Aluminum

So much has been written in recent months about China and the Chinese aluminum market that we are in danger of losing sight of the performance of major producers outside of that market.

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The position of producers like Alcoa and Rusal arguably have more impact and more significance for Western consumers than those behind the tariff barrier walls of China’s borders. The Financial Times reported last week that Rusal (still the world’s second largest producer, according to Statista) is in robust health and has reported rising profits on the back of stronger first quarter prices.

According to the FT, net profit for the first three months of the year was $187 million, up 48% from $126 million in the same period last year, on the back of 20% rise in revenue to $2.3 billion. While not quite reaching analysts’ predictions, it allowed the firm to reduce debt levels and encouragingly was achieved on the back of only a modest 0.7% increase in production to 910,000 metric tons. Likewise, alumina production was up a correspondingly small 0.9% to 1.889 million tons.

Costs, however, have remained a bugbear with electricity prices, transportation – principally railways, and other raw material costs rising in Q1, in part due to rising commodity prices but also due to a 6.7% strengthening of the ruble.

Nevertheless, demand growth remains robust, and supply outside China remains relatively tight with the forward market spreads not favouring the roll-over of stock and trade storage of primary metal with only a 3.5% margin over 18 months.

Much will depend on China going forward and how seriously Beijing continues to pursue its policy of clamping down on environmental non-compliance and limiting new smelter investment. Aluminum demand in China grew at 7.5% in the first quarter, according to Aluminium Insider, and it is growing at 5.0% in the rest of the world.

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Prices may have slipped back of late but that was probably to be expected after the surge of enthusiasm following Beijing’s clampdown. As the realisation sinks in that China’s winter heating period closures are still six months away, some softening is to be expected.

If I had to pick a base metal to put my money on this year, it would have been aluminum. The lightweight metal presented an attractive bullish narrative due to the combination of rising political tensions and the potential for supply cuts in China.

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China has pledged to cut as much as 30% of its aluminum production over the winter months to reduce emissions from one of its most energy-intensive industries. In addition, the country has received a lot of international pressure to reduce its aluminum capacity.

The U.S. is trying to find new ways to make things difficult for Chinese aluminum exporters. Recently, President Donald Trump signed a memo to order an acceleration in the investigation of aluminum imports, citing concerns over national security. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that massive state-run Chinese companies helped China Zhongwang finance an illegal game of moving stockpiles around the globe to avoid paying punitive import tariffs to the U.S.

If we narrowed our view to the industry fundamentals, it would be hard to expect any downside in aluminum prices. However, broadening our view, there are a couple of factors that could put a downward pressure on aluminum for the rest of the year, especially after such a steady rise.

Potential Slowdown in China’s Demand

As I mentioned yesterday, “China is putting efforts into halting risky lending and rising borrowing costs in order to limit credit growth. Interest rates in China have risen to the highest level in two years while China’s tough talks on curbing credit are expected to put the brakes on credit growth, [hurting demand for industrial metals.]” Read more

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Now’s the time to buy those solar panels you’ve been saving up for. This week, Tesla announced that it is taking orders and deposits for solar roof tiles that look stunningly like… regular roof tiles. But therein lies the appeal, and the $42-per-square-foot cost isn’t so bad either, lower than what industry analysts expected, Bloomberg reported.

Keep Your Eye on Silver

This growing interest in solar energy has been supporting the demand for silver, according to the Silver Institute’s World Silver Survey 2017, which Taras Berezowsky covered on MetalMiner this week. As Berezowsky wrote, “According to the report, silver demand for photovoltaic applications shot up 34% to reach 76.6 million ounces. This growth was the strongest since 2010, and it was driven by a 49% increase in global solar panel installations.”

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In addition, “automotive will be an interesting sector to watch,” Berezowsky wrote. Silver demand could be driven up further as the world moves towards electric vehicles — whose engines and circuit boards require silver — however slowly, as Stuart Burns noted earlier this morning.

Bearish Times

“If you are a metal buyer, it doesn’t matter if you buy aluminum, copper, steel or tin,” Raul de Frutos wrote in his commodities outlook this week. “The information in this article is important for you.” Commodities may have enjoyed a bull market in early 2016, but things appear to have shifted to the bear-ish. “Commodities not only have struggled to make new headway,” de Frutos wrote. “In the past few days they have weakened significantly. Recent moves in China have caused a significant shift of sentiment in financial markets.” Read more

Aluminum Rod

Goldman Sachs is bullish on aluminum, projecting it to rise following China’s supply-side reforms.

