Precious Metals

This month, some of our metals reached new heights while others saw their rallies noticeably falter.

Aluminum and Raw Steels are still riding high, while complicated supply stories saw stainless and copper fall. Demand from manufacturers for almost all of the metals we track remains strong.

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17 Of the 18 manufacturing industries tracked by the Institute for Supply Management’s index of national factory activity reported growth and no industry reported a contraction last month. Buyers still might want to beware as metal markets are showing more pull-backs than we witnessed in March, despite the overall bullish behavior across the entire industrial metals complex.

Palladium has been the best performer among precious metals for some time now. Since the beginning of 2016, palladium is up 65%, easily beating the price increases seen in platinum, gold and silver.

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What factors made palladium outperform its peers and what should palladium buyers pay attention to this year?

Global Demand for Cars

The primary bullish factor might be the expansion of auto catalyst demand for palladium, particularly in China where air pollution problems are increasing. The auto sector accounts for around 80% of palladium demand.

China’s auto sales for the first two months of 2017 beat expectations and were 8.8% higher than sales for the same period in 2016. The pace is still weaker than the 14% increase reported last year by the industry as customers rushed to take advantage of tax incentives. In Q4 of 2016, China announced a 50% cut in its sales tax from 10% to 5% for small automobiles. The tax cut was effective until the end of 2016.

Most analysts were expecting a big slowdown in the largest automobile market this year, but China continues to surprise markets. The country agreed to extend the cut, although at a higher rate of 7.5%. In 2018 it will revert to 10%. Therefore, while auto sales might not beat last year’s record-breaking levels, Chinese citizens are still expected to take advantage of a lower tax in 2017.

Meanwhile, March’s figures for the world’s second-largest automotive market came in below market expectations and gave early evidence that America’s long boom cycle for automobile sales may finally be losing steam. Automakers sold 1.55 million vehicles in March, a 1.6% decline compared with the same month a year ago, capping a first-quarter performance during growth stalled.

Overall, auto markets were really strong in 2016, contributing to a 50% rise in palladium prices last year. This market might surprise again in 2017 but signs of a plateau in the U.S. and uncertainties in China due to an extended but higher tax cut are factors to watch this year.

Strong South African Currency

South African Rand Index. Source:MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

South Africa is the largest producer of palladium, responsible for around 40% of world output. The Rand (South African currency) has been one of the best performing currencies since 2016. A rising Rand makes South African exports more expensive to the rest of the world, limiting producers margins and potentially leading to a reduction of output. Read more

Our monthly Global Precious Metals MMI dipped down a point in April from last month, losing 1.2% to end up at 83.

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Ultimately, most gold, silver, platinum and palladium price points from the U.S., China, Japan and India dropped off for the month, which led to the sub-index’s overall decline — but there was one price point that decided to blaze its own trail upward.

The U.S. palladium bar price rose 3.4% over the past month, the third straight month of increases on the MetalMiner IndX.

What’s Going on with Palladium?

Well, automotive sector demand for palladium, at least on a spot or short-term basis, would be a hard case to make.

As my colleague, Jeff Yoders, reported earlier this week, U.S. automakers’ sales figures for March came in below market expectations and gave early evidence that America’s long boom cycle for automotive sales may finally be losing steam.

Automakers sold 1.56 million new cars and trucks in March, a 1.6% decline compared with the same month a year ago.

For example, Ford Motor Company took the biggest hit among sales drops, seeing its March numbers fall more than 7% from February’s.

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According to a recent Seeking Alpha article, “going into 2017 the market was considering limited supply to be the primary factor supporting palladium prices,” with limited sector growth expected from the U.S. and European markets, and China being the only auto market to be counted on for buoyed sales.

The above has generally held true, while seasonality and investor interest in ETFs seemed to have been playing into palladium’s rise. This could well be the high point for palladium prices this first half of the year.

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Gold prices have gained 9% this year, regaining much of the losses seen after the U.S. presidential election.

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A stronger dollar and expectations for economic growth drove investors out of the safe-haven asset. What’s now sending investors back into gold? and, is this gold rally the beginning of gold’s revival or just a dead cat bounce?

Buying The Dip

Gold rises in 2017. Source:MetalMIner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

Although a 9% increase might look impressive, it really isn’t. Gold previously lost $180 per ounce in less than two months. After such a big slump it’s normal see a price rebound since many investors will see the significant dip as an opportunity to buy gold at a discount.

To me, this doesn’t mean that gold’s underlying fundamentals have improved. Prices still have yet to test stiff resistance near $1,300 per ounce. This rally could lose steam in March.

The US Dollar

The US Dollar Index since March 2016. Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

Perhaps, the single factor contributing most to this year’s gold rally is a weaker dollar. Weakness in the dollar also comes because the currency rose very fast in the last quarter of 2016. In addition, President DonaldTrump made comments that he desires a weaker dollar and that has also weighed down the currency.

