Author Archives: Raul de Frutos

Industrial metals have been on a tear since we called a bull market just about a year ago. However, we have recently witnessed some price weakness over the past couple of months.

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Commodities like industrial metals are cyclical assets which tend to run in the same direction for long periods of time. The key is to recognize the peaks and valleys of the cycle to time your purchases accordingly. 

The industrial metals ETF: peak or pause? Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

The ongoing bull market in industrial metals has run for over a year and while some metals are experiencing some setbacks, it’s a good time to bring up the question: Are we nearing a peak or this is just a pause before prices break on the upside?

To answer this question, let’s look at what the main macro drivers are telling us:

China: Strong Indicators

As we all know, China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of industrial metals. Any changes on China’s supply and demand equation can have a huge impact on the price of metals. The performance of Chinese stock markets are a great gauge of investors’ sentiment on China’s economy. Since China became a major economy, we’ve seen a strong correlation between Chinese markets and metal prices.

Chinese stock market etf trading near highs. Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

Price momentum in Chinese markets has indeed picked up this year, tradin near a two year-high. The latest economic indicators continue to increase investors’ confidence in China.

The country reported growth of 6.9% in the first quarter, its fastest pace since the third quarter of 2015, fueled by credit and infrastructure spending as well as a stubbornly booming property market. Growth prospects in the country also seem to be improving thanks to easing trade tensions with the U.S. In China, investment in buildings, factories and other fixed assets grew 9.2% in the first quarter, while construction starts rose 11.6% during the same period. If that’s not enough, in April, China’s government announced plans to build a new megacity from scratch. The construction will require massive amounts of steel and industrial metals.

This growth translates into solid demand for industrial metals at the same time as China applies stricter anti-pollution rules and supply-side reforms designed to cut capacity in energy-intensive sectors like steel and aluminum. Overall, while we continue to see strength in Chinese markets, we are not ready to call peak in this industrial metals bull market.

US Dollar Falls to 5-Month Low

Base metals are commodities and, as such, move in opposite directions to the dollar. Over the past 20 years, every major bottom in commodities have coincided with a major peak in the U.S. dollar and vice versa. For a continuation of a bull market in industrial metals we should see weakness in the dollar. This year we have seen that.

The U.S. dollar index falls to a 5-month-low. Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

On Monday, the dollar fell to a five-month low due to a surge in the euro after the first round of the French presidential election eased concerns about the future of the European currency. The election outcome could continue to support the euro as markets price out the risk of a far-right victory.

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If centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron gets elected in the final round (May 7), markets might start to focus on the positive macro picture of the euro-area and its higher growth relative to the U.S. That could potentially devalue the dollar against the euro, a bullish development for industrial metal prices.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Industrial buyers need to watch closely for signs of a market top. For now, the recent price weakness in industrial metals seems normal in the context of a bull market and key indicators such as China and the dollar favor a continuation of this uptrend. Industrial buyers should continue to manage their commodity price risk exposure until we see real signs of a market peak.

Tin prices have rebounded since March. Prices fell sharply earlier this year but they have now found stability in Q2. As we pointed out in February, that month presented a good opportunity to buy tin. During bull markets, it’s good to time your purchases after a price pullback.

Tin prices bounce off support levels. Source: MetalMiner analysis of LME data.

Indonesian Exports Up

Indonesia is the world’s largest tin-exporting nation. Indonesian tin exports for 2016 totaled 63,559 metric tons, down by 9.4% compared to 2015. The decline came as Indonesia tightened its rules for tin exports in a bid to crackdown on environmental degradation and smuggling.

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However, the export permit process has been far smoother this year. For the first quarter, exports were up by 3.1% compared to the final quarter of 2016, and up 86% year-on-year. According to the International Tin Research Institute, many smelters in the country are operating on tight margins, with some understood to have paused production when prices dropped below US$19,000/mt in February before resuming when prices recovered above $20,000/mt. ITRI expects Indonesian refined shipments this year to remain broadly level with 2016. The next few months figures will give as a clearer picture on how much metal Indonesia will export this year.

Myanmar Shipments Fall

According to the ITRI, Myanmar was the source of over 99% of China’s reported tin ore and concentrate imports in January and February, which totaled exactly 40,000 mt, down 51% from 81,077 mt for the same period of 2016.

