Copper

Copper prices took a hit in May because of a surge in LME inventories. Or… was it because of that?

I’ve pointed out this before, but people continue to talk about copper stocks to explain price movements. LME inventories rose in May by 64,000 tons, or 25%, at the same time that prices fell. But that’s simply a coincidence.

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Most of the time, inventory inflows and outflows can simply happen because traders move metal from one destination to another to profit from price arbitrages. Indeed, in November copper prices climbed 20% while LME stocks rose by more than 90,000 tons. I would argue that inventory levels have no predictability on price trends. But then what drove copper prices down?

China to Halt Credit Growth

China is putting efforts on 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 the country’s tough talks on curbing credit are expected to put the brakes on credit growth.

As I wrote last week, “the noticeable tightening in Chinese monetary policy is bad news for property markets in China. The country has also pledged to halt risky local funding on the construction of infrastructure projects. Investors know that this will hurt demand for commodities and industrial metals.” Read more

Set of copper pipes of different diameter lying in one heap

Copper on the Shanghai market traded lower this week with investors choosing equities and oil, an area where a domestic rally was overflowing into Asian markets.

According to a report from Reuters, three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange did find some support, trading 1.1% higher, which offset losses from the previous session.

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However, the Reuters report also stated that LME copper stayed close to the four-month lows reached earlier this week as the market suffered from weak demand stemming from China and falling imports.

The most popular copper contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange slipped to $6,558 a ton, Reuters reported, a decline of 0.71%.

Copper Bears Take Over

Just this week our own Raul de Frutos wrote of the commodity outlook shifting for copper buyers, as well as buyers of aluminum, steel and tin, and that the bears are taking over:

de Frutos wrote: “About a month ago I noted that while industrial metals were on the rise, commodities were range-bound, a sign of sluggish global demand. As I had written, ‘a healthy bull market in base metals should be accompanied by a bull market in other commodity markets.’ Commodities not only have struggled to make new headway but in the past few days they weakened significantly. Recent moves in China have caused a significant shift of sentiment in financial markets.”

de Frutos cited several issues, including oil prices taking a dip and China curbing its credit, to signal that the bull market for commodities might be coming to an end.

How will copper and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth copper price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:

Our Copper MMI fell by two points in April, dragged down by a sell-off in industrial metals. In addition, supply concerns have eased as strikes at some mines ended.

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The strike at Escondida in Chile, the world’s largest copper mine, ended in late March. Soon after, a 18-day strike at the Cerro Verde mine in Peru also came to an end. A new strike at the mining company Southern Copper Corp. in Peru took place in April, but it lasted only two weeks, leaving no significant effect on production.

Meanwhile, Freeport McMoRan finally obtained a permit to export material from its Grasberg mine, the second largest copper mine in the world. The new permit will allow the company to export 1.1 million tons of copper concentrate through February of next year.

However, Freeport now has a new problem on its hands. Workers have threatened a one-month strike starting in May. The company had laid off about 10% of its workers, saying that there may be more layoffs in the future to stem losses. Moreover, the company is still confronting Indonesia over rights to the mine. With this problematic combination of protests from workers and tensions with the Indonesian government, it’s no wonder that investors are concerned about further supply disruptions this year.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Although supply disruptions eased in March and April, there is overall plenty of potential for further disruptions this year. Prices took a dip in April, but that seems to be a normal price action given that most industrial metals fell in the same month.

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After a spectacular rally in Q4 of last year, prices are now consolidating in the price range of $5,500-$6,100/mt. Bulls seems still in control but they probably need another bullish development to chase prices above this price range. That development could come in the for of additional supply disruptions this year. We will be watching closely the developments at the Grasberg mine in the coming week in addition to the several mines that have contract negotiations due to this year.

Actual Copper Prices and Trends

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Here’s What Happened

  • The Automotive MMI, our sub-index of industrial metals and materials used by the automotive sector, dropped by one point for a May reading of 8, a 1.1% drop.
  • This is the third straight month of declines for this index. Back in February 2017, the Automotive MMI hit 92 — its highest level since November 2014. But now, flagging HDG steel, copper and shredded scrap prices are dragging on the rest of the index.

