Author Archives: Raul de Frutos

Goldman Sachs has set pretty optimistic forecasts on aluminum prices. According to a recent report from CNBC, the bank expects prices to hit $2,000 per metric ton in six months and $2,100 per ton within a year.

3M LME aluminum. Source: fastmarkets.com

I’ve also been pretty bullish on aluminum since last year. Similar to what we saw in the steel industry, China put cutting aluminum capacity on the top of its agenda as the country takes air pollution seriously. In addition to supply cuts promises, China’s economic numbers were running strong at that time. However, just recently, our commodity outlook is moving from bullish to bearish, and being bullish on aluminum while commodity markets weaken is a very hard sell. Here are some reasons why Goldman Sachs might need to adjust its aluminum outlook.

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Aluminum Output Up

Goldman expects aluminum to be the next target of supply-side reform in China. The bank expects aluminum to be the new steel this year. Sentiment in steel markets got a boost on Beijing’s announcements to cut steel capacity. But as time goes on, markets are starting to realize that capacity cuts don’t mean lower output, at least in China.

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The U.S. dollar got a boost after the presidential election as markets were encouraged by prospects of lower taxes, fiscal stimulus and deregulation that would accelerate growth of the American economy.

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But this month, the dollar has fallen sharply, hitting a seven-month low. A weaker dollar gave some relief to depressing commodity markets.

Commodity index (in black) rises as Dollar index (in green) falls. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com

Why then is the dollar losing its luster now?

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

Selling intensified after the recent political turmoil around President Donald Trump as investors worry over political stability in the U.S. Investors also worry that under these political turbulences, the Trump administration will struggle to implement the pro-growth initiatives that markets had taken for granted. Finally, the euro appreciated against the dollar as political risks in Europe eased following the French elections.

Can This Decline Be Reversed?

US Dollar Index could bounce back up soon. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data

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AdobeStock/SeanPavonePhoto

Last month, China announced plans to build a new megacity from scratch. Since the city will be twice the size of New York City, analysts expect the project to require huge amounts of steel and other industrial metals such as aluminum and copper.

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According to Citi Research analysts, 12-14 million tons of extra steel will be required annually to build this new development. Since the country’s current domestic demand is about 700 million tons, that would lift Chinese steel demand by 2% per year over the next 10 years.

But are the analysts correct? Should we expect a steel demand boost over the next 10-15 years?

Although building this city from scratch will indeed require a lot of steel, analysts are making the mistake of missing the forest for the trees. The key driver for steel demand in China is the net migration from the countryside to cities. It doesn’t really matter whether China builds a new megacity or it expands its city limits. The key measure is the rate of urbanization in the country at a national level.

Urban and rural population in China. Source: China’s Economy book by Arthur R.Kroeber

China’s urban share has grown quickly over the past two decades since its rural population peaked in 1995. Last year, China’s urban population share reached 57.9%. The share, however, is still small given the country’s income level. Read more

The ongoing turmoil over Donald Trump has increased investors’ worries over political stability in the U.S. In addition, investors worry that under these political turbulences, the Trump administration will struggle to implement pro-growth initiatives.

The dollar is one asset that was affected by the news, falling to a 6-month low. Investors have been selling dollars and buying euros as political risks rise in the U.S. and, following the French elections, fall in Europe.

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Usually, a falling dollar would give a boost to industrial metal prices, but that wasn’t the case here. Precious metals like gold did benefit from a falling dollar, but it didn’t prevent base metals from declining. This is because investors are now focused on what looks like a slow down in China.

Investors were disappointed when China’s Caixin Manufacturing PMI came at 50.3 in April, the lowest reading since September 2016. In addition, as Beijing talks about curbing credit, investors have come to realize that lower funding for the construction of infrastructure projects will hurt demand for industrial metals.

Just about two weeks ago we noticed that commodity markets were getting in trouble. As time goes on, that weakness is spreading out into industrial metals. Some specific metals are holding their value better than others due to their specific supply narrative, but overall we would expect them to move in tandem, as they always do. Here are some charts suggesting that the bull cycle in industrial metals could be ending:

Nickel falls to a 10-month low. Source: MetalMiner analysis of fastmarkets.com data

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As I pointed out two weeks ago, U.S. steel prices had no choice but to decline as the spread between U.S. and international prices had widened to unsustainable levels.

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That’s exactly what I’ve seen so far in May, and I suspect that the recent price decline is just the beginning of a deeper correction that could easily extend to the rest of the second quarter.

U.S. hot-rolled coil prices fall in May. Source: MetalMiner IndX

Hot-rolled prices have fallen around 5% since they peaked in April. Meanwhile, steel prices in China have started to stabilize after a slump during March/April. As the chart below shows, the price spread appears to have peaked near the same levels as it did last summer. U.S. steel prices will likely continue to fall, bringing this price arbitrage down.

