Industrial Metals in Surplus: Exploring Aluminum, Copper

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It may come as no surprise to anyone tracking the gradual decline of the aluminum price over recent months, but the market remains in pronounced surplus.

The World Bureau of Metal Statistics’ January-to-March quarterly report estimates the global market was in surplus by 384,000 tons during the first quarter (Q1), down on an annualized basis from the 1,814,700-ton surplus for the whole of 2011.

What are the reasons for this?

Part of the reason for the reduction in surplus may well be that net imports of 33,700 tons into China turned the world’s largest consumer from being a net exporter (of some 433,000 tons) last year to a net importer. European demand continues to contract — EU27 demand for January to March being 13.7 percent below the comparable period in 2011, according to the WBMS.

If Q1’s global surplus is projected for the full year, that would still see the market in surplus to the tune of about 1.5 million tons, putting Rio Tinto, Norsk Hydro and Alcoa’s plant closures this year in the shade. Only a major move by the Chinese (aided possibly by Rusal) would turn this surplus into a deficit during 2012.

Total stocks held in the four exchanges in London, Shanghai, the US and Tokyo were 5,446,000 tons at the end of March 2012, which were 260,000 tons above the December 2011 total. No account has been made for the off-exchange stocks tied up in long-term financing deals — these could amount to a further 4 million tons by some estimates.

Copper on the other hand has moved into deficit, according to the WBMS figures. January to March has been calculated by the WBMS at 157,000 metric tons, following a surplus of 320,000 tons for the whole of 2011. Like aluminum, copper demand fell in the EU27 during Q1, but rose in China. The WBMS reports apparent copper consumption in China was up 648,000 tons in January-to-March to a total of 2,318,000 tons, or just over 45 percent of global consumption, but the true consumption may be lower.

The WBMS figures do not differentiate between purchases made for inventory and those that have been consumed. Certainly Chinese imports have been rising strongly this year, but opinions differ on how much of this is being consumed; anecdotal evidence suggests downstream metal processors are not busy.

More on lead, zinc, nickel and tin coming up in Part Two.

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