Market Analysis

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.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

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.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

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.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

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.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

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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Copper prices are trading near $6,000 per metric ton, up 30% from just four months ago. Things can change quickly and I don’t know where prices will be by the end of the year, but what’s clear to me is that most analysts’ forecasts seem way off. According to a recent survey polled by Reuters, copper analysts are are expecting prices to average $5,350/mt this year.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

In my opinion, this is a very conservative price average and quite bearish due to what Behavioral finance calls “anchoring,” the human tendency to attach or “anchor,” our thoughts to a reference point even when it makes no logical sense. Analysts see that copper prices have risen significantly and quickly, so they anchor the new price of $6,000/mt onto the $4,500/mt level where prices were trading at just a few months ago. This creates the idea that $6,000/mt is an expensive price for copper and, for this reason, you will almost see no one but me calling for an average above $6,000/mt this year. Read more

Gold prices have gained 9% this year, regaining much of the losses seen after the U.S. presidential election.

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A stronger dollar and expectations for economic growth drove investors out of the safe-haven asset. What’s now sending investors back into gold? and, is this gold rally the beginning of gold’s revival or just a dead cat bounce?

Buying The Dip

Gold rises in 2017. Source:MetalMIner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

Although a 9% increase might look impressive, it really isn’t. Gold previously lost $180 per ounce in less than two months. After such a big slump it’s normal see a price rebound since many investors will see the significant dip as an opportunity to buy gold at a discount.

To me, this doesn’t mean that gold’s underlying fundamentals have improved. Prices still have yet to test stiff resistance near $1,300 per ounce. This rally could lose steam in March.

The US Dollar

The US Dollar Index since March 2016. Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

Perhaps, the single factor contributing most to this year’s gold rally is a weaker dollar. Weakness in the dollar also comes because the currency rose very fast in the last quarter of 2016. In addition, President DonaldTrump made comments that he desires a weaker dollar and that has also weighed down the currency.

Last week, Federal Reserve officials said they plan to raise rates “fairly soon,” but they left investors doubting that the central bank will act at its March meeting. The Fed raised interest rates in December and cited plans to raise rates as many as three times in 2017. Higher rates tend to weigh on gold, since the precious metal becomes less less attractive compared with yield-bearing assets when borrowing costs rise.

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This month the dollar seems to be finding some support. We’ll have to wait and see if the currency can resume its bull market run, which would be quite bearish for gold prices.

Stock Markets

The S&P 500 hits all-time highs. Source: @Stockcharts.com.

Trump has frequently told U.S. citizens he remains committed on both tax reform and regulatory cuts since entering the White House, which has created optimism among investors. We already presented the case for a bull stock market back in January.

A Trump administration for the next four years might be just what the doctor prescribed to keep this aging bull stock market going, even with seven-plus years of gains behind its back. At least that’s what it looks like thus far. U.S. stock indexes are trading at all-time highs, which is not helping gold as a safe haven.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The recent strength in gold prices is something to keep an eye on. However, keep in mind that this rally might just be a dead cat bounce. A rising stock market, a healthy U.S. dollar and gold prices meeting resistance are factors that could keep a lid on gold’s rally.

US hot-rolled coil prices retrace. Source: MetalMiner IndX.

Since November — Coinciding with Donald Trump’s victory — U.S. steel prices have been on a tear.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

However, in February momentum started to cool down. It’s now buyers’ job to determine whether this is a major peak or just a pause within this bull market.

Chinese Steel Capacity Rises in 2016

In February, a report 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 says 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.

Meanwhile, some 49 mmt of capacity that had previously been suspended was restarted, and 12 mmt of new operating capacity came online. That means that China added 37 million metric tons additional operating capacity in 2016. 

Hot-rolled coil prices in China also take a pause. Source: MetalMiner IndX.

This news is bearish for steel prices and it is likely contributing to lower steel prices in February, both in the U.S. and China. Read more

Reuters reported that U.S. stock index futures rose to record intraday highs on Tuesday as oil prices surged and investors assessed earnings from top U.S. retailers.

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The theory is share prices are being driven higher by a strong oil price and retailers who are reporting better than expected store sales. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Macy’s, and Home Depot sales are all up on robust consumer demand. If stock prices were supported on consumer confidence alone, we could see an argument for this bull run in share prices to continue.

Stocks are up

Stock prices continue to rise thanks to strong retail sales and oil prices. Source Adobe Stock/Tiagozr.

There is plenty of optimism around. Donald Trump’s much-vaunted infrastructure projects are expected to create significant demand and have an inflationary impact on the economy… when they eventually see the light of day. 2018 At the earliest is our expectation since few are shovel-ready and all will have to get past Congress first. Meanwhile, though, the economy is adding jobs at a steady rate and unemployment is low.

Oil Supply

However, if Reuters is right and shares are being driven higher in part due to the oil price, we have a few concerns. The oil price was driven higher by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries‘ production cap agreement last year, an agreement to which both major OPEC producers and 11 non-OPEC countries like Russia signed up to in an effort to reduce excess production and bring the market into balance by the summer. Read more