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Copper LME falls to two-month low

London Metal Exchange copper falls to a two-month low. Source: MetalMiner analysis of @StockCharts.com data.

Copper prices fell to their lowest level in two months on the London Metal Exchange Wednesday. Copper started the year bullish, but ever since prices have struggled near $5,000 per metric ton as investors seem unwilling to chase prices higher.

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Weaker Chinese imports over the past few months and the bearish calls of some major banks have contributed to the recent price fall. Unlike other base metals, sentiment on copper is still sort of bearish, making this metal the worst performer among its peers this year. Read more

In a speech in Tampa, Fla., Wednesday afternoon, Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump outlined a seven-point plan to bring millions of jobs to the U.S. that involved labeling China a currency manipulator.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

He proposed renegotiating unconfirmed trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and told his audience he would pull the U.S. out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In a first, Trump challenged China for “illegal activities” and vowed to label the country he did real estate business with a currency manipulator.

“I am going to instruct my Treasury Secretary to label China a currency manipulator,” he said. “Any country that devalues their currency in order to take unfair advantage of the United States — and all of its companies who can’t (then) compete —will face tariffs and to stop the cheating.”

Getting Tough With China

Trump also vowed to instruct the office of the U.S. Trade Representative to bring trade cases against China, both in this country and at the World Trade Organization. Read more

At least according to a European Union official familiar with the Union’s steel sector plans, says Reuters.

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The E.U. is certainly ramping up the pressure. This year, alone, the European Commission has 37 anti-dumping and anti-subsidy measures in place for steel products, 15 of them concerning China, slapping anti-dumping duties on products such as rebar, cold-rolled carbon steel and cold-rolled stainless steel, ranging between 18.4 and 25.3% for imports from China.

Everybody Gets on the Tariff Bandwagon

The E.U. is scheduled to rule on plate and hot-rolled coil from China in November and while rates haven’t been at the same level as the U.S. where up to 520% duties are have been applied, they are estimated by the industry to need to be in the 30-40% range in order to be effective.

Steel mills Molten iron smelting furnace production line

Can China’s zombie steel mills be shut down? Beijing is trying a new tactic. Source: Adobe Stock/ZJK.

Yet despite the unprecedented level of action, carbon steel imports in the year to May rose 21% with China now representing 27% of total E.U. imports, while stainless steel imports rose 17% over the period, E.U. data shows, even though demand remained almost flat. Read more

When it comes to metals, demand has been heavily influenced by China for most of this century, but for copper, China has more than heavily influenced the market, it has dominated the demand landscape.

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According to Reuters, China has accounted for most of the demand growth since the commodities super cycle started in 2002, while over the same period consumption in the other parts of the world has stagnated or fallen as economic growth slowed. So, after a solid run this year for the copper price, the London Metal Exchange has risen from a six-and-a-half year low of $4,318 a ton in January to between $4,500 and $5,000 now. It should come as no surprise that warning bells are being rung in the face of weakening Chinese demand.

Imports Down… Supply Up?

China’s copper imports were down an annual 14.3% in July at 360,000 metric tons, Reuters reports, as the stimulus measures announced last year and early this year begin to lose their earlier impact. Much of the demand strength, such as it is, is currently attributed to speculative activity rather than real market demand. Shanghai stocks are rising suggesting metal being imported isn’t being consumed.

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Unlike steel, copper demand is not as heavily tied to the housing market in China. Demand comes from a variety of sectors, most of which benefited earlier this year from a surge of investment but which are now weakening as that stimulus wanes. Investment in the state grid and power industry accounts for about one-third of China’s copper demand, according to Reuters but demand is already said to be slowing, as is that in property and construction, which account for a smaller 20% of copper consumption.

CRU is quoted as saying “In the consumer sectors, demand from the auto sector is steady. Exports helped demand for air conditioners, but domestic sales were sluggish and that isn’t going to change much in the second half.”