According to a recent report from CNBC, Goldman expects aluminum prices to hit the $2,000 per metric ton point in six months and $2,100 per ton in a year.

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Year-to-date, aluminum prices have outperformed other industrial metals, climbing roughly 15% compared to steel and 3% compared to copper, the news source stated.

“In our view, this strong performance has reflected an increase in the potential for aluminum to be the next target of supply-side reform in China, a tightening ex-China balance, and rising costs of production,” wrote the bank’s analysts. “Further, global political developments may also be supportive of capacity and production cuts, given the two leaders of the U.S. and China launched a 100-day (trade) plan on April 7. These developments support our existing view that aluminum is the next target for supply-side reform in China,” they added. Read more

Proposals based on environmental grounds to limit polluting industries in the greater Beijing area during next winter’s primary heating period (November to March) gave a boost to the aluminum market from the moment they were first mooted last year.

Beijing’s robust implementation of environmental audits and regulation of aluminum plants this year have added to a sense that the authorities are getting serious about pollution and the environmental impact of energy intensive industries like aluminum smelting. But, as Reuter’s columnist Andy Home opined, it is protectionism in the rest of the world that is going to add backbone to these trends and act as the driving force behind further action on Beijing’s part.

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In an article this week, Home explained how the latest investigation into aluminum imports, along the same lines as an earlier steel case, has been launched under Section 232(b) of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which lets a president act against imports on national security grounds. The reasoning is the U.S. has but one smelter left in operation, Century’s Kentucky smelter, capable of producing the high grades required for defence and aerospace companies making combat aircraft and the like.

China supplies almost no primary aluminum to the U.S. market. Following U.S. smelter closures, surging imports are being increasingly met by Russia and the United Arab Emirates, while the bulk continues to be supplied by Canada, as the graph below from Reuters shows.

Where China has an impact is in semi-finished products, such as sheet, plate, foil, bars, tubes and sections. Here the growth of Chinese exports to the world — and U.S. imports — has been much more significant. According to Home, on that measure China has been by some margin the largest-volume supplier to the U.S. market in recent years. Read more

Industrial metals for the most part fell in April, but that wasn’t the case for aluminum. The lightweight metal outperformed its peers as aluminum is expected to be the next target of supply-side reform in China, according to Goldman Sachs.

The New Steel?

While China tries to transition from a manufacturing economy to a service-driven one, it is aiming to cut industrial overcapacity due to environmental problems. China previously indicated its strong intentions to implement supply-side reforms in the steel industry. As a result, steel prices in China rose by 70% in less than a year.

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China’s energy intensive aluminum smelters receive nearly 90% of their energy needs from coal. In addition, China has received a lot of international pressure to reduce its aluminum capacity. For these reasons, aluminum could be the new steel this year.

To start, China announced in late February that it would cut as much as 30% of its aluminum production over the winter months. As my colleague Stuart Burns put it, “Beijing has shown solid intent in this direction, already denying planning approval to 2 million tons of new capacity in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang and clamping down hard on plants elsewhere that it deems to be failing environmental standards.” In addition, industry watchers believe that this might just be the beginning as more closures are expected to come in heavily industrialized provinces.

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The 100-day mark for President Donald Trump’s administration has come and passed. When it comes to the effects of his policies on various markets, only one thing is certain: uncertainty.

That uncertainty also applies to non-ferrous metal markets, which saw a boom in optimism after Trump’s election last year. For example, copper rose to a 15-month high on Nov. 9, 2016. However, that optimism has dwindled through the first few months of his administration, due to lingering uncertainty over the administration’s ability to actuate campaign promises.

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While market fluctuations are a confluence of many forces, beyond what the president does or does not do, the president does have substantial influence, both in word and deed. Thus far, Trump has been more influential in the former, campaigning on a renewed focus on mining (particularly with respect to coal) and significant investment in American infrastructure.

“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” Trump had said during his victory speech in November. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.” Read more

In preparing our new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook for May, we’ve seen that prices in both industrial metal markets and commodity markets have fallen over the past month.

What’s the deal?