What’s Going On in the Background?

  • The U.S. auto market is officially slowing. Car sales dropped 4.7% to 1.43 million units, according to Autodata Corp. That is a bigger drop than forecasted by both Edmunds and Kelly Blue Book, according to several news outlets.
  • Meanwhile in China, the first quarter of 2017 saw a 7% overall increase in car sales. As we reported in our Monthly Metal Buying Outlook (free trial here), that was the strongest showing since 2014. The Chinese government has extended tax cuts for small vehicles, which should keep citizens buying cars through the year.

What Metal Buyers Should Look Out For

  • Many factors coming down the line — including increased construction projects in China — portend longer-term support for key automotive constituent metals such as HDG steel.
  • Even though HDG has slipped a bit this month, prices for that metal form in China could see room for improvement.

Key Price Movers and Shakers

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This morning in metals news, we’ve seen prices for copper and gold reach three-week highs and lows, respectively.

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Threat of Supply Disruption Has Driven Up Copper Prices

Copper prices reached a three-week high today, Reuters reported, driven by potential supply disruptions. This news comes after yesterday’s rally near the Grasberg copper mine in Indonesia. Thousands of workers from the Indonesian unit of Freeport McMoRan Inc. took part, protesting against layoffs that resulted from the company’s contract dispute with the government.

Freeport had laid off 10% of its workforce, with potentially more layoffs to come. As a response, the union representing the workers has threatened to strike for the month of May.

A Three-Week Low for Gold Prices

In contrast, gold prices fell on Monday as the threat of a U.S. government shutdown faded and the U.S. dollar edged slightly higher. The metal has dropped to $1,255.50 per ounce, the lowest gold prices have been since April 10, according to FactSet data. Political tensions in Europe had kept gold prices up so far this year, but that trend seems to have been reversed.

In related news, S&P Global Platts reported that gold production in China, the world’s top gold producer as well as consumer, fell significantly in Q1 2017. In this past quarter, China produced 101.2 tons of gold, which is a 9.3% drop compared with 111.6 tons in Q1 2016.

Bernanke Argues in Favor of a Border Adjustment Tax

Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke came out in support of the proposed border adjustment tax (BAT), suggesting to CNBC that the GOP had not presented the idea well. Bernanke argued that a stronger dollar would negate any negative effects of the BAT – which would tax imports and exempt exports – by increasing U.S. companies’ purchasing power and lowering the cost of overseas manufacturing.

Oil prices slipped nearly 1% on Monday, extending last week’s decline, on lack of confirmation that OPEC will extend output cuts until the end of 2017 and as Russia indicated it can lift output if the deal on curbs lapses.

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Russian oil output could climb to its highest rate in 30 years if the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and non-OPEC producers do not extend a six-month supply reduction deal beyond June 30, according to comments by Russian officials and details of investment plans released by oil companies.

Freeport Gets Copper Export License

Freeport-McMoran Inc. has secured a permit to resume copper exports from Indonesia on Friday after a hiatus of more than three months, hours after a state visit by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who discussed the copper miner’s dispute with Jakarta.

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Indonesia’s trade ministry issued Freeport with a permit to export 1.1 million metric tons of copper concentrate up to February next year, although it was unclear how long shipments would last.

Set of copper pipes of different diameter lying in one heap

The copper industry is still reeling from its crisis of plummeting prices, but hope is on the horizon and a recovery is underway albeit a gradual one.

According to a recent report from Reuters, falling prices led to a reduction in output, but industry executives announced this week in a meeting in Chile, a top producer nation of the metal, that any recovery will be a slow one.

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“The market seems to have left behind its worst moment, although it’s very premature to anticipate a new cycle of high prices,” Chilean Mining Minister Aurora Williams told the conference, according to Reuters.

Arnaud Soirat, copper and diamonds unit chief at Rio Tinto added that copper prices could receive support from external factors, including pending mine closures and ore grade decline.

“Copper’s long-term fundamentals are quite positive, and we expect to see further demand growth from emerging markets,” he told Reuters, forecasting a small deficit this year.

