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Before we head into the weekend, let’s take a look back at the week that was.

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Before we dive into the weekend, let’s take a look back at the week in metals news:

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  • Our Stuart Burns started out the week with a piece on confirmation bias and how those in the media and metal-buying communities can sometimes let bias affect their interpretation of data.
  • What’s the diagnosis for the ailing U.K. steel industry? According to Burns, it’s a product of a lack of government support and global oversupply. A recent report showed that the U.K. steel industry has declined in monetary output value by 30% from 1990 to 2013.
  • In case you missed it, our July MMI report has long been in the books. You can download it here.
  • What did the recent G20 summit in Germany mean for India? Our Sohrab Darabshaw touched on the subject this week.
  • What’s up with oil prices? Unsurprisingly, as with the metal markets, prices are so low because there is just so much of the stuff out there. Burns dug deeper into oil price trends in a piece earlier this week.
  • What’s a Section 332? In short, it’s a fact-finding investigation by the United States International Trade Commission, which recently conducted a large-scale look into the competitive factors affecting the U.S. aluminum industry.
  • Another big story, the ongoing debate regarding a potential renegotiation of NAFTA, got an update this week when it was announced that the U.S., Canada and Mexico will come together for talks beginning Aug. 16.

Free Download: The July 2017 MMI Report

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Although oil and gas remain Iran’s most important exports by far, one beneficiary of the relaxation in trade embargoes has been the metals industry.

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According to an analysis by the Ministry of Industries, Mining and Trade, reported in the Financial Tribune, the data show growth in the production of crude steel, finished steel products, iron ore, coal concentrate and sheet glass in the last Iranian financial year running March 2016 to March 2017 compared to the year before, showing a significant uptick in output (much of it for export).

Coal concentrate saw the greatest increase with the rise of 10.6%, from 1.113 million tons in March 2015-16 to 1.232 million tons last year. Crude steel output had the second-largest gain, rising from 16.538 million tons to over 18 million tons (a 9% increase).

Iran holds the world’s 10th-largest reserves of iron ore. Despite dominance by Australia and Brazil, Iran still managed a 4.2% increase to 31.711 million tons, helping lift production of steel products 1.4% to 17.681 million tons.

These sound like modest increases for a country recently facing lower barriers to trade, but that may be because the benefits have yet to percolate through to the wider economy.

In the meantime, it is direct exports that have benefited the most. The Financial Tribune reported Iran’s total mineral products shipments last year registered a 17% and 38% increase in value and volume, respectively, year-on-year.

Source: Trading Economics

From a value perspective, it is difficult to make a judgement year-on-year for total exports because some 82% by value is oil and gas, for which prices have been highly volatile.

Even so, with a depressed oil price, Iran’s exports are heading back above their historical long-term trend of some $20 trillion, as the above graph from Trading Economics shows. The oil-price-induced spike of 2006-10 was an anomaly not seen before or since.

Economically, Iran would benefit enormously from a full and unfettered return to the international markets, but that is not going to happen while the autocratic mullahs remain in control. Liberal parties are dissuaded from the political process and many opposition politicians remain in jail. As in so many authoritarian regimes, those in power live well while the clear majority fail to enjoy the standard of living they could achieve based on their high standards of education and young, dynamic population.

Free Download: The July 2017 MMI Report

Even so, the country’s economic situation is trending positively. Foreign firms are showing greater confidence in returning to the Iranian market after years of sanctions.

It is no surprise that oil prices continue to fall when you look at the rising tide of oil production around the world.

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Source: Financial Times

The U.S. shale industry is frequently accused of being the main culprit, but tight oil is far from alone.

A recent FT article explores how investments that were started five or six years ago, when the oil price was $100 a barrel, are now coming on stream with a vengeance.

The FT quotes a forecast released by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which sees the country’s output increasing by 270,000 barrels a day this year and a further 320,000 barrels a day in 2018. The article notes that the combined two-year Canadian increase will be equal to almost a third of OPEC’s production cuts planned for this year.

Canada is home to the world’s third-largest reserves of oil and is the largest external supplier to the U.S. market, shipping in as much as the rest of the world put together. These new projects may not be making money at today’s prices, but they are making a contribution to the massive investments already incurred.