Well, a few things are happening that stirred up that pot:

  • The U.S. dollar fell to a five-month low. The dollar’s movement usually has an inverse relationship with that of commodity prices, but not lately. Election season across the pond in France is heating up, and the outcome of the first round of presidential voting had eased concerns about the future of the euro, which rose against the dollar.
  • Interestingly, China’s annual GDP growth increased to 6.9% during Q1 2017, the fastest growth rate since the second half of 2015. Not only that, but the country also announced that it will build a “new megacity” — two things that would usually portend higher industrial metals prices. And yet…here’s what China’s economy has been doing since 2012 (the overall trend is pretty clear):

  • President Trump ordered two investigations, one for steel and one for aluminum, into whether imports of those metals threaten U.S. national security.

Check out how these types of events and trends are affecting six non-ferrous metal markets and four specific forms of steel — HRC, CRC, HDG and plate — in our detailed monthly analysis.

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You can’t accuse the aluminum market of being boring, which is exactly what most consumers don’t want to hear.

As buyers, we like nothing better than a nice steady predictable market. A little bit of price inflation is good if you are a stockist or trader, as it keeps the market turning over and encourages forward buying. But as consumers, most buyers would rather the market be flat and boring, the same next month as this and predictable for six months out. “Can’t think when it was last like that,” you will say.

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The problem is that the most highly traded metal on the LME and the second most highly produced metal after steel is still buffeted by squalls from every quarter. Recently, talk (and let’s remember that so far it is mostly talk) of capacity closures next winter in the greater Beijing hinterland to combat pollution has helped lift the price by encouraging talk of scarcity. Beijing has shown solid intent in this direction, already denying planning approval to 2 million tons of new capacity in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang and clamping down hard on plants elsewhere that it deems to be failing environmental standards.

The next target is said to be smelters in China’s heavily industrialized provinces of Shandong and Inner Mongolia. Of China’s total illegal aluminum capacity (which, according to some sources, is between 3.7 million metric tons and 6.6 million metric tons), the clear majority of it (up to 4.3 million metric tons) is situated in Shandong, Aluminium Insider reports.

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This means that the impact of proposed closures could be profound. While Beijing was being dismissed for environmental posturing just months ago, the market is now taking it at its word. The expectation is that we will be seeing more of the same, with further closures likely during this year. Combined with the potentially more serious closure of alumina refining and carbon anode production capacity removal of even 2-4 million tons out of China’s 31+ million metric tons annual primary smelting capacity would tighten the market, probably pushing it into outright deficit.

At the same time, among a flurry of 100-day directives emanating out of the White House, President Donald Trump is due to sign an executive order this week calling for the Department of Commerce to accelerate the investigation on aluminum imports in the name of national security. The allegation is that damage to the U.S. aluminum industry from imports, particularly overproduction in China driving down global prices, has implications for national security. A positive ruling on this could result in tariffs or other restrictions against the estimated 55% of current US supply that is met by imports.

Both developments could be supportive of higher prices this year. In fact, when you look at the aluminum market, set against a backdrop of solid global growth and continued above GDP growth in the use of aluminum, you must ask where negative price pressures are to come from.

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One could be a more rapid appreciation of the U.S. dollar. A stronger dollar usually has a negative impact on commodity prices, but the market is already factoring in three Fed rate rises this year, and potentially inflationary tax changes proposed by the new administration are at least a year away from implementation. Short-term profit taking aside the only medium-term cap could be a psychological one of $2,000 per ton. But once breached, that becomes a support level for further rises.

It will certainly be an interesting year for aluminum.

The Commerce Department launched an investigation on Wednesday to determine whether a flood of aluminum imports from China and elsewhere was compromising U.S. national security, a step that could lead to broad import restrictions on the lightweight metal.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the investigation is similar to one announced last week for steel imports into the U.S., invoking Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

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“Here’s why we did it,” Ross told reporters, “Imports have been flooding into the aluminum industry and the defense angle is that high-purity aluminum is used in the F-35” as well as other military aircraft and vehicles. In the event of a war, domestic manufacturers might be unable to meet the Pentagon’s needs, Ross said.

The investigation mirrors a probe Commerce launched a week earlier focusing on the steel industry, also invoking section 232 of the act. North American aluminum trade groups have been pushing for such action for the last five years.