Articles in Category: Supply & Demand

The abrupt rise in the aluminum price this month has caught many by surprise.

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Aluminum had been trading sideways for much of this year. Although the market was rife with rumors that China intended to close smelter capacity that was not carrying the required permits and approvals, most treated the prospect that such curtailments would be pursued with any rigor with some skepticism.

Past attempts to curtail excess production capacity among China’s manufacturing industry have been poorly pursued and often frustrated by local State governments keen on maintaining employment and tax revenues.

This time does genuinely seem to be different.

That realization finally set in when China Hongqiao, the world’s largest aluminum maker, confirmed it would cut annual capacity of 2.68 million metric tons, about 30% of its total, this month.

Following restrictions last month that the Shanghai Futures Exchange (SHFE) put on the trading of iron or steel futures by raising margins, speculators were looking for new investment opportunities just as concerns about aluminum supply became widespread. The rapid rise in the aluminum price, leading the Shanghai Futures Exchange to a six-year high, is now recent history.

According to the Financial Times, JP Morgan is forecasting that prices have another $100 per ton to rise in the fourth quarter, despite aluminum inventories in China more than quadrupling so far this year.

Although Beijing is following its policy of closing un-permitted production with considerable vigor, the resulting high prices are encouraging every smelter that has approvals to operate at 100% capacity. As a result, production has never been so high, with much of the surplus metal going into store.

Trade unions at producers outside of China who have been suffering by the flood of semi-finished Chinese aluminum exports called earlier this year for a global forum to address the issue. But before such a forum can be gathered, it seems likely that China’s high SHFE aluminum price may curtail exports as domestic mills struggle to compete internationally based on high-priced domestic primary aluminum.

Citigroup estimates China’s unlicensed aluminum production capacity to be in the region of 4 million tons a year — more than 10% of China’s total 2016 output.

The price rises have undoubtedly been exacerbated by speculator activity, as hot money has flowed into aluminum and zinc. The aluminium price is up 27% in Shanghai and 23% on the LME, with the zinc price rise not far off at 24% in Shanghai, driven by the same fundamental concerns over shrinking supply. Some skepticism remains about how vigorously Beijing will pursue its policy of closing “polluting industries” in the northern provinces during the winter heating period. But following the miscalculation of how robustly environmental enforcement would be pursued this summer, the market is rapidly reassessing the prospects of significant closures during the November-March period.

In reality, China is not short of primary aluminum, stocks are considerable and although demand is rising, supply is adequate. The narrative of supply shortages is a strong one that speculators seem intent to run with for as long as they can.

Under the circumstances, Citi may well be right that the current firm trend has some way to run and we can expect higher prices in Q4 and H1 of next year.

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Bizarrely, although zinc prices have soared this year on the back of demand for galvanized steel for construction, further strength this week may have been heightened by a loss of investor appetite for those same steel products.

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Following booming steel prices this year, the Shanghai exchange increased trading charges last week in an effort to curb speculative activity. Steel prices have consequently slumped by 3.5% as investors got out of steel and into steelmaking raw materials with lower transaction charges, such as zinc.

Surging Shanghai zinc prices have in turn encouraged a rise in the London Metal Exchange price, hitting a peak of $2,994 per metric ton — not seen since October 2007, Reuters reports.

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Two articles in the Financial Times this week give polar opposite views on the direction for oil prices next year.

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The first is a report on bets taken by the highly successful hedge fund manager Pierre Andurand on the direction for prices. Andurand is predicting prices will rise above $100 per barrel by 2020 as demand growth exceeds the ability of the U.S. shale industry to meet demand at current prices.

The article quite reasonably points out investment in the oil industry has fallen dramatically as prices have declined, saying on average 40 new developments were approved annually between 2007 and 2013 by the oil majors. That number fell to just 12 last year, as the low oil price left only the most simple and straightforward projects viable.

Furthermore, Andurand believes the U.S. shale industry will find it increasingly difficult to justify new investment if prices remain at current levels — as new fields will become more expensive to develop and maintain, the industry is surviving on the low-hanging fruit at present.