The FT quotes the Alberta Energy Regulator saying the minimum per-barrel oil price for a mining project to recover capital expenditures, operating costs, royalties, and taxes in 2016 ranged between $65-$80 a barrel. Meanwhile, the price for “in situ” plants using steam was $30-$50 per barrel. Today’s cost for oil shipped to the Cushing hub is at no more than $44 per barrel.

Costs for operational plants are lower, with estimates quoted by the FT is $22 per barrel for mining projects and as low as $11 a barrel for in situ plants. In addition, it could be that many of these new investments have hedged their forward sales at higher prices.

Source: Financial Times

That is certainly the case with the U.S. shale frackers.

A separate FT article estimates that some 40% of the industry was hedged at about $50 dollars a barrel, with some resource areas — like the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico — having hedging rates as high as 70-90%.

Unlike tar sands, tight oil can be turned on and off with considerable flexibility, like the hare to the oil sands’ tortoise.

Rig counts have been rising for 23 consecutive weeks, the FT notes, and with a growing stock of  drilled-but-uncompleted (DUC) wells rising by 22% to over 5,000 between December and May, there is considerable potential for output to be increased further.

As if rising production from Canadian tar sands and U.S. tight oil was not enough, OPEC is also seeing its own cartel members increase output by 336,000 barrels a day in May from April, led by big rises from Libya and Nigeria, according to FT.

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Saudi Arabia may well be ruing the day it opened the taps in order to drive down the oil in the hope of killing off “high cost” U.S. shale oil. The prospects of getting an oil price back above $100 must now look like a distant dream.

It won’t have escaped your notice that the shine has gone off the metals market.

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Prices have been softening across not just metals but other commodities, like oil, too.

Consumers, of course, will not be complaining, but are nevertheless keen to understand what is going on and whether we are seeing a temporary dip or a move into a prolonged bear period.

Commodities in general are facing multiple headwinds.

While demand for iron ore and oil is steady, both markets are in oversupply. Oil prices have received short-term support from favorable comments around output cuts. Prices have subsequently continued to soften as long positions have been unwound and investors have concluded prospects of a supply balance are receding.

In China, the authorities have been squeezing investors by increasing shadow banking borrowing costs, resulting in positions being unwound and prices softening.

In the U.S., markets surged after President Donald Trump’s election victory with the expectation his campaign promises of trillion dollar infrastructure investment would create a building and consumption boom.

Since those heady days, the realization has set in that the desperately needed investment may not be quite as significant as first thought.

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It is something of an unholy alliance, but Russia and Saudi Arabia are becoming ever closer allies in a graphic example of realpolitik.

The two would probably be implacable enemies if their contrarian positions in Syria were any gauge – Russia closely aligned with Iran in their support of Bashar al Assad, yet Iran is Saudi Arabia’s public enemy number one and only major rival in the Middle East.

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But economics trumps almost all, and the two’s interests are certainly aligned in trying to reverse the damage done by Saudi Arabia’s failed bid to squeeze U.S. shale drillers out of the market and the corresponding glut of supply forcing prices to painfully low levels – painful at least for oil producers.

As the FT observed in quoting RBC Capital Markets as saying, “Saudi Arabia and Russia are essentially now co-pilots of this operation (of restricting output to boost prices) and they’ve made it clear there will be no going back to chasing market share.” The article goes on to quote: “It’s a huge change from two years ago when Russia would not co-operate with OPEC and even questioned its relevance in the age of shale.”

The two agreed last week to not only extend but deepen production cuts for a further nine months into 2018.

But not all agree with the International Energy Agency’s prediction that the cuts will be enough to balance supply and demand later this year.

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“Where next for oil prices?” Stuart Burns had asked on Monday. In the short term, that would be downwards.

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Yesterday the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met in Vienna and decided to extend supply cuts for another nine months, until March 2018. That is what was expected, but oil prices responded by dropping quite a bit, Reuters reported, by roughly 5%.

The price of oil has indications beyond, well, oil. “Oil prices are a proxy for energy prices, and a rising oil price can be supportive for energy intensive metals like aluminum,” Burns wrote. “A rising oil price is also taken as a proxy for rising industrial demand – a bullish indicator that global growth is strong. A falling price, on the other hand, should be good for consumer spending as it keeps more money in drivers’ pockets and lowers the cost of goods sold for companies far and wide.”