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While China’s Spring Festival impacted Myanmar’s February tin exports in both 2016 and 2017, the lower overall shipments can be explained by the large sales of local government concentrate stockpiles in January 2016. For that reason, it seems too early to tell whether exports will continue to decline or not but ITRI expects exports to be limited in 2017.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Tin’s performance for the balance of 2017 will strongly depend on the production levels of these two Asian countries. For now, supply seems to be limited while most established producers are struggling to maintain, let alone increase, production. Meanwhile, the demand outlook for the whole industrial metals pack looks stronger than expected, which should provide a floor to prices this year.

Zinc prices have fallen sharply over the past two weeks.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

While others panic and see this decline as the end of zinc’s bull run, I see this price pullback as a great opportunity to purchase the metal at a good price.

The 3-month LME zinc price. Source: MetalMiner analysis of LME data.

After doubling in price since the beginning of 2016, prices are now struggling in the $3,000 per metric ton level. However, the price weakness seems to come from long position buyers exiting those positions rather than shorts coming to the market. This suggests that sentiment hasn’t shifted to bearish for now. At the same time, we see strong support near $2,500/mt, which could provide a good opportunity to time purchases.

Short-Term Resilient Supply but What About Long-term?

The recent price weakness can be attributed to fears that high prices could trigger more mine supply to come online in China. Refined zinc supply remains resilient in the country, where refined production rose by 4.4% year-on-year in the first two months of 2017. However, they might prove less resilient in the coming months after some of China’s largest zinc smelters jointly announced they will curtail roughly 540,000 mt of annualized capacity over an unspecified period of time. The announcement comes after China’s largest zinc smelter, Zhuzhou, started an indefinite maintenance period for 100,000 mt of smelting capacity earlier in March.

In addition, the second-largest zinc plant in North America has been running at a 50% of normal operating levels since a strike began on February 12. Typical annual zinc production at the plant is 270,000-275,000 mt a year.

China’s Demand Still Strong

Other analysts might be attributing the recent price weakness to slowing Chinese demand. That really hasn’t been the case. China reported growth of 6.9% in the first quarter, its fastest pace since the third quarter of 2015, fueled by credit and infrastructure spending as well as a stubbornly booming property market. The pace accelerated from the 6.8% expansion in the previous quarter and puts China well ahead of its annual target of about 6.5% growth. Growth prospects in the country seem to be improving thanks to easing trade tensions with the U.S.

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Construction and infrastructure make up for more than 60% of zinc’s demand. In China, investment in buildings, factories and other fixed assets grew 9.2% in the first quarter, while construction starts rose 11.6% during the same period. If that’s not enough, in April, China’s government announced plans to build a new megacity from scratch. The construction will require massive amounts of steel and industrial metals.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Despite recent price weakness, zinc’s fundamentals remain strong. It seems way too early to call an end of zinc’s bull run. This month buyers might find a good opportunity to purchase zinc. You can check out our monthly metal buying outlook for monthly strategies on how to time your purchases.

Coking coal has more than doubled in two weeks on the back of disruption to Australia’s coal exports associated with Cyclone Debbie, which caused the evacuation of several mines and damaged coal trains supplying export terminals, forcing some miners to declare force majeure on their deliveries.

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It is estimated that shipments accounting for 50% of the global coking coal supply will be delayed and that Australia will need at least two months to regularize its coking coal exports following the natural disaster.

Australian coking coal’s free-on-board price in US dollars per metric ton. Source:mining.com.

Coking coal prices rose sharply in the second half of last year when China reduced allowable work days at the country’s coal mines, which reduced output and tightened the global coking coal market. These events added fuel to rising steel prices in China. But a slump in coking coal prices since December added pressure to steel prices, especially in China since the country strongly depends on the commodity to make steel.

Can Higher Coking Coal Prices Give a New Boost to Chinese Steel Prices?

The Chinese cold-rolled coil price. Source: MetalMiner IndX.