The second article reports on the International Energy Agency (IEA) announcements last week that, despite robust consumption, the current level of cuts is failing to curtail commercial inventories fast enough and still stand at some 3 billion barrels.

Noncompliance from some oil producers exempted from the supply cuts agreement and widespread cheating by others have failed to deliver the level of constraint needed to counter rising U.S. shale output.

Impacts of Oil Price Fluctuations on Metal Prices

True, oil prices have rallied some 8% since July as stockpiles have eased and reports of global demand rising have encouraged the market — but here is why this is relevant for more than just the cost of a tank of gas.

Oil prices are one of the key drivers, along with GDP and the strength of the U.S. dollar, in determining metal prices. A continued weak oil price would help constrain rises in metal prices next year, at a time when stock markets show no sign of falling and the U.S. dollar has remained persistently weak this year. Metal prices are on a rise this month and many consumers fear we are in for a period of sustained price increases through the end of this year.

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Let’s hope the IEA’s more pessimistic forecast is closer to the truth than Andurand’s bullish bets.

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One of the top five regions in the world with the largest deposits of bauxite, India’s bauxite production is expected to increase from 22.08 million tons in 2016 to 49.4 million tons by 2021, according to new research.

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The BMI Research report says bauxite production is projected to hit 26.1 million tons this year, about 18% higher than 2016.

In the last two decades, India’s bauxite ore production has kept up with its aluminum output. As is the case with steel and other metals, bauxite production in the country, too, was estimated to go up in 2017 because of increasing domestic demand.

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The Renewables MMI jumped 6.9% to 77 for our August reading, as prices jumped for nearly every metal in the renewables basket sub-index.

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Of eight metals listed in this sub-index, seven posted price jumps last month. Steel plate from Japan, Korea, China and the U.S. jumped up, as did Chinese neodymium, silicon and cobalt.

The lone metal to fall this past month was U.S. grain-oriented electrical steel (GOES) coil, which fell  2.8%.

It was a much stronger July for this basket of metals than June was, when only four of the seven metals moved up in price (Chinese steel plate, neodymium, cobalt cathodes and silicon).

Cobalt Prices Have Asian Battery Makers Looking Elsewhere

As mentioned earlier this week, Reuters reported rising cobalt prices have forced battery makers in Asia to consider alternatives — namely, nickel.

According to the report, makers of lithium-ion batteries are looking to add more nickel to their battery formulas instead of the increasingly costly cobalt.

As the report notes, electric vehicle demand is set to grow significantly in the coming years. As such, automakers will be looking to cut their production costs. According to Reuters, the price of cobalt has doubled over the last year, a product of high demand and supply shortage.

Political Instability, Violence in Congo

Speaking of supply, most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). According to USGS data, an estimated 66,000 metric tons of cobalt were mined in Congo in 2016 — or 54% of the 123,000 metric tons mined worldwide. China came in second last year of cobalt mined (7,700 metric tons), followed by Canada (7,300 metric tons).

However, the unstable political situation in Congo could continue to affect supply, making the metal even pricier. Political unrest recently led to a wave of bloodshed in the country, sparking fear of a return to the civil wars of the 1990s, The Guardian reported.

This is all without even getting to the ethical concerns present in the Congolese cobalt mining world. As noted by numerous media reports, significant chunks of mining revenue tend to go missing via corruption linked to President Joseph Kabila. All in all, the rising demand in cobalt has not benefited the Congolese people. A 2015 IMF report showed the country was experiencing significant economic growth, but poverty reduction lagged behind.

On top of all this, the conditions for Congolese cobalt miners add another ethical concern to the mix, one which big multinational brands will have to answer to with respect to their supply chains. For example, a Sky News report revealed workers as young as 4 working in the Congolese cobalt mines in deplorable conditions.

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While the status of cobalt on the marketplace is obviously not the most important takeaway from the grim situation in the DRC, cobalt production has fallen this year amid the unrest, The Guardian reported, leading to a 90% rise in the price of the metal and a peak of $61,000/ton in July.