Second Half Forecast

Not surprisingly, many are seeing falling prices in the second half, Goldman Sachs forecasts copper prices at $4,200 in six months and $4,000 in 12 months as a wall of supply — forecast by the bank to hit 4.2% growth this year — hits a stagnant demand market. Predictions of supply and demand balance vary considerably underlying the level of uncertainty but HSBC is predicting surplus as this graph from its recent Quarterly Metals & Mining Report shows.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 14.01.59

Source: HSBC.

This prediction is made with a 5% disruption allowance built in, but according to Bloomberg 2016 has been the year for which mine supply has been the least disrupted since 2004. Contributing to the surplus supply position, this has impacted prices and Bloomberg says after a rise of 3% this year prices have already fallen back 1.9% this month, maybe forewarning of more to come.

The battle has intensified between the European Union and low-cost steel suppliers to the region. Specifically, the E.U. is taking action against China and Russia by imposing more anti-dumping duties on steel products from those regions, and for the first time applied them retroactively, according to the Financial Times.

Duties on Foreign Steel

The FT said the duties on cold-rolled steel range up to 22.1% for Chinese imports and up to 36.1% for Russian imports. The rates are a little higher than the provisional penalties in place since February.

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Using a different calculation method, the U.S. imposed tariffs in excess of 500% on similar cold-rolled steel materials from China earlier this year and the E.U. Commission is said to be planning further measures that would allow it to impose U.S.-style tariffs against steel that is believed to be dumped at particularly low prices or is subsidized. Read more

The U.S. and the European Union filed a joint World Trade Organization challenge against China on July 19 over its use of duties and export quotas to control shipments of metals such as tin, tantalum, lead, copper, chromium, cobalt and others.

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The E.U./U.S. effort comes after the U.S. government’s original request for consultations filed on July 13. It also comes after the European Union failed to resolve a dispute with China over its use of duties and export quotas during bilateral meetings with China last week.

Chinese imports are allegedly being dumped in the EU and other foreign markets. Source: Adobe Stock.

Chinese export quotas are being challenged by the U.S. and the E.U. Source: Adobe Stock.

The new request adds challenges to export duties on chromium to the original list of antimony, cobalt, copper, graphite, indium, lead, magnesia, talcum, tantalum and tin. The new request also includes China’s export quotas imposed on antimony, indium, magnesia, talc and tin.

Trade Rep Speaks Out

During last week’s announcement, U.S. Trade Representative officials said export duties on the raw materials ranged from 5 to 20% and enabled Chinese companies to produce lower-priced goods than their U.S. competitors. China also used the lower cost of raw materials to encourage U.S. companies to move production to China, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative charged. Read more

The U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U. hasn’t really scared investors away from industrial metals. The metal complex continues to rally. As we explained in a webinar yesterday, Brexit had little to no impact on the supply and demand dynamics of industrial metals.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

On the demand side of the equation, it is — not the U.K or even Europe — that is the world’s biggest consumer of industrial metals. Supply cuts amid low prices and this year’s boost in Chinese demand for industrial metals, thanks to stimulus measures, continue to be the key factors to watch. In this post we’ll look at the recent bullish price moves of individual base metals that appear to confirm that the bull market that we identified earlier this year is for real. In addition, we’ll look at the recent improvement in investors’ sentiments about China, which favors rising metal prices.

Aluminum Hits a One-Year High

3M LME Aluminum Hits a 1-year high

Three-month LME aluminum hits a one-year high. Source: Fastmarkets.com

Aluminum overcapacity is still an issue. In June, China and the U.S. failed to reach an agreement on how to address excess global aluminum capacity. But that hasn’t stopped prices from rising. On Tuesday, aluminum prices hit a one-year intraday high. Read more

Before anyone with shares in nickel mines goes out and orders their new Maserati, a word or two of caution is in order.