Where Next for the U.S. Dollar?

Another driver of metal prices is the dollar. This past week, Raul de Frutos looked at the movement of the U.S. dollar, which recently hit a seven-month low. What is the reason for this drop?

“First, the dollar had steadily risen for three consecutive months,” de Frutos wrote. “It’s not uncommon to see profit-taking after such an increase. But there are also some fundamental reasons behind this sell-off.” Read more

This morning in metals news, the strike at Freeport McRoRan’s Grasberg copper mine was extended for a second month, oil prices rose in expectation of supply cuts, and silver prices reached a three-week high.

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Freeport Indonesia Strike Extended

This past Saturday, the union representing thousands of workers at Freeport’s Grasberg copper mine in Papua, Indonesia announced that the ongoing strike will be extended beyond May 30, Reuters reported. As union industrial relations officer Tri Puspital told Reuters, “We will extend the strike for 30 more days.” Approximately 9,000 workers are participating in the strike.

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The reason for the strike revolves around employment. Last month, Freeport laid off about 10% of its 32,000 workers to cut costs, which accrued to the tune of millions thanks to an ongoing dispute with the Indonesian government over rights to the Grasberg mine. “With this problematic combination of protests from workers and tensions with the Indonesian government,” wrote MetalMiner analyst Raul de Frutos earlier this month, “it’s no wonder that investors are concerned about further supply disruptions this year.” It looks like supply disruptions will continue.

A Key Week for Oil

One hopes that this will be the only time when news source after news source mentions Saudi Arabia and glowing orbs in the same headline. In more important news, Bloomberg reported yesterday that Saudi Arabia has received Iraq’s support to extend oil output cuts for nine months, after Saudi Minister of Energy Khalid Al-Falih flew to Baghdad to talk to Jabar al-Luaibi, his Iraqi counterpart. Read more

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It isn’t an idle question. Oil prices are a proxy for energy prices, and a rising oil price can be supportive for energy intensive metals like aluminum.

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A rising oil price is also taken as a proxy for rising industrial demand – a bullish indicator that global growth is strong. A falling price, on the other hand, should be good for consumer spending as it keeps more money in drivers’ pockets and lowers the cost of goods sold for companies far and wide – but particularly for those in the transportation or more energy intensive sectors.

But despite rising last year following the agreement on the parts of OPEC and major non-OPEC oil producers to limit output, the price has since fallen back so consumers are not surprisingly wondering where it goes from here.

Just this month the two architects and key players in last year’s agreement, Saudi Arabia and Russia, announced they would continue with the agreement, set to shortly expire, until March 2018 and indeed will accelerate cuts to reduce near record inventories. It should be said the announcement still must be officially agreed at next week’s meeting of OPEC ministers in Vienna.

While initially slow to contribute, Russia has stepped up cut backs of late and combined non OPEC cuts are said to be some 255,000 b/d in April, but others such as Brazil and Canada are expected to increase output in Q2 and the USA has added substantially since last year. According to Oilprice.com, U.S. oil production has risen to approximately 9.3 million barrels a day and is projected by the EIA to reach 10 million barrels a day by 2018. Read more

Philadelphia Energy Solutions Inc., the largest refiner on the U.S. East Coast, will not be taking any rail deliveries of North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil in June, a source familiar with delivery schedules told Reuters on Tuesday, a sign that the impending start of the Dakota Access Pipeline is upending trade flows.

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At its peak, PES would have routinely taken about three miles’ worth of trains filled with Bakken oil each day. But after the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline begins interstate crude oil delivery on May 14, it will be more lucrative for producers to transport oil to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Alcoa Moves Headquarters Back to Pittsburgh

Alcoa Corp. announced today that the company’s expansive Pittsburgh, Pa., office will soon serve as its global headquarters again, a decade after its predecessor, Alcoa Inc., left for New York City.

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Alcoa said in a statement that its headquarters in New York would be one of seven offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia that would shut in the next 18 months in a cost-cutting initiative. Alcoa had kept its offices in Pittsburgh’s North Shore even after it moved the headquarters to Manhattan, with the bulk of its administrative functions remaining in Pittsburgh. Now, the Pittsburgh presence will once again serve as the company’s international headquarters.