Copper Prices on Upward Trajectory?

Reuters also reported that copper consultancy CRU is projecting copper prices to trend upward over the next 3-4 years.

Said Vanessa Davidson, director of copper research: “We expect pressure on costs to continue…but we see copper prices rising faster than operating costs, ensuring that profit margins increase.”

How will copper and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth copper price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:

Copper prices continued to trade flat in March. Over this month, strikes at major mines Escondida and Cerro Verde ended while Freeport-McMoran got a temporary export permit for its Grasberg mine.

Escondida’s Strike Ends

The strike at the world’s largest copper mine, Escondida in Chile, ended in the final week of March. The strike had lasted 44 days, longer than expected.

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The mine is not rushing to ramp up back to prestrike output levels. Owner BHP Billiton has said will outline the impact of the strike on Escondida’s output in results due for release on April 26. The strike is estimated to have cost Escondida more than 200,000 metric tons in copper production.

Copper MMI

Workers at the mine voted to return to work, despite not having reached an agreement on a new pay deal with management. Instead, workers extended their existing contract by 18 months, losing out on a new signing bonus or wage increase, but they will be able to renegotiate a new deal in 2018 after a new pro-union Chilean labor law goes into into effect.

Cerro Verde Mine Resumes Operations

Cerro Verde, Peru’s largest copper mine, had been operating at 50% of capacity since workers initiated a strike on March 10. At the end of the month, workers signed an agreement as the union accepted the company’s offer to improve family health care benefits and pay workers their portion of the mine’s profits earlier than usual. The mine produced just under 500,000 mt of the red metal last year.

Grasberg Mine Gets Temporary Export Permit

Freeport-McMoran was granted a temporary permit to export copper concentrates from its Grasberg mine in Indonesia, the world’s largest gold mine which also produces copper. The new permit broke a 12-week deadlock that had cut supply to Asian smelters. The new export license will last eight months. The amnesty means the company can renew deliveries of copper concentrates in Asia after declaring force majeure in February, but longer-term discussions over the company’s rights in Indonesia have yet to be determined.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Copper supply disruptions have lasted longer than expected. Although they seem to have come to an end, their impact on supply still need to be outlined. In addition, these strikes have set the case for wage negotiations across the industry.

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Some major contract negotiations in large mines are due in the coming months. In the meantime, copper investors might focus their analysis on macro factors such as the ongoing China-U.S. trade negotiations, the performance of the U.S. dollar and global demand for industrial metals.

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The strike at Chile’s Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine, is ending after workers decided to invoke a rarely used legal provision that allows them to extend their old contract, the union said on Thursday.

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Hours earlier, talks between the two sides failed, and Escondida, which is operated by BHP Billiton, said it would attempt to restart production, presumably with replacement workers. The workers said they would present their decision to the government on Friday and return to work on Saturday.

Escondida produced 5% of the world’s copper last year.

Asian LNG Buyers Come Together

The world’s biggest liquefied natural gas buyers, all in Asia, are clubbing together to secure more flexible supply contracts in a move which shifts power to importers from producers as oversupply grows.

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Korea Gas Corp. said on Thursday it had signed a memorandum of understanding in mid-March with Japan’s JERA and China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) to exchange information and “cooperate in the joint procurement of LNG.”

Our March price trends report, which analyzes the entire month of February’s price data from the MetalMiner IndX, shows robust price increases in metals markets that are still running with the bulls.

March Price Trends

Our Stainless MMI led the pack, increasing 6.8%, but the copper, raw steels, aluminum and rare earths sub-indexes all showed strong gains, as well.

One area of concern this month is that oil prices have fallen back below $50 per barrel as U.S.
shale producers beat expectations by adding 8.2 million barrels to existing reserves. Low oil
prices would benefit metals producers by keeping energy and transportation costs lower, but
they also may drag down other commodities with them.

We don’t usually see investment metals such as platinum and gold increasing at the same time
as base metals, either, but positive sentiment about the economy had both increasing this month. So, until we see anything that points otherwise, a rising tide is still lifting all the (metals) boats.