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Yes, by some accounts nickel swung into deficit this year after five years of surpluses as global demand rose by some 4% and supply has been constrained by a lack of new investment, Indonesia’s export ban on nickel ore exports and, more recently, a fall in exports from challenger Chinese supplier, the Philippines where low prices have reduced output.

Investors Are Cashing In

The euphoria among investors is not simply due to a change in outlook. Nickel prices have surged this year by some 13% according to the Financial Times with the latest boost coming from the Philippines’ new environmentalist mining minister Gina Lopez, who has announced plans to audit domestic mines for compliance with environmental standards, the expectation is up to 70% could fail resulting in them potentially having their licenses revoked. Two have already lost their licenses. Read more

You wouldn’t expect the ripples to have spread quite this far, but Britain’s Brexit from the E.U. is lapping on the shores of the South China Sea and has forced the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) to intervene to “stabilize” the yuan in the face of a slump in the pound and euro and a surge in the U.S. dollar.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Chinese policymakers have guided the yuan to a 5.6% decline against an index of its trading partners this year as exports fell every month apart from March. The 13-currency gauge fell to a 20-month low last week as the PBOC continued its policy of “stability” while maintaining responsiveness to market forces — plainly such a policy can be contradictory at times, especially in times of volatility as we are now facing.

Source: Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

The PBOC, after years of gradual appreciation, has presided over a period of depreciation again in an attempt to help exporters, but an unexpected downward adjustment last August spooked markets and caused shares to fall causing an estimated $1 trillion capital outflow from the country as investors panicked, fearing the prospect of their assets falling in dollar values. Read more

A recent Reuters article draws an interesting comparison between the Chinese aluminum and steel industries and then goes on to draw some not-so-encouraging conclusions for aluminum. Excess aluminum production there is damaging the prospects of aluminum producers in the rest of the world, purely because of the size of China’s massive aluminum industry.

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Both metals face excess production at home due to rampant overinvestment and slowing domestic demand. Reuters lists a number of similarities between the two industries: China is the world’s largest producer in both markets, accounting for 51.5% of global steel output and 54.4% of global primary aluminum output in April.

Chinese Steel vs. Chinese Aluminum

In both industries, China has been exporting excess production of steel and aluminum in the form of semi-manufactured products, with steel product exports last year totaling 112.4 million metric tons, representing around 14% of the rest of the world’s output and aluminum product exports of 4.2 mmt representing 17% of the rest of the world’s output. In both cases, exports have damaged prospects for producers elsewhere, forcing closures, losses and delaying investments.

Source Reuters

Source: Reuters

In the case of steel, though, the threat of a delay to China’s application for market economy status by the World Trade Organization has forced a more conciliatory response by Beijing in recent discussions, and the promise of large-scale closure of older capacity in China.

Aluminum Overproduction Unabated

How effective this will be remains to be seen but, even so, it is in marked contrast to the position aluminum is in, where Beijing seems unable or unwilling to curtail new investment. As prices on the Shanghai Futures Exchange have risen this year, idled smelters have restarted and new capacity has continued to come on-stream.

Annualized run rates increased by almost 650,000 mt over the course of April and May, Reuters reports, with May’s average daily output of 86,290 mt the highest since November 2015 before prices fell below $1,518 (10,000 yuan).

The other factor apparently effecting Beijing’s attitude is the rapid rise in capacity is coming from new state of the art low cost aluminum smelters in China’s northwestern provinces. Aluminum is not seen as an old-fashioned, state-dominated industry operating polluting plants close to urban areas.

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China’s new aluminum capacity is cutting-edge, world-class technology and — at current prices at least — is making money. As a result, Reuters concludes capacity is unlikely to be trimmed anytime soon, at least by government intervention. For aluminum producers outside of China, that is not good news, and although recent rises in price to $1,600/mt are better than the $1,450-1,500/mt levels of late last year, it doesn’t offer much upside in the short- to medium-term if China keeps flooding the market with excess semi-finished products.