and Chinese consultancy Custeel stated that despite China’s high-profile efforts to tackle overcapacity, China’s operating steel capacity increased in 2016. The report suggests that 73% of the announced cuts in capacity were already idle — in other words the plants were not operating. Only 23 million metric tons of cut capacity involved shutting down production plants that were operating. For 2016, China saw a net increase of 37 mmt of operating capacity.

Raw Steels MMI

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.

These numbers give us reason to doubt that China can deliver this year in terms of capacity caps. Given the country’s pollution issues, China is now under pressure to demonstrate progress on capacity cuts, but financial and legal incentives to keep marginal firms running will cause regulators to struggle to enforce capacity cuts. Can the steel price rally continue just on promises of supply cuts?

Will Demand Growth Support Prices?

Despite resilient output, investors have focused on China’s increased appetite for steel. Thanks to the country’s stimulus measures, demand for metals rose there. As a result, Chinese steel exports have fallen double digits for five consecutive months.

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China exported 7.4 mmt of steel products in January, down 23.8% from the same period last year. In addition, January steel exports were at their lowest level since June 2014.

Iron Ore Prices Surge

Steelmakers are using the argument of rising iron ore, coal and other raw material prices to press steel buyers to pay more for their steel products. Iron ore is currently trading in the ballpark of $90 per dry mt, the highest since mid-August 2014. After an 85% rise in 2016, the price of iron ore has improved by more than 16% so far this year and has more than doubled in value since hitting near-decade lows at the end of 2015.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

It might not be prudent to draw a conclusion based on January’s steel data alone. But given current trends, China may need to intensify its efforts to curtail excess steel capacity. Demand growth alone might not be a strong argument for U.S. mills to continue to hike prices at the pace the did over the past few months.

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Automakers sold 1.33 million vehicles in the U.S. in February, down 1.1% from the same month a year ago, as consumers continued to shift away from buying cars in favor of trucks and SUVs.

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Our Automotive MMI fell 4.3% as well, due in part to a pull back this month in steel prices, particularly the hot-dipped galvanized variety. There’s been plenty of analysis on our site about whether the steel price fall is merely a pause in an overall up trend or a sign of deeper issues in the individual North American product markets.

Automotive MMI

If major automotive products such as cold-rolled coil and HDG are, indeed, being squeezed then prices could increase quickly in the coming months as mills take advantage of short supply, even if more capacity comes online later in the year.

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The other products that make up the index are still firmly in bull market territory with copper leading the way.

The other major automotive consumer market that creates supplier demand is China’s, the world’s largest automotive market. It saw auto sales decline by 1.1% year-on-year in January to 2.2 million units. Total vehicle sales, including trucks and buses, however, came in 0.2% higher year-on-year to 2.5 million units. Some of these numbers could be affected by the Lunar New Year holiday. China is also entering the planned final year of a major government automotive purchase rebate which could affect sales as the incentive winds down.

Actual Automotive Metal Prices

U.S. Hot-dipped galvanized steel fell 1.5% from $841 a short ton in February to $828/st this month. U.S. Platinum bars increased 2.92% from $993 an ounce in February to $1,022 an ounce this month. Primary three-month LME copper increased .08% from $5,930 per metric ton in February to $5.935/mt this month.

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The GOES M3 MMI took another jump this past month moving from 192 to 200 for a 4+% increase. Last month the index made a 5% gain.

Last month, MetalMiner examined the Trump administration’s stance on trade policy and likely impact on GOES markets (and concluded that GOES prices would not see too much of an impact since most of the imported GOES material comes from Japan, Russia and the U.K.) In other words, even in a trade war with China, we don’t expect that to drive GOES price momentum.

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However, and as one of our readers pointed out, our story failed to address “Buy America” requirements which, indeed, could impact GOES markets.

We know President Trump implemented Buy America requirements for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines including all new pipelines and retrofits (even slab imports are disqualified for domestic producers with only rolling operations here in the U.S.) Could Trump implement Buy America requirements for transformers? The answer to that question: absolutely! It’s clear that Trump will act aggressively to promote Buy America requirements. These requirements will serve as a bullish indicator for GOES prices.

In the aftermath of the GOES domestic anti-dumping case, many large equipment manufacturers moved production of stacked and wound cores as well as laminations to suppliers in Mexico and Canada in anticipation of significant duties being placed on GOES imports here in the U.S. Those duties did not materialize. Nevertheless, production moved to NAFTA countries anyway.

Which brings us to NAFTA. President Trump has promised to renegotiate NAFTA. But in truth, NAFTA has not been bad for the domestic steel industry. It remains unclear what specific changes the President will attempt to renegotiate. Furthermore, AK Steel could find itself in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, from an overall perspective, AK Steel has probably benefited from NAFTA as the agreement currently stands, though its GOES business, in particular, may have suffered as AK customers moved operations to Canada and Mexico. As the sole remaining domestic GOES producer, AK Steel may need to walk a fine line between what it lobbies for in terms of Buy America and what it has gained with NAFTA.

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Meanwhile, the industry should pay close attention to Big River Steel which reported record first-month production for a flat-rolled mini mill. BRS has publicly stated that they will add GOES capacity at a later stage. Aperam South America has started a GOES line out of Brazil. Imports from South America could increase just as BRS is starting its GOES line.

Meanwhile, what’s driving GOES price momentum right now?

According to a recent TEX report, orders that are typically placed during the summer months did not get placed which created a surplus. Since January, buying organizations have come back into the market including: Chinese, Korean and U.S. customers. In addition, a large tender for the Middle East will soak up some extra capacity which has caused market entrants to secure material before that tender is released. This has likely caused some price momentum as Baosteel raised prices for February shipments.

U.S. import levels have also increased during January supporting the notion that demand has increased.

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