Author Archives: Raul de Frutos

Lead prices’ big ride over the past few weeks reminds me of a day at Cedar Point. If you like amusement parks you have to check out the Point.

3-Month London Metal Exchange Lead rebounds after a sharp drop. Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets.com data.

Lead prices surged in Q4, but prices increased too fast. With prices overextended in late November, a correction was of little surprise.

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Prices fell sharply in December, bringing a great opportunity for buyers to purchase metal near support levels. A tightening market and recent weakness in the dollar pushed the metal higher in January.

Tightening Market

Lead refined production vs. usage. Source: Metalminer analysis of ILZSG data.

The latest International Lead and Zinc Study Group data showed a tighter supply/demand situation. The lead metal supply exceeded demand by only 16,000 metric tons during the first 11 months of 2016.

In addition, global lead mine production fell 7.5% over the first 11 months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. As mine output falls at a faster pace than refined output, this should eventually lead to a depletion of concentrate stocks. Meanwhile, strong U.S. and Chinese auto sales in December bode well for lead’s demand.

When To Buy Lead

The lead supply/demand demand picture is not as bullish as zinc’s. However, lead’s production is falling and, in the context of a bull market in the industrial metals complex, we can expect prices to at least remain supported above $2,000.

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On the other hand, given the increase in price volatility, it might take some time before prices overcome their peak in late November. Buyers can expect some range-bound trading ($2,000-$2,400) in Q1.

Threats of a trade war intensified over the weekend, as President-elect Donald Trump said the U.S. dollar “is too strong.”

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In one day, Trump will be president and he also warned BMW that it will face a 35% tariff on imports to the U.S. from a plant it’s building in Mexico. In addition, Trump specifically called out China and its weakening currency, stating that U.S. companies can’t compete with China because the dollar is too strong.

Dollar Index Falls to a 1-Month Low

The U.S. Dollar Index Falls to 1-Month low on Trump’s talk. Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

Trump’s words helped sink the U.S. dollar index by 1% vs. other major currencies, falling to its lowest level in a month. Previous administrations have maintained a steady policy of backing a strong dollar and presidents have tended to refrain from commenting on the currency altogether. Read more

Indonesia issued significant new mining rules last Thursday that will relax its ban on exports of nickel ore. Over the weekend, I went to check analysts’ opinions on this new development. Not surprisingly, almost everyone thinks this is bearish news for nickel prices.

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I am often a contrarian and this time, of course, I have a different opinion. I think the outcome of this revision is bullish for prices. What’s more, I think this is a great opportunity to buy nickel since prices might trade above today’s levels for the rest of the year.

Indonesian Nickel Ban

Before we get to analyze the price impact of the new rules, let’s quickly review what the ban was about in the first place:

Indonesia imposed an export ban for unprocessed material — essentially raw ore — back in 2014. A year before the ban kicked in, Indonesia exported around 60 million metric tons of nickel ore. Nickel ore contains an average of 1 to 3.5% of nickel. Indonesia banned exports to encourage downstream investment as this would eventually be better for the country, as it would generate more revenue as the material is processed domestically and it would build a local processing industry. Read more

Global aluminum demand is more robust than most expected. Chinese stimulus measures boosted demand for aluminum in the auto and real estate industries. In addition, the U.S. is expected to demand more aluminum amid Donald Trump’s plans to inject one trillion dollars in U.S. infrastructure.

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Strong demand is supportive for aluminum prices this year. However, in this piece we are going to focus on the supply side. We believe three factors are going to disrupt global aluminum supply. As a result, we’ll see higher aluminum prices this year:

Graphic: Raul de Frutos, MetalMiner.

Trade Barriers

Last week, U.S. customs officials seized $25 million worth of aluminum linked to a Chinese billionaire accused of stockpiling the metal across the world. The move is the most potent action yet by federal authorities probing whether U.S. companies connected to Chinese magnate Liu Zhongtian illegally avoided nearly 400% tariffs by routing the metal through other countries. Currently, Homeland Security is conducting laboratory tests on the aluminum to determine whether the metal is restricted under U.S. law. Read more

The price you pay for your steel pretty much depends on two things:

  1. Prices in China, since they set the floor for international steel prices.
  2. How much of a premium U.S. mills are able to justify over that price.

 

Graphic: Raul de Frutos/MetalMiner.

Prices in China are moved by supply and demand dynamics. We’ve explained in previous posts that overall, things are setting up for Chinese prices to continue to trend higher. While demand has been better than expected, China met its 2016 capacity cuts goal and further cuts are expected to take place this year as the country tackles its pollution issues.

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However, in this post we’ll focus on the premium that U.S. customers pay. This price spread between U.S. and international prices is also very important and could make your purchases more expensive in the coming months.

Spread between HRC US and HRC China. Source: MetalMiner IndX.

Spreads have fallen sharply over the past few months. The spread between U.S. and Chinese hot-rolled coil (HRC) prices is now $97/ton. To put this in context, consider that this spread was $276/ton just seven months ago. Read more

Our Stainless MMI fell by two points in December after a mixed performance.

