Zinc Bucks The Trend

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Zinc is one of few commodities that appears to be bucking the trend of relentless price increases. The metal has come off from USD 4260/ton last year to below USD 2300/ton this year driven by a perception that supply exceeds demand. Where will it go from here?

Zinc consumption has been increasing at something like 3% globally although as you can imagine, demand has not been uniform. China, the world’s largest producer of concentrates (27%) and of refined Zinc (30%), has increased consumption by 15.2%, ahead of India at 7% and Europe 2.3% according to the International Lead & Zinc Study Group, more than off- setting a drop in demand from the USA, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia. At the same time, production has been rising at 5% wiping out a deficit of 352,000 tons in 2006. Consequently, world stocks have been steadily rising from 459,000 tons in 2007 to over 700,000 tons this year, according to www.abareconomics.com. Mirroring this, LME stocks have risen 46% year on year from 89,000 tons to 130,000 tons today.

New mines came on stream last year in Peru and old mines were re-started in the US. In addition, decisions were taken on new facilities in Finland and Mexico which will add another 200,000 tons per annum of production this year. New production facilities at Vedanta Resources, India and elsewhere have also come on stream this year. So production is up and consumption is slowing; does that mean prices have further to come off? Probably not, it looks like this supply balance has been factored into the current prices and all other things being equal (no general collapse in commodity prices, no flight of investment funds, major power shortages or strikes ” a big list!) prices will most likely stay around current levels for this year and well into next.

The China National Development and Reform Commission has set out a number of standards that facilities will be required to meet in the future which could reduce production in China and/or raise costs. Price support is seen more from production restraints and threats than a belief that demand is going to suddenly improve. Zinc is used in many applications but the principal ones, galvanizing steel and alloying with copper both have high exposure to the automotive and construction industries. No surprises then that demand is down in the West and up in Asia. We don’t see the situation improving this year in the West but there could be some cooling in the Chinese and Indian economies as demand softens in Europe and continues subdued in the US. Although we expect demand in China to remain robust it will most likely come off the highs seen last year and during the first quarter of this year. We expect Zinc to be trading in the USD 2200-3000/ton range this year rather than testing the USD 4000/ton levels of last.

–Stuart Burns

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