China

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.

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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.

While Saudi Arabia’s grip on oil prices has waned and shale drillers have survived its attempt to undercut them with crude prices nearing $50/barrel, China might just be the new Saudi Arabia of metals markets.

Resilient Shale Drillers Investing Again

Two years into the worst oil price rout in a generation, large and mid-sized U.S. independent producers are surviving and eyeing growth again as oil nears $50 a barrel, confounding the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and, particularly, OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia with their resiliency.

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That shale giants Hess Corp., Apache Corp. and more than 25 other companies have beaten back OPEC’s attempt to sideline them would have been unthinkable just months ago, when oil plumbed $26 a barrel and collapses were feared.

Is China Metals’ Saudi Arabia?

Speaking of countries that dominate the market for important commodities, is China doing for metals markets what Saudi Arabia used to do for crude oil?

Free Download: The June 2016 MMI Report

The world’s largest producer and consumer of industrial metals may be acting as a de facto, if unwitting, type of OPEC for metals, adjusting supply in response to price signals and balancing the market.

Steel, aluminum, cement, what will China flood the world with next?

Free Download: The May 2016 MMI Report

Oh yes, refined petroleum products, or to be more exact diesel fuel is the prime culprit at the moment. According to the Financial Times, China has in the region of 100 million metric tons of excess refining capacity and is adding more. Read more

Lead prices fell in May with the rest of the base metal complex, hitting a four-month low.

3M LME Lead price

The three-month LME lead price falls. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Last year lead was buoyed by expectations of mine shutdowns and firm demand from the China’s lead-acid battery industry. However, things haven’t quite panned out this way.

Free Download: The May 2016 MMI Report

Lead is now 5% down year to date while sister metal zinc has scored 18% gains over the same period.

Lead production

Global lead production has joined usage in flattening recently. Source: MetalMiner.

Demand for lead looks less appealing than zinc this year. Provisional data reported to the International Lead and Zinc Study Group indicate that lead is still in surplus, with world refined lead metal supply exceeding demand by 29,000 metric tons during the first quarter of 2016. Two factors have weighted down on demand and prices this year.

A Hit to Chinese Electric Bike Demand

Amid concerns about safety, Chinese municipal authorities imposed new regulations on electric or e-bikes this year, which account for about one-third of the country’s demand for lead-acid batteries.

New Tax on Lead-Acid Battery Makers

Lead depends on lead-acid batteries for about 80% of demand in top consumer China. The Chinese lead-acid battery sector has been struggling due to heavy price competition and was further hit after China imposed the 4% tax in January on batteries.

What This Means for Metal Buyers

Lead prices have become increasingly choppy this year. The metal has traded up and down in the price range of $1,570-$1,880 per mt for eleven consecutive months. Overall, lead fundamentals don’t look terrible but unless we see a major change in the macro-picture the supply surplus could continue to cap the upside.

I don’t know if any of you have been following the Sky Atlantic series “Billions” — it may be screened here in the U.K. later than the U.S. and is already history stateside — but after the first two episodes it is following an intriguing if well-worn path of the demon hedge fund manager pitted against the flawed but public-serving attorney general. Echoes of the big short and other films demonizing hedge funds come to mind, but it’s well done all the same.

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This is not all Hollywood, or wherever Sky films its TV series, though. In the real world, we are seeing the impact of unbridled and largely unregulated hedge funds manipulating the market and our purchase costs, our cash flow, and, ultimately, our profitability every day. Read more

Nickel prices are, finally, on the move.

Owners of shares in nickel mines shouldn’t start popping the champagne corks just yet, it’s going to be a slow burn rise but the landscape appears to be shifting and it is because of, as usual, China. First and foremost, there is a trend among stainless producers this year, particularly in China, to produce more 300 series nickel-bearing grades than last year.

Real Demand is Up

Just as mills and consumers shifted wholesale from 300 to 400 series grades when nickel prices went through the roof in 2010-11, a prolonged period of falling prices has encouraged consumers and designers to switch back to higher-quality grades.

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Macquarie Bank is quoted by Reuters saying global nickel demand will grow by 4.4% this year, largely on the back of a predicted 4% rise in Chinese 300 series stainless production. Likewise, the INSG estimates the global market will fall into a small 600-ton deficit in Q1 of this year, although it must be said the market remains well supplied by huge global stocks. Read more

Anyone looking at the seaborne Asian Iron ore market? A cursory glance at China’s iron ore market and one has to ask, “what’s going on?”

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Iron ore prices have been on a roller coaster this year, yet reports abound of excess iron ore supply, excess steel production, excess steel capacity and falling property prices and, by extension, excess appetite for construction steel.

There is still mine oversupply. Source: Adobe Stock/nikitos77.

There is still mine oversupply. Source: Adobe Stock/nikitos77.

This week, reports of rising port stocks, up 1.6% to 100.45 million metric tons or five weeks of supply should have depressed prices, but the prevailing mood among traders seems to be one of cautious optimism that iron ore consumption and, hence, steel production will continue strongly this year, so much so that iron ore prices actually rose 2.7% to $54.98 per mt late last week. Read more

The scrapping of rare earths export quotas late last year resulted in soaring exports from China which produced 84% of total world rare earths output of 124,000 metric tons, but prices have fallen to multiyear lows in 2016 in response to low demand and oversupply.

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Oxide shipments more than doubled in Q1 2016 at 11,956 mt. March was the second best month on record. That was despite expectations that exports were expected to drop off dramatically this year after December when cargoes hit a record high of nearly 5,000 mt as users built up inventories ahead of the Chinese new year.

Exports Up, Demand Down

Exports of dysprosium surged five-fold while neodymium shipments jumped more than 300%. The Chinese government plans to complete the consolidation of its rare earth industry under six large state-owned firms — Chinalco, Northern Rare Earth, Xiamen Tungsten, China Minmetals, Southern Rare Earth and Guangdong Rare Earth — by the end of June, deputy industry and information technology minister Xin Guobin said.

Free Download: The May 2016 MMI Report

Much of the expected consolidation in China was slowed in the first two quarters by the weak market and stimulus at home that has led miners and domestic producers of smartphones and cars to increase production despite demand not moving much at all. If rare earths are to make a comeback in the second half of the year, actual end user demand will have to increase independent of government stimulus.

Last week, we briefly covered the decision by European Union lawmakers to vote against the application by China to be considered a market economy, a recognition China says it is due automatically by December following an agreement in 2001 set to mature this year.

We also published an in-depth look at what China market economy status would mean for U.S./E.U relationship with China.

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The European Parliament’s decision was overwhelming, 546 votes in favor and only 28 against, with 77 abstentions so, while the vote is non-binding, it raises the stakes for the European Commission, which will decide shortly whether China deserves to have its status upgraded.

Terrible Timing For Europe

For both sides the debate is at the wrong time. Europe’s steel industry is being decimated by cheap imports from China, raising the stakes for politicians otherwise inclined toward a more free-market approach. The British, in particular, find themselves (not for the first time) somewhat isolated in wanting more open engagement even though their domestic steel industry has been hit harder than most.

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

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

In reality, the decision is much more political than practical. Market economy status matters when it comes to deciding whether a country is “dumping,” exporting goods at below cost price. Nations deemed to be market economies can resist anti-dumping measures if they can show that domestic prices are no higher than the price at which goods are sold overseas. Read more