This Thanksgiving Holiday, all of us here at MetalMiner would like to share what we’re thankful for this year.

(Mostly) Transparent Markets for the Metals You Buy

While it’s been a great year for buyers, with low commodity prices across the board, we are constantly reminded that prices are only as correct as the information behind them.

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This is the first full year for the new LBMA gold and silver prices. More open and transparent processes for precious metal prices can only help purchasers in the long run by giving them more information about what goes into the prices they are quoted. We are thankful for market transparency in all its forms.

Happy Thanksgiving from MetalMiner!

Happy Thanksgiving from everyone here at MetalMiner!

That’s why our own MetalMiner IndX is updated daily with over 600 price points from domestic and multiple international markets. We’re always happy to add more open and transparent price points. Read more

The London Metal Exchange (LME) launched three new contracts this week — LME Aluminium Premiums, LME Steel Rebar and LME Steel Scrap, the first new contracts to be offered by the Exchange in more than five years.

You can now hedge aluminum physical delivery premiums using an LME contract. Source: iStock.

You can now hedge aluminum physical delivery premiums using an LME contract. Source: iStock.

The two steel contracts are cash-settled against physical Turkish scrap and rebar price indexes as opposed to the current steel billet contracts that are settled by physical delivery and have largely proved to be  a failure since launch.

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Why, we might ask, would these new contracts prove anymore successful? Well acknowledging the failure with billet, the LME has worked assiduously to garner industry support both in the shaping and specification of the new contracts. Goldman Sachs, for example, is on the LME’s steel committee and major trading firms like Stemcor have publicly stated they intend to be actively involved from day one, although they still add the caveat “subject to market conditions and liquidity.”

Liquidity was always a major issue for the billet contract. It never secured anywhere near enough interest from the trade to generate sufficient volume and, hence, a fair market price.

Rebar and Scrap

The steel scrap and rebar contracts will be traded on LME Select in small lots of just 10 metric tons making them more accessible for smaller market players, while, at the same time, the LME is offering discounts for volume trades to encourage liquidity. Read more

Typically steel buyers look at short-term steel cycles — inventory cycles. These are what drive short-term pricing trends. Let’s face it. Most buyers think in terms of what their next purchase will be or, maybe at this time of year, the next year’s requirements.

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However, from time-to-time, it’s worth sitting back and looking at the big picture; the long-term; over-the-horizon. It’s a useful thing to do. It provides some perspective.

The chart highlights global steel output since 1950. Very simply, we can look at 3 cycles.

  • 1950-73 – steady growth. Post-war investment in North American infrastructure; the development of the automobile; reconstruction in Europe and the emergence of Japan. All drove steel production and consumption higher.
  • 1973-98 – stagnation. The oil shock; light-weighting in cars, packaging, construction and increased efficiency. The end of investment in Europe and North America led to demand falling and only partially offset by the growth in emerging Asia.
  • 1998-2014 – the emergence of China. A country of 1.4bn people industrialised and moved from the country to the city; a development model specifically based on steel-intensive capital investment.

Global Crude Steel Production ( 000 metric tons)


Steel prices since 1950. Source: Steel-Insight.

….and now?

The first two cycles lasted 25 years; the last one has been 15 years.

Europe, North America and Japan (25% of global steel consumption) are mature consumers where steel consumption will perhaps grow 1% over the longer-term, and even that is under threat from aluminum in the automotive industry and lightweighting and efficiency elsewhere.

China (50%) has peaked. Construction is 70-80% of demand and that is a one-off use of steel. Once cities and roads are built, they don’t need to be renewed for a while. Steel consumption has peaked and could fall by 20% from here over the next decade.

Emerging economies (25%) were expanding, but in many cases, they were investing the super-profits of commodity gains from oil, metals and agriculture — from China. Without that bulwark, capital expenditure may plummet.

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That means we could be in for a long period of stagnation and decline — 15-20 years based on previous cycles. It will be marked by mill closures, job losses and low prices. Yet the last period of stagnation gave birth to the minimills and a whole new dynamic group of steelmakers. It is not all doom and gloom.

Steel-Insight is a steel industry price-forecasting publishing company, based in Toronto. James May, the firm’s managing director, has been a steel industry analyst for 15 years and advises some of the major global steel trading companies, steel producers and steel consumers on the outlook for steel pricing and industry trends. For more information, visit

In honor of Throwback Tuesday, we are revisiting MetalMiner’s Top 50 posts with an eye toward illuminating what’s happening in metals today. #TBT This post, originally published Feb. 26, 2009, about the production of primary aluminum, is as relevant to the LME’s new aluminum contracts as it was to explaining aluminum’s price drop at the time.

Since the aluminum price on the LME dropped below $1500/ton, it has been repeatedly stated that some 60-70% of aluminum smelters are losing money.