Australia is the world’s biggest coking coal exporter and is China’s largest supplier. The recent disruptions are forcing China to look for alternative supplies. Russia, Mongolia and Indonesia are other potential sources of coking coal for China’s hungry mills. Meanwhile, North Korea is out of China’s exporter list after Beijing ordered an import ban following North Korean missile tests.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Higher coking coal prices translate into higher input costs, particularly in China. Chinese steel prices set the floor for international steel prices, a topic that we discussed recently. Steel buyers should monitor the recent surge in coking coal prices closely as  since steelmakers will potentially pass on the increase to consumers, giving a boost to weakening steel prices in China.

Since the beginning of March, steel prices in China have fallen sharply while prices in U.S. have risen. That is simply not sustainable.

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These price divergences happen once in a while but they don’t last long. Over the next few weeks we’ll either see a rebound in Chinese prices or weakness in US steel prices.

US HRC (in blue) vs. Chinese HRC (in purple). Source: MetalMiner IndX.

Why do we say this? Well, China’s output accounts for more than 50% of world steel production. Currently, China isn’t a major exporter to the U.S., but it is the biggest exporter to the rest of the world. Therefore, Chinese prices put a floor under international steel prices.

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China’s hot-rolled coil prices have fallen nearly 15% since their February 2017 highs. During the same period, U.S. HRC prices have risen nearly 8%. Interestingly, we saw a similar divergence last summer, when the U.S. imposed strong anti-dumping measures against imports. Such a wide international price arbitrage didn’t last long, as we predicted last year, this price arbitrage narrowed after that summer.

CRC price arbitrage US-China. Source:MetalMiner IndX.

U.S. steel prices are now expensive again relative to Chinese prices. In the case of cold-rolled coil, the price spread stands now at $344 per metric ton, quite high compared to historical levels and not far from last summer’s peak of $420 per mt. A level that has proven unsustainable before.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

We continue to be long-term bullish on steel markets. However, buyers should closely monitor the recent divergence between Chinese and US prices. We should see a recovery in Chinese steel prices soon, otherwise US steel mills will have a hard time justifying further price hikes. Remember that we are in a global world and although US steel prices can temporarily move apart from Chinese prices, they will eventually move in tandem because otherwise, buyers will start looking to buy steel overseas.

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

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.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

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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Our Stainless MMI lost 3 points in March, essentially losing what it gained in February.

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Industrial metals continued their rally during the first quarter but nickel didn’t fare as well. Prices are still significantly higher than they were one year ago, but investors are now finding little reason to be any more bullish than bearish due to a complex supply narrative.

The Philippines

On March 13, The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to stop all mining in the country. Despite the potential for more closures, investors doubted that Duterte would enforce such strict regulations. Duterte reiterated his support for Department of the Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez. The Philippines’ mining industry hoped for the Commission on Appointments (CA) to reject Lopez as the Environment secretary in March.

However, Lawmakers opted to postpone a decision to confirm or reject the ardent environmentalist as the head of the department. Further confirmation hearings are expected to take place in May.

This will be an important thing to watch over the next weeks. A rejection would give miners a key win in the battle against environmentalists, potentially adding pressure to nickel prices.

Indonesia

According to an Indonesian Mining Ministry official, the ministry has issued export recommendations for state-controlled miner PT Aneka Tambang (Antam) to allow the company export 2.7 million metric tons of nickel ore over the next 12 months. The recommendation has yet to be officially issued by the mining ministry. Antam said in February that it had stockpiles of an estimated 5 million wet metric tons of low-grade nickel ore that was ready to ship.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Indonesia was the world’s top nickel ore exporter before it imposed a ban on unprocessed nickel ore exports in 2014. This year, prices have felt downward pressure on reports that Indonesia’s partial lift of the export ban, announced in January, may result in higher volumes of ore hitting the market. Also in March, Hong Kong-listed China Hanking Holdings announced its intention to restart a low-grade nickel mine it closed in 2014. The restart is at a relatively small scale, but it rises concerns of further supply hitting the market.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Nickel prices are struggling to make headway this year. Nickel’s supply narrative is rather complex and it’s exposed to significant changes depending on what policy makers in Indonesia and The Philippines do next. On the other hand, stainless buyers should continue to monitor their price risk exposure. Investors’ sentiment on industrial metals remains bullish and that could still trigger unexpected prices swings on the upside.

