Market Analysis

Lead prices on the London Metal Exchange rose above $2,000 per metric ton, for the first time in 17 months. Just this week, the metal is up near 7% in only four days.

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At a face value, a combination of supply surplus and stable LME stocks doesn’t really support this bullishness. So what’s behind this price rally?

Lead hits a 17-month high. Source: fastmarkets.com

Lead hits a 17-month high. Source: fastmarkets.com.

Lead prices are playing catch-up. They have lagged behind zinc’s performance this year but, it’s not a surprise that lead prices are finally taking off.

The closure of mines caused zinc prices to rally this year but it seems like the market has ignored the fact that mine closures also affect lead supply. This may be because markets expected secondary production to make up for this shortfall.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

More importantly, a rising trend in the metal complex is adding fuel to lead prices. Lead prices are being driven by funds’ increasing appetite for industrial metals. Sometimes, a metal can rise significantly in price before the bullish story becomes clear. We warned earlier this month to hedge lead. If you are a lead buyer, don’t wait until the fundamentals of this metal look bullish because it might be too late…

Nickel prices got a boost on Tuesday after the Philippines announced plans to suspend 20 more mines.

3M Nickel price on the LME. Source: MetalMIner analysis of fastmarkets data

Three-month nickel price on the LME. We recommended hedging back in June. Source: MetalMIner analysis of fastmarkets data.

The country already suspended 10 mines during the third quarter. The Philippines is by far the largest nickel ore supplier to China since Indonesia imposed an export ban for unprocessed material back in 2014. Lower production is already showing up in the numbers. Philippine nickel production is down 24% for the first seven months of this year. This supply deficit will widen as more mines are suspended.

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Combining the previously suspended mines with those in the new announcement, only one fourth of Philippines mines comply with the country’s environmental and mining laws. It’s estimated that this combination accounts for half of the Philippines’ nickel production last year.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

In our Monthly Outlook, we recommended in June buying nickel/stainless forward one-year out. The new shutdowns are likely to further tighten the global nickel market, which could provide another attractive entry point for nickel/stainless buyers to hedge/buy forward again. To catch these opportunities, buyers only need a good a plan.

Copper has been on a bit of a roll this month. After a quiet summer, investors have been looking at growing concentrate imports in China and increased refining to pure copper as signs that Chinese demand is picking up.

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A recent article by Reuters throws some light on what is going on behind the scenes that suggests while demand from refiners is robust, it does not mean demand from China’s consumers is equally as strong and rising imports should not necessarily be seen as a bullish sign for copper.

Copper Price

Source: Kitco.com

The metal had hit a four-week high last week, approaching $4,800 per metric ton after better-than-expected Chinese data lifted sentiment. Read more

A couple of developments made precious metals soar in the first half of the year.

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A falling dollar was the first development that helped gold, silver and platinum group metals soar. Second, the U.K.’s Brexit referendum. Since their January’s lows, gold, silver, platinum, and palladium rose 30%, 50%, 44%, and 50% respectively.

Yes, supply/demand fundamentals differ from one metal to another. Gold has a big role in jewelry and investments. Silver has more of an industrial role, while automotive catalyst demand makes up about 40% and 75% of platinum and palladium demand. These distinct elements can cause these metals to behave differently from time to time but, overall, there are more two more critical drivers to pay attention to. The dollar and economic fears:

Gold (in yellow) vs Platinum (in Blue). Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data

Gold (in yellow) vs platinum (in Blue). Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data.

  • Back in December the U.S. dollar peaked. Weakness in the currency lasted until May and boosted the price of precious metals.
  • In May, the dollar bottomed out and started to climb, having a depressing effect on precious metals. But the effect didn’t last too long as toward the end of June, the U.K.’s Brexit referendum took place. The economic uncertainty pushed safe haven assets higher.
  • Finally, during the third quarter, the U.S. Dollar has been pretty neutral as investors wait for the Federal Reserve to take steps on raising rates at the same time as economic fears ease. The result? Investors lack reasons to push prices higher and consequently prices are retracting.

What This Mean For Metal Buyers

Unless the upcoming monetary policies cause the dollar to weaken, or new economic fears bring back the appeal for these safe haven assets, it might take a little while until we see precious metals rising like we saw in the first half.

At this time last year, there was nothing really bullish about zinc.

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Global zinc markets were in surplus and prices were heading lower while sentiment in the mental complex was pretty bearish. But the picture quickly turned around earlier this year. For zinc buyers, the right time to hedge/buy forward was in April, when prices were still below $1,900 per metric ton, as we pointed out in our Monthly Outlook.

In April buyers should have hedged zinc one year out

In April, buyers should have hedged zinc one year out. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Zinc investors have been drawn in by a narrative of mine closures and a resulting tightening of the supply chain. As zinc prices weakened over the past three years, more than 1.5 million mt of mine capacity was either idled or closed permanently. These closures were further exacerbated when Glencore announced plans to suspend 500,000 mt of production last October.

According to the latest data compiled by the International Lead and Zinc Study Group, the global market for refined zinc metal was in deficit by 174,000 mt from January to July 2016 with total reported inventories falling by 17,000 mt over the same period.

Is Now a Good Time To Hedge?

Earlier this month, zinc smelter Nyrstar announced the initiation of a hedging program that would lock in prices six month forward. Is this a good move given that prices are on the rise and everyone is still buying into the tempting narrative of supply shortfall?

I think Nystar made a smart move. Now it seems like a good time for producers to hedge for the midterm while on the other side, zinc buyers might want to wait for more attractive prices to hedge again. Here is why:

Zinc migt struggle to build on gains as it faces strong resistance levels

Zinc might struggle to build on gains as it faces strong resistance levels. Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets.com data.