What goes into producing aluminum? Source: Adobe Stock/Pavel Losevsky

What goes into producing aluminum? Source: Adobe Stock/Pavel Losevsky.

Electricity alone is generally accepted as representing about a third of the cost of aluminum ingot, although at what sales price that metric is judged is open to debate. We thought it would be interesting to explore what the true costs of production are for a ton of primary aluminum and thereby test to what extent the smelters’ claims that they are losing money are correct.

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As with the steel industry, many of the industry’s woes may have as much to do with low plant capacity utilization as they do with low sales prices.

How Much Does it Cost to Produce One Ton of Aluminum?

Although the newest smelters can be closer to 12,500 kWh per ton, let’s say most smelters are consuming electricity at 14,500-15,000 kWh/ton of ingot produced. With the LME at $1,300/metric ton, that means electricity should be costing a typical smelter $0.029/kWh.

Needless to say, smelters are rather coy about their power cost contracts so it’s hard to verify how prevalent this number is though many smelters are on variable power cost contracts with their electricity suppliers such that the power generators are paid a fixed percentage of the world ingot price. If we take that as one-third, then it’s not only smelters that are losing money – many power generators must be, too.

When US national average industrial and commercial electricity consumers are paying $0.0706/kWh and $0.1013/kWh, respectively, according to the Energy Information Administration, to be selling power to smelters at $0.029/kWh represents a huge subsidy. In reality, power costs to the smaller US smelters are probably higher than this and explains why many have been cut back or idled, but interestingly the same source gives specific power costs for the Pacific Northwest of only two-thirds the national average, suggesting that many NW smelters may indeed still be getting power at ingot-price-related levels.

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In early October I received a phone call from a well-known consultant/advisor within the domestic steel industry. He wanted to know if we were urging our readers to begin to hedge steel (meaning immediately hedge, as opposed to creating a hedging program).

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My gut reaction to the question was to dodge it because I wanted to understand why he asked it. Our conversation went along the lines of this:

Him: Hi, Lisa. I heard you speak at the recent Steel Market Update event. I was just wondering if you were urging your readers to hedge steel.

lisa reisman

MetalMiner Executive Editor Lisa Reisman

Me: Why do you ask?

Him: I think there is a lot more steel price upside risk than downside risk.

Me: I don’t disagree with you, in that prices are on the low end of the range relatively speaking, but in answer to your question, no, we are not telling our readers to hedge right now.

Him: Why not?

Me: Because we don’t see signs of a market bottom. Prices would have to stop falling and begin rising, crossing certain levels before we’d suggest companies hedge.

Him: So you don’t see upside risk?

Me: We don’t try and time the absolute lowest point of the market and then lock-in. We try to identify when the trend has shifted (from bear to bull) and take cover, then buy forward or hedge. Until we see evidence of a trend shift — and the market still looks negative to us —we don’t pay much attention to upside/downside risk, per se. It’s not relative in driving industrial buying behavior.

Source: Adobe Stock/Yury Zap

Source: Adobe Stock/Yury Zap

Is This Analyst Wrong?

That’s probably somewhat of an irrelevant question. He can be both right and wrong. Right in that, yes, there is likely more upside risk (e.g. steel can likely go a lot higher vs. a lot lower) but from an industrial metal buying perspective — I give it the big SO WHAT? Read more

We wrote recently about the probability that coal assets would become increasingly uneconomic if climate change related legislation such as emission caps and carbon taxes heaped costs on the industry that have, so far, been avoided.

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Well, an article in the Financial Times gives a glimpse of the future as envisaged by Amber Rudd, the UK government’s energy secretary. Speaking to the BBC hours before a speech on UK energy policy, Ms. Rudd announced a major review of the subsidies the UK pays for electricity produced from natural gas in an effort to encourage the replacement of the UK’s coal-fired power stations with combined-cycle, gas-powered technology ostensibly with a view to reduce carbon emissions

Coal vs. Natural Gas

Rudd would say later in her speech that she wants all coal power stations to shut down by 2025. The UK currently produces 21% of its electricity from coal-burning power stations, but those stations produce some 75% of the electricity industry’s CO2 emissions. However, a third of these power stations are expected to close by 2016, so that they meet EU air quality legislation.

Coal cars may not be lining up in the UK soon. Source: Adobe Stock/Carolyn Franks

Coal cars may be a thing of the past in the UK soon. Source: Adobe Stock/Carolyn Franks.

Coal creates roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as gas when it is burned for power. According to another FT article this week, research presented by the American Petroleum Institute shows that in the 25 US states with the highest rate of carbon dioxide emissions from their power generation, switching completely out of coal-fired generation and into gas would more than meet their targets for reductions set under the EPA Clean Power Plan.