Last week, Federal Reserve officials said they plan to raise rates “fairly soon,” but they left investors doubting that the central bank will act at its March meeting. The Fed raised interest rates in December and cited plans to raise rates as many as three times in 2017. Higher rates tend to weigh on gold, since the precious metal becomes less less attractive compared with yield-bearing assets when borrowing costs rise.

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This month the dollar seems to be finding some support. We’ll have to wait and see if the currency can resume its bull market run, which would be quite bearish for gold prices.

Stock Markets

The S&P 500 hits all-time highs. Source: @Stockcharts.com.

Trump has frequently told U.S. citizens he remains committed on both tax reform and regulatory cuts since entering the White House, which has created optimism among investors. We already presented the case for a bull stock market back in January.

A Trump administration for the next four years might be just what the doctor prescribed to keep this aging bull stock market going, even with seven-plus years of gains behind its back. At least that’s what it looks like thus far. U.S. stock indexes are trading at all-time highs, which is not helping gold as a safe haven.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The recent strength in gold prices is something to keep an eye on. However, keep in mind that this rally might just be a dead cat bounce. A rising stock market, a healthy U.S. dollar and gold prices meeting resistance are factors that could keep a lid on gold’s rally.

We warned last month that the mostly small losses the prices our MetalMiner IndX experienced were caused by investors taking profits.

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Our suspicions were confirmed when almost all of our sub-indexes had big price rebounds this month. The Automotive MMI jumped 12.2% Raw Steels 8% and Aluminum 6%. Even our Stainless Steel MMI only dropped 1.7% and has taken off since February 1 as nickel supply is even more in question now with both the Philippines and Indonesia’s raw ore exports in question.

The bull market is on for the entire industrial metals complex. Last month’s pause was necessary for markets to digest gains but the strong positive sentiment for both manufacturing and construction shows no signs of ebbing in the U.S. and Chinese markets.

Well, perhaps these rebounds are not quite worthy of The Worm — but our Global Precious Metals MMI has hit its highest level since October 2016, climbing 7.9% to 82 for the February reading.

PGMs Lead the Way

Two of the biggest movers on MetalMiner’s precious metal sub-index were U.S. prices of platinum and palladium, rising 10.2% and 10.9%, respectively.

That palladium increase nearly got the price to the 18-month December 2016 high.

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Here’s the deal with palladium in a nutshell, from MoneyWeek:

“Both U.S. and Chinese car sales have been solid of late, with the latter rising at their fastest pace in three years (in 2016) and the former potentially set for another boost thanks to President Trump’s fiscal stimulus. China’s pollution problem is forcing it to tighten car emission standards, adds Chen Lin on Equities.com, which implies a steady rise in demand for palladium over the next few years.

“On the supply side, South Africa, the world’s top supplier, is not expected to increase mined output much. Analysts reckon that dwindling sales from Russia’s stockpiles means they are probably nearly depleted. TD Securities thinks the market deficit could double this year.”

What a Gold Mine!

Our intrepid editor at large, Stuart Burns — you might remember him from world-class macroeconomic coverage as it pertains to industrial metals, or (our) voice of James Bond’s Q — recently explored the wilds of India, and with him, he brought back gold.

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Or, to be more accurate, some gold coverage.
Soon we’ll publish Stuart’s take on the gold import situation in India. Here’s a taste:

“Although India has mines that go back more than 120 years, its annual gold production is miniscule. According to an article in the Hindu Times, that could be about to change. The Kolar gold field was forced to close in 2001 due to mounting losses at operator Bharat Gold. The state-owned company had been mining the Kolar reserves since independence in 1947 but the mines are deep, down to 3 kilometers, and Bharat was operating with outmoded technology and a large unproductive legacy workforce. But Mineral Exploration Corp. estimates show reserves to be worth $1.17 billion in the mines, with another $880.28 million in gold-bearing deposits estimated to be left over in residual dumps from previous mining operations.

India is never likely to rival South Africa, Canada or Australia as a gold miner, but that’s not the point — any contribution will lessen the impact gold imports have on the country’s balance of payments. With domestic reserves estimated at over 100 metric tons, there appears to be scope — with the right state and government backing — for miners to reduce some of those imports and create domestic employment.”

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Gold prices since 2013

Gold prices since 2013. Source:MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

Gold is the only commodity wherein physical annual demand is only a tiny fraction of total supply available and shortages of gold caused by physical demand never happen.

Therefore, China’s demand growth for metals or the potential boost in U.S. infrastructure spending are factors that aren’t really helping push gold prices higher unlike industrial commodities.

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What’s causing gold prices fall dramatically? The U.S. dollar.

Gold (in dark) vs the dollar index (in green)

Gold (in dark) vs the dollar index (in green). Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com.