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The steel market is doing rather well, particularly in the U.S., but an improvement in demand is helping lift earnings in Europe, too.

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The phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats” is probably true of steel companies — it is also true to say it doesn’t lift all boats equally.

ArcelorMittal, part way through a major re-structuring program to re-focus the business on value add growth areas and exit less attractive market segments, is doing rather well judging by both the share price and recent reporting.

The Northwest Indiana Times reported last week that the world’s largest steelmaker grew its second-quarter profit by 19% to $1.3 billion, lifting its first-half profit to $2.3 billion (compared to just $696 million during the same period in 2016).

Demand in the U.S. — though it has been impacted by imports, the firm claims — was high, as the firm shipped 21.5 million tons of steel in the second quarter, a 2% increase over the first quarter. So far this year, however, its steel shipments in H1 declined by 2.4% to 42.5 million tons compared to the year before.

So, margins are up but volumes are down. North American shipments dropped 3.4% to 5.4 million tons and crude steel production fell 7.3% to 5.8 million tons, the Northwest Indiana Times reports. Yet, with sales prices up 5.7%, sales values were up 3.3% to $4.6 billion in North America, leading to much-improved profits.

Even U.S. Steel is doing better. CEO Dave Burritt said U.S. Steel saw “higher prices and volumes in all of our segments.” Burritt also said management believes that if the steel market continues going as it is currently, it could earn as much as $1.70 per share this year – adding the caveat that unfortunately it doesn’t see the market continuing in the same manner for the rest of the year.

Analysts are questioning whether the present share value is justified, suggesting after falling some 30% already this year it could have further to go.

Analysts such as Citi see major “downside” in 2018 and 2019 to U.S. Steel’s share price, predicting a loss for the year even though the first half has been relatively (for U.S. Steel) strong.

Waning Optimism and What Comes Next

Some steel sector share prices were boosted earlier this year by the hope President Trump would pump billions into infrastructure. Then, as hopes faded for that outcome, they got a sugar rush from the prospect of trade measures to curb imports of foreign steel.

But the Motley Fool, quoting the Wall Street Journal last week, reported comments by the president suggesting he was kicking trade action into the long grass.

Trump said he does not want to impose tariffs and quotas on imported steel “at this moment.” Objections from trade partners (who don’t want their exports curbed), and from domestic steel users as well (who like the idea of cheap foreign steel) are sapping the administration’s support for the trade action. It’s hardly surprising, but until recently the steel lobby had been putting a powerful case for action, and it took time for counterarguments to gain traction.

The president went on to say that instead of imposing sanctions “very soon,” as the steel industry was hoping, his staff will need to do “statutory studies … addressing the steel dumping” issue. And while the president promised action “fairly soon,” he also said the administration plans to address health-care reform, tax reform, and may even want to get an infrastructure bill passed by Congress before returning to the steel issue.

So, for the time being, forget about it — “he has other fish to fry” seems to be the position.

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Without curbs to imports, the view for steel companies’ profits remaining robust becomes less compelling.

Companies like Nucor and Arcelor will continue to do well, but others, like U.S. Steel and AK Steel, will struggle later this year and into 2018.

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This morning in metals news, President Donald Trump might be close to a decision on how to deal with what are considered unfair Chinese trade policies, environmentally friendly aluminum produced by hydro-powered smelters is coming at a hefty price tag and aluminum got a positive boost Wednesday that might prove short-lived.

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Trump Could be Close to Decision on China Trade

According to a Reuters report, a Trump administration official said President Trump is close to a decision on how to respond to Chinese trade practices he considers unfair.

While the results of the Section 232 investigations into steel and aluminum imports have yet to be announced, Reuters reports Trump might ask U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to initiate a Section 301 investigation of Chinese trade practices. A Section 301 investigation offers the “authority to enforce trade agreements, resolve trade disputes, and open foreign markets to U.S. goods and services.”