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Our Aluminum MMI rose again in March. London Metal Exchange prices rose above $1,950 per metric ton and, given the bullish sentiment among investors, aluminum might soon reach the $2,000/mt milestone.

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Prices were buoyed by confidence that China will implement their agreed-upon cuts. The world’s largest nation-producer of the metal will force about a third of aluminum capacity in the provinces of Shandong, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi to be shut down over the winter season, which runs from the middle of November through the middle of March, putting at risk about 1.3 million mt of production.

Aluminum MMI

It would be normal to see these producers to simply ramp up production ahead of the winter season to make up for lower output during the winter months. However, that won’t be the case.

China’s environmental crackdown is already affecting producers as inspection teams visit aluminum smelters on a regular basis to keep production in check. We suspect that China’s strategy to curb pollution will offer further support to prices.

Global Political Heat

While China tackles overcapacity in the form of an environmental clampdown, international pressure on China is rising. In March, global aluminum associations released a joint letter in advance of the upcoming G20 summit calling for the creation of a Global Forum to address aluminum overcapacity.

This is the first time that a global coalition of aluminum producers has called for such an effort to address Chinese overcapacity in the marketplace. In addition, earlier last month, The Aluminum Association (a trade organization that represents North American producers) filed a petition seeking anti-dumping duties on aluminum foil.

China Hongqiao in Trouble

The world’s biggest aluminum smelter was recently suspended from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange as the company is being forced to defend itself against allegations that it has inflated its profit.

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As my colleague Stuart Burns explains, part of the problem seems to be how China Hongqiao has been reporting its profits and handling internal transfer pricing. Like many of the new breed of Chinese aluminum producers, China Hongqiao has captive power production but, since 2010, the firms profit margins have diverged from most of its peers, maintaining in excess of an 8% margin even when many of its domestic competitors fell into periods of loss.

Even during periods when the coal price rose the reported cost of power produced by China Hongqiao dropped suggesting the firm was trapping profits in the smelting division while hiding losses in power generation. Likewise it has been suggested that China Hongqiao has declared transfer prices from its alumina production division roughly 20% below those of similar companies operating in the same provinces.

Ernst & Young will announce the results of the audit next month. Not just investors but the whole aluminum industry will be keen for a a peek behind-the-scenes into the sometimes murky world of Chinese aluminum producers. Proof of bad reporting would add more tensions to the global aluminum market.

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Our Raw Steels Index rose 4.3% in March. Steel prices in the U.S. resumed their upward trend, with products like cold-rolled coil hitting a five-year high. However, not everything was bullish in March. Prices in China fell sharply. Let’s look into this U.S.-China price divergence:

Trump’s Rally

U.S. steel prices have been on a joyride since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Markets’ reaction to the election results wasn’t really surprising given the president’s stance on curbing imports and boosting domestic infrastructure.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

The Trump effect wasn’t the only factor driving this rally but it definitely helped prices to accelerate. However, markets now wonder if Trump can deliver what he pledged.

Raw Steels MMI

In March, officials said an executive order approving two pipeline projects and mandating the use of American-made steel won’t apply to the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, contradicting prior statements by Trump that it would. A spokesperson for the administration said Keystone XL was grandfathered even though almost all of it has yet to even begin pre-construction.

In addition, Trump has so far failed to get his healthcare bill through Congress. After the healthcare failure, markets now question if Trump will get Congress to approve spending of large sums on the infrastructure sector, too.

China’s Prices Fall

In our view, falling Chinese steel prices are a bigger risk for U.S. steelmakers compared to the concerns over President Trump’s proposed infrastructure investments. Currently, China isn’t a major exporter to the U.S., but Chinese steel prices impact steel prices all over the world, as they put a floor under international steel prices.

Chinese hot-rolled coil (HRC) prices have fallen almost 15% since their February 2017 highs. March’s divergence has made U.S. prices expensive again relative to Chinese prices. In the case of cold-rolled coil, the price spread has now widened to $350 per ton, which is high compared to historical levels.

The conclusion is that for this rally in U.S. steel prices to continue, we would need to see rising prices in China as well. This is something we’ll be monitoring closely in the next few weeks. The biggest risk for the U.S. steel industry could be a further slide in Chinese steel prices. Even infrastructure spending may not be of much help in that case.

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