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On the one side, surcharges for 304 and 316 stainless steel rose by 34% and 25% respectively, as the chrome portion of the benchmark jumped month-on-month. The mill-announced price increase, combined with higher surcharges, marks the largest month-on-month increase seen in recent history.

On the other hand, nickel prices retraced in December on profit-taking across the industrial metals complex. Nickel prices are now at attractive levels wherein we could see investors pushing prices back up. That will depend on upcoming news that will either boost them or send prices lower. One thing is for sure: volatility is guaranteed in the weeks ahead.

Will Indonesia Relax its Export Ban?

Indonesia banned raw ore exports in 2014 to stop mineral wealth disappearing overseas. The country was the top supplier of nickel ore to China for use in (nickel pig-iron) stainless steel before the export ban. Indonesia hoped that the band would encourage smelter investment, but investments haven’t exactly progressed as quickly as expected.

In recent months, rumors are that the Indonesian government is relaxing its export ban. In October, Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s then-acting mining minister, said that Indonesia was reviewing its mining rules and that the country could could give companies up to five more years to build smelters, and reopen exports of nickel ore banned since 2014. However, soon after he was quoted saying Indonesia would “almost definitely” keep in place a ban on nickel ore and bauxite exports. Which is it?

Many smelters were hoping that they could temporarily export ore to raise funds for downstream investment. Nobody knows what Indonesian’s final decision will be, but the consensus in the market now seems to be shifting towards Indonesia permitting some exports. This fear might explain why nickel prices haven’t really picked up like metals such as zinc or tin.

Others think that there won’t be any relaxation of exports of nickel ore and bauxite. Investors have already spent billions of dollars on smelters in Indonesia. Easing the ban would risk risk flooding the overseas market and undermining prices. Those investors wouldn’t be very happy about that, as it would contradict promises by the nation’s president.

I personally think it would be an unwise move to ease the ban but any outcome is still possible. Stainless buyers need to keep in mind that a relaxation of the ban could put downward pressure on nickel prices while Indonesia keeping the ban in place would have the opposite effect.

Filipino supply

When Indonesia introduced the ban in 2014, the Philippines ramped up production to fill the gap, but the country’s mining industry is now facing a raft of closures for environmental reasons. The Philippines and the still relatively new Duterte administration have already halted the operation of 10 mines and another 20 face suspension.

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Before the month ends, the country is expected to determine which of these 20 mines will be suspended. Last month, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez was confident that more mines will be suspended.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Nickel prices fell in December but remember that the overall sentiment in the metals complex is still bullish. If Indonesia keeps its export ban in place and The Philippines suspend more mines, investors will significantly lift prices from current levels.

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Our Raw Steels MMI fell by two points, dragged down by a sharp drop in coking coal prices. Chinese coking coal prices have been quite volatile over the past few months. But despite the recent decline, prices are still well above last year’s levels.

On the bullish side, we saw a big increase in steel flat product prices, both domestically and internationally.

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Hot-rolled coil and cold-rolled coil prices in the U.S. have risen 13% and 17% respectively since they hit bottom in mid-November.

Additionally, steel prices in China continued to climb in December. We already noted, that one of the reasons to expect higher steel prices in the U.S. was rising Chinese prices. Prices in China set the floor for international prices and the spread between U.S. and international steel prices has narrowed so much in some steel product categories, like HRC, that there isn’t much incentive for domestic steel buyers to look for import offers.

While prices in China have risen, Chinese steel exports have fallen, suggesting that the country is absorbing more steel. In November, Chinese steel exports fell 16% compared to last year. For the first eleven months, exports are down 1% compared to the corresponding period in 2015.

The real estate sector is among the world’s largest steel consumers. Total investment in real estate in China during the first eleven months of 2016 rose 6.5% compared to the same period of last year. China’s passenger car sales rose 17.2% compared to the same month last year and it’s the seventh consecutive month were car sales rise in the double digits.

China’s Steel Supply to Fall In 2017

While China’s better-than-expected demand was a key driver to higher steel prices in 2016, we believe that China’s supply might be the key to higher steel prices in 2017.

For years, Chinese cities have been choking on the smog spewing from China’s industrial production sector, but things have gotten much worse lately. In December, authorities asked 23 cities in northern China to issue red alerts as inspection teams scoured the country. The scale of the red alert measures shows that the Chinese government is taking air pollution seriously this time.

China’s energy consumption is mostly driven by its industry sector, the majority of which comes from coal consumption. Coal burning is the biggest contributor to air pollution in China. One of the principal users of coal, and therefore most polluting, is its steel industry.

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China has previously applied stricter anti-pollution rules and supply-side reforms designed to cut capacity in the coal and steel sectors, which helped push prices up. Now that the situation is getting unbearable for citizens, China has no choice but to get tough in its self-declared “war on pollution.” The result is that we could see significant supply disruptions in China’