Section 301 was most recently used this past December by the Obama administration in the long-running dispute over the EU’s ban on U.S. beef, which dates back to 1989.

‘Green’ Aluminum to Cost a Lot of Green

Hydro-powered aluminum smelters producing so-called “green” aluminum are charging quite a bit for their product, according to a Reuters report.

Why? It’s partly because industrial consumers are under pressure to reduce their carbon footprints, so demand is high.

Big names like Norway’s Norsk Hydro, U.S.-based Alcoa, Russia’s Rusal and London-listed Rio Tinto all view this green wave as good news, Reuters reports.

Will more and more companies get on board with aluminum produced by more environmentally friendly processes? It’s safe to say that demand will likely only continue to grow in this sector (and for greener products and processes, generally).

Aluminum Gets a Boost, But It Might Not Last

Continuing with the aluminum thread, the metal got a boost Wednesday on news of expected capacity cuts, Reuters reported.

According to Reuters, the aluminum price moved up because of expectations of Chinese capacity cuts. However, as has been mentioned here before, the aluminum momentum might not last, as the capacity cuts might just end up being wiped out by new capacity.

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For example, Hongqiao Group plans to shut more than 2 million tons a year of outdated smelter capacity, Reuters reported — but after new investments, capacity will likely remain around current levels.

Life sometimes springs happy coincidences on us.

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Sustainable supply chains have become increasingly important, as companies assess the economic damage to their brand of exposure to bad news from their supply chains.

Social media has made the dissemination of such information faster, easier and instantly global in nature, rather than being limited to those who read the papers or are industry insiders.

A chance introduction to Daniel Perry from EcoVadis one evening earlier last week was an education in how sophisticated the assessment and auditing of supply chains has become — and not just for Fortune 500s in the public eye. Supply chains have also become more complicated for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) keen on growing the bottom line, but also on building an ethical business.

Where was the coincidence, you may ask, apart from the one data point of meeting Perry?

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This morning in metals news, copper hits a two-year high, economic signals in July for China were a bit of a mixed bag and the London Metal Exchange continues a balancing act between tradition and change.

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Copper Reaches Highest Point in 2 Years

It’s been a big year for copper.

Copper reached a two-year peak on Monday, partially a result of solid manufacturing data in China, Reuters reported.

LME copper reached $6,431 per ton, its highest since May 2015.

Construction Up in China

Speaking of China, July saw a dip in factory growth but a surge in construction, Reuters reported.

China’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) remained above 50, however, as the Chinese government spent money on construction, fueling demand for building materials.

The Chinese steel industry, for example, had its strongest month of growth since April 2016.

Changing Times at the LME

Matthew Chamberlain became the boss of the world-famous London Metal Exchange at age 34.

A lot has changed for the LME, which was founded in 1877.

The exchange was sold to HKEX in 2012, and is currently engaging in efforts to bring back volumes, The Guardian reports.

The so-called “ring” where LME traders do their work is governed by a set of long-standing rules, like the prohibition on chewing gum. According to the report, Chamberlain says those rules aren’t likely to change.

However, he also acknowledges that the LME needs to be prepared to deal with changing demands — for instance, for cobalt and lithium to be used in electric car batteries.

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Aluminum may have been the best-performing metal on the LME this year, but copper is making a good showing, too, with the price hitting a 4 1/2 month peak last Friday.

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Supporting the price earlier this year was a long strike at Chile’s Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine. However, as that dispute was settled workers contracts have come up for renewal at other mines in Chile and Peru, causing if not out-right strikes then the fear of supply disruption.

Workers at Chile’s Zaldivar mine came out on strike after talks failed while nearby Centinelais is also in negotiations with the threat of strike action.

According to Reuters together the two mines produced 340,000 tons of copper in 2016. Unionized workers in Peru, the world’s second-biggest copper producer, began a nationwide strike on Wednesday protesting against labor reforms, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, recent data from China show the economy picked up in the second quarter and the expectation that the world’s largest copper consumer is likely to hit growth targets for 2017 set earlier this year have only added fuel to the fire in supporting prices.

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