For once, where the UK leads the US may follow if the current administration can build a head of steam behind emission reductions following next month’s summit in Paris. We say “may” with caution though. The US coal lobby is infinitely more powerful than the UK coal mining industry and, with an export market dwindling fast, can expect to put up a fierce resistance to the suggestion coal-fired power generation should be abandoned en masse.

Auctions and Emissions

In the UK, Rudd at least recognizes it is not sufficient to heap emission limits on power generation and expect the industry to sort itself out, switching from coal to other options. A recent auction for peak power provision ended up set to hand hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies to highly polluting diesel generators, which are cheap to build and can undercut the prices offered even by gas plants.

The auction process could be rebalanced to take emissions into account, but that would not, in itself, encourage the industry to invest in new gas plants. For that, the market needs a guaranteed price which only the government can provide, much as it did for a recent new nuclear power plant project. Investors just aren’t willing to make 25-30 year commitments in such a volatile wholesale electricity market as the UK.

No guesses who will end up paying the price of the governments drive to be the “greenest government” ever, as usually consumers will foot the bill for subsidies, but at least with natural gas they have plants capable of meeting base and intermittent peak load in a relatively less polluting manner and, unlike renewables, with total reliability of supply.

Aluminum producers are in a race to the bottom, desperately trying to reduce their production costs so they can maintain output and, by extension, continue to flood the market with metal that it doesn’t need.

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As UC Rusal’s third quarter earnings plunged 11% and it announced plans to cut a further 200,000 metric tons of capacity, US smelters have been closing capacity like the metal is going out of style, as we reported earlier this month.

Pile of aluminum bricks waiting for transport. Source: iStock.

Pile of aluminum bricks waiting for transport. Source: iStock.

But, if you think business is bad for western smelters, out in Asia it is almost worse. Japan is the worlds largest seaborne aluminum market, importing metal rather than using high-priced domestic power to smelt the metal at home.

Japanese Premiums Plummet

As such, the Japanese physical delivery premium has long been a benchmark for the supply-demand balance of the physical market. As in Europe and North America, physical delivery premiums in Asia have collapsed this year, with Q4 premiums just being fixed at $90 per metric ton, according to Thomson Reuters‘ Andy Home, recently.

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A quiet revolution is going on in India’s defense sector.

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It is set to give an impetus to steel, aluminum and composite materials demand in the country. Recently, US aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. and India’s Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. (TASL) announced a joint venture to manufacture aerostructures for aircraft beginning with the reputed AH-64 Apache fighter helicopter.

AH-64 Apache

Make in India, in this case, means making Apache helicopters there thanks to a joint venture with Boeing. Source: Adobe Stock / VanderWolf Images

The joint venture, according to media reports, would also then compete for additional manufacturing work packages across Boeing platforms, both commercial and defense.

Burgeoning Private Defense Industry

Currently, as many as 14 Tata companies are providing support to India’s defense and aerospace sector. In addition to TASL. The list also includes Tata Advanced Materials, a company that has delivered composite panels for cabinets and auxiliary power unit door fairings for the P-8I long-range maritime surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

Another company, TAL Manufacturing Solutions, has manufactured floor beams out of composite materials for the Boeing 787-9, and provided ground support equipment for the C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter. Read more

Last week, we here at the MetalMiner Week in Review told you about how BHP Billiton CEO Andrew Mackenzie immediately went to Brazil to, essentially, say “I’m sorry” about the Samarco iron ore mine disaster that has left 11 dead and more missing.

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BHP Chairman Jac Nasser has since doubled down and said the company has already committed $363 million to rebuild following the tragedy. The “deeply sorry” strategy shows that BHP is not only committed to rebuilding, but wants to make amends for the damage its failed dam has caused and wants to continue to be a part of iron ore mining in Brazil. Read more

There is much debate about how much further copper prices have to fall. The LME Copper price dropped to $4,590 per metric ton on Tuesday and has recovered only slightly since. It is now at its lowest level in six years and, according to ThomsonReuters, some analysts are suggesting it could fall to $4,000 per mt, that is apparently Glencore’s worst-case scenario and the number they are cutting their cloth to live with as part of their ambitious debt reduction program.

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Not all producers are willing to join Glencore and make cuts. Bloomberg reports Codelco is saying it won’t cut copper production as prices slump. Speaking at the Metal Bulletin conference in Shanghai, Codelco’s CEO is quoted by the paper as saying he would rather rein in costs than curb output; noting that “if we suspend production then it’s difficult to restart.”

Goldman Sachs is Still Bearish

Goldman Sachs is quoted as saying the bear cycle in copper has years to run, predicting rising global surpluses through 2019. The growth in China’s demand will slow to 3% a year from 11% in 2013 as the government shifts the focus from investment spending to consumer demand and services as the main driver of the economy. Read more