Hot rolled coil price spread US vs China. Source: MetalMiner IndX

U.S. Steel Imports Hit a Two-Year High

Although the U.S. doesn’t import steel directly from China, Chinese steel prices set the floor for international prices. Therefore, when China’s steel prices fall, imports become more appealing to U.S. buyers. That’s exactly what’s happening now. In March, U.S. steel imports rose 31% year-over-year, hitting the highest level since May 2015. Read more

The International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG) recently released its annual demand/supply forecast for the zinc market.

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The group anticipates global demand for refined zinc to be greater than supply in 2017, keeping zinc markets in a deficit for a second consecutive year. The ILZSG predicts a deficit of 226,000 tonnes, not much different from the deficit recorded last year.

Global refined zinc metal balance. Source: MetalMiner analysis of ILZSG data

Given these numbers, you could assume that prices have no other option but to go up. However, despite a projected deficit, I’m starting to doubt zinc’s ability to climb much above today’s levels. Indeed, high prices are simply what could play against zinc’s rally. Zinc has more than doubled in price since the beginning of 2016, and investors now seem unwilling to chase prices above $3,000/mt, a level that has acted as a ceiling for prices this year. Read more

If I had to pick a base metal to put my money on this year, it would have been aluminum. The lightweight metal presented an attractive bullish narrative due to the combination of rising political tensions and the potential for supply cuts in China.

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China has pledged to cut as much as 30% of its aluminum production over the winter months to reduce emissions from one of its most energy-intensive industries. In addition, the country has received a lot of international pressure to reduce its aluminum capacity.

The U.S. is trying to find new ways to make things difficult for Chinese aluminum exporters. Recently, President Donald Trump signed a memo to order an acceleration in the investigation of aluminum imports, citing concerns over national security. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that massive state-run Chinese companies helped China Zhongwang finance an illegal game of moving stockpiles around the globe to avoid paying punitive import tariffs to the U.S.

If we narrowed our view to the industry fundamentals, it would be hard to expect any downside in aluminum prices. However, broadening our view, there are a couple of factors that could put a downward pressure on aluminum for the rest of the year, especially after such a steady rise.

Potential Slowdown in China’s Demand

As I mentioned yesterday, “China is putting efforts into halting risky lending and rising borrowing costs in order to limit credit growth. Interest rates in China have risen to the highest level in two years while China’s tough talks on curbing credit are expected to put the brakes on credit growth, [hurting demand for industrial metals.]” Read more

Copper prices took a hit in May because of a surge in LME inventories. Or… was it because of that?

I’ve pointed out this before, but people continue to talk about copper stocks to explain price movements. LME inventories rose in May by 64,000 tons, or 25%, at the same time that prices fell. But that’s simply a coincidence.

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Most of the time, inventory inflows and outflows can simply happen because traders move metal from one destination to another to profit from price arbitrages. Indeed, in November copper prices climbed 20% while LME stocks rose by more than 90,000 tons. I would argue that inventory levels have no predictability on price trends. But then what drove copper prices down?

China to Halt Credit Growth

China is putting efforts on halting risky lending and rising borrowing costs in order to limit credit growth. Interest rates in China have risen to the highest level in two years while the country’s tough talks on curbing credit are expected to put the brakes on credit growth.

As I wrote last week, “the noticeable tightening in Chinese monetary policy is bad news for property markets in China. The country has also pledged to halt risky local funding on the construction of infrastructure projects. Investors know that this will hurt demand for commodities and industrial metals.” Read more

Commodities gave important signals in April/May. The performance of commodity markets has a heavy impact on the price movements on any industrial metal. If you are a metal buyer, it doesn’t matter if you buy aluminum, copper, steel or tin. The information in this article is important for you.

Reuters/Jefferies CRB commodity index. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com

About a month ago I noted that while industrial metals were on the rise, commodities were range-bound, a sign of sluggish global demand. As I had written, “a healthy bull market in base metals should be accompanied by a bull market in other commodity markets.” Commodities not only have struggled to make new headway but in the past few days they weakened significantly. Recent moves in China have caused a significant shift of sentiment in financial markets.

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China Curbs on Credit

Interest rates in China have risen to the highest level in two years amid the country’s tough talks on curbing credit. China is putting on the brakes on credit growth, and the effects of those policies are already starting to be felt. As the Financial Times reported, “China Vanke, one of China’s biggest property developers, was [recently] forced to drop a bond sale… blaming changes in market conditions.”

The noticeable tightening in Chinese monetary policy is bad news for its property markets. The country has also pledged to halt risky local funding for the construction of infrastructure projects. Investors know that this will hurt demand for commodities and industrial metals. Read more

Our Stainless MMI took another dip in April, amid a broad sell-off in industrial metals. In addition, at the beginning of May, the Philippine parliament rejected Regina Lopez’s bid to be appointedas environmental minister. In a matter of weeks, nickel’s story has shifted from a clear supply shortfall to a rather complex narrative, ruining nickel bulls’ party.

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Nickel prices on the LME fell by 5% in the next two days after the news.

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