Since mid-August the dollar started a bull run that is still in play. Three main factors are propelling the dollar’s bull run:

Markets expected the Federal Reserve to raise rates by the end of the year. In December the Fed raised interest rates by a quarter point, as expected, but policymakers signaled a likelihood of three increases in 2017, up from prior expectations for two moves. While interest rates outside the U.S. stay near zero or even in negative territory, it’s no wonder yield-seeking investors are going after the greenback.

The ongoing political tensions in Europe are causing the dollar to appreciate against the euro. The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, Brexit, terrorist attacks and political instability are some of the events causing investors to lose their appetite for the European currency this year.

Finally, the victory of Donald Trump has added fuel to the dollar’s bull market. The new president-elect has proposed new tax policies that will potentially make multinational companies bring their foreign profits back to U.S., increasing the demand for dollars. In addition, the dollar is perceived as a stronger currency since investors expect growth in US to get a boost.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

As long as the dollar continues to rise, there is little hope for gold investors to make returns. Gold buyers should wait closely for weakness in the dollar before buying gold. For now, sentiment on the dollar continues to be quite bullish.

MetalMiner’s Global Precious Metals MMI dropped two points this month to 79, from 81 in November; a 2.5% decrease. But that’s less the story than what happened within this precious metals sub-index.

The PGM Story

As we said last month, longer-term structural concerns remain for the platinum-group metals (PGMs), especially platinum and palladium. However, in the short term, one of those two precious metals that are instrumental in automotive catalytic converters kept the Global Precious MMI from falling even further for December.

Global-Precious-Metals_Chart_December-2016_FNL

Indeed, with gold and silver falling across all four geographic markets (see below), our U.S palladium bar price jumped to an 18-month high, rising a whopping 24% month-over-month. Japanese palladium also rose appreciably.

The platinum bar price, however, did the reverse. Our U.S. platinum bar price hit a 10-month low, dropping 7% since Nov. 1.

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Crossing like ships in the night, one heading north, one heading south, what should buyers make of the platinum/palladium divergence?

According to HSBC senior analyst James Steel, talking to Platts, “the platinum-palladium spread has narrowed substantially, from $375/ounce before the U.S. election. This reflects clearly tighter underlying fundamentals for palladium.”

With car sales in the U.S. and China continuing to be robust, and with Johnson Matthey predicting another supply deficit in 2017, palladium could continue its buoyancy for the near future.

The Dollar –> Infrastructure –> Gold

Raul de Frutos gave MetalMiner readers this helpful rundown in late November:

A rising dollar depresses commodity prices, especially precious metals. It does have less of an effect on more economically-sensitive groups like energy and industrial metals. Indeed, industrial metals are on the rise despite a strong dollar. This is because the dollar is rising on expectations of higher rates down the road but, at the same time, metal prices are getting an additional boost because of Trump’s plans to spend big on the nation’s infrastructure. However, gold’s demand won’t be affected by infrastructure spending. As a result, investors are left without reasons to buy gold at this moment.

That still appears to be the case here in early December, as the US gold price on our MetalMiner IndX hit its lowest point in 10 months, falling to $1,173/oz on Dec. 1 — just over an 8% drop from Nov. 1.

(Silver prices followed suit across 4 markets globally, all dropping from November to December.)

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Our November metal price trends report showed an industrial metals complex buoyed by strong Chinese demand and bullish on the future, thanks to the election of republican presidential candidate Donald Trump who promises to curtail regulations on metals producers and the energy suppliers that provide power for smelting, steelmaking and mining.

MM-IndX_TRENDS_Chart_November2016_FNL-TOPVALUE100

While some of the metals turned in a flat performance during the month of October, almost all quickly took off after the election. Now, as our lead forecasting analyst, Raul de Frutos, recently wrote, the industrial metal bulls are in full charge.

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The minor metals remained flat, but that’s no surprise to any buyer at this point. The fact that rare earth miner Lynas Corp. received a lifeline from a hedge fund and a Japanese state-owned enterprise was a minor (metals) surprise itself.

It’s a good time to be a producer of base metals as it looks like the bulls may continue to run in 2017. For more information on how to plan your purchases well into the New Year, consult our monthly metal buying outlook.

Last night, Republican nominee and developer Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States.

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Gold jumped nearly 5% to $1,337.40 an ounce early Wednesday to its highest in six weeks as investors snapped up safe havens. This was gold’s biggest single-day gain since June 24 when it rose as much as 8% when Britain decided to leave the European Union. It closed up 4.8% that day. However, prices almost immediately began to retreat this morning. It’s back below to $1,281.50/ounce as of this writing (10:45 AM Central), near its closing yesterday of $1,275.80/ounce.

A Trump win, which many believe leads to economic and global uncertainty, may also push the  Federal Reserve to hold off from raising interest rates next month.