Zinc has risen in almost a straight line since those January lows. Traders sitting on healthy profits may now be tempted to lock in a bit of downside protection. Moreover, prices are near key resistance levels, meaning that in 2014 and 2015, zinc fell as prices approached $2,400/mt. Traders might again find reasons not to chase prices higher from this point, especially given the spectacular rally seen this year.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Moreover, a zinc rally could run out of steam if miners are tempted to bring production back quicker than originally planned. Chinese mines could respond to higher prices by lifting production and filling any supply gap. Also, bulls are concerned that Glencore could reactivate the 500,000 mt of mine capacity it has idled since late last year.

Bottom Line

Zinc is still one of the favorites among metal investors and this rally could continue into 2017. However, zinc has gone pretty ballistic so far this year and although fundamentals might back the story up, we could see a price pullback around the end of the year. Zinc producers might want to hedge some of their production now while zinc buyers might want to wait for better opportunities to time their purchases.

Shares of U.S. steelmakers made an spectacular run this year, making the steel industry one of the hottest investing opportunities. Stock investors poured money into steel stocks as domestic prices rose.

US Steel (in Blue) and AK Steel (in red) stock prices. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data

U.S. Steel (in Blue) and AK Steel (in red) stock prices. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data.

However, since August, we’ve seen some downward pressure on flat-rolled steel prices with hot-rolled-coil falling near $70 ton from it’s peak in June.

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That caused shares of companies like U.S. Steel and AK Steel to fall more than 40% in just a matter of weeks. Notice how the price trends of shares of both companies are almost identical.

HRC prices correcting since August. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com

HRC prices correcting since August. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data.

While steel prices continue to weaken, so will the stock prices of U.S. steelmakers. Investors looking to buy shares of steel companies might want to wait until steel prices make a comeback, if they do, that is.

There has been considerable concern in the U.S. and elsewhere that China’s exports of primary aluminum are damaging global prices. China would maintain that it imposes an export duty on primary aluminum explicitly to prevent the export of primary metal, largely seen as exporting energy due to the high power cost associated with producing each metric ton of the metal.

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Many outside China believe a considerable amount of metal leaks out of the country in the nominal form of semi-finished products which avoid the export duty, and, indeed, attract a value-added tax refund, only to be subsequently remelted. Large volumes of exports from China make their way to Vietnam, and it is believed much of this material is remelted in the country before being sold.

The Impact of Chinese Aluminum

However, our concern in this article is not so much the impact of primary metal leakage, considerable as it may be, but rather the growing threat of Chinese value-add product manufacturers and the impact they are having on western firms that had previously had the field cornered for automotive and aerospace — to name but two high-tech applications for aluminum — applications.

Chinese material at the end of the last century was considered a joke in terms of quality, but over the first 10 years of this century the country has invested heavily in European and Japanese extrusion, rolling and heat treatment plants and equipment. By the beginning of this decade, Chinese extrusions and commercial sheet/plate were being given equivalence to material from many other sources such as Russia, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan and other locales.

Are aluminum slabs welded together really "deep-processed extrusions?"

Are aluminum slabs welded together really “deep-processed extrusions?”

Such material is still sold at a discount to European or North American semi-finished products, but its growing penetration and the willingness of major distributors to hold a proportion of their inventory as Chinese material, speaks volumes for its growing acceptance, particularly in terms of quality.

The Lucrative Automotive Market

Still, while China — and to a lesser extent mills in places like Malaysia, Turkey and other locales — gradually ate into western mills’ commodity products, those same western mills moved upstream, investing heavily to meet growing demand for automotive sheet and castings, aerospace sheet, plate and extrusions. Read more

Metal prices bottomed out earlier this year and ever since we are seeing rising prices. However, was that the ultimate bottom after a five years of a bear market? Are metal prices set to continue running higher in 2017?

Industrial metals ETF flattens in Q3

The industrial metals ETF flattens in Q3. An end to rising prices? Source: MetalMiner analysis of @StockCharts.com data.

These are questions we can’t answer, but they will be answered moving forward. Although industrial metals entered a bull market this year, we have yet to see how long this rising market will last. In Q3 we already witnessed some weaknesses with many base metals struggling to build on this year’s gains.

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We see three critical factors to watch as we move in 2017. These factors will determine the sustainability of this year’s bull market:

Supply Cuts

Some production capacity was closed this year to fight low prices and the market now seems more balanced than last year. These supply cuts helped push metal prices higher, but the problem is producers might now have enough incentives to restart production. A good example is the zinc market. Zinc prices rose sharply this year thanks to supply cuts, but now markets wonder if Glencore and China’s zinc miners will start upping their production to reap the rewards of higher prices. Read more

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
growth.

MM-IndX_TRENDS_Chart_September2016_FNL-TOPVALUE100

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.

MetalMiner Price Benchmarking: Current and Historical Prices for the Metals You Buy

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.

Copper prices have been on the decline this summer, depressed by reports of oversupply and, worse, an exodus of inventory from top consumer China.

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Indeed, we recently wrote about the rise of metal coming out of Shanghai bonded warehouses ending up in London Metal Exchange stocks around Southeast Asia, leading to a 60% increase in LME stocks last month.

Why Are Exports Slowing?

We speculated this was probably a result of slowing domestic demand and unwinding of financing deals. But a recent Reuters article reports that exports have slowed and imports of refined copper have picked up in China after the price plunged to 12-month lows last month.

Reuters suggests this is due to price declines taking copper into territory where investors once again feel it is oversold and, on the back of a pick-up in demand after the summer, ripe for restocking.

Source Reuters

Source: Reuters

The article states a flood of new supply will still prove too much for the copper price and 2017 will see prices remain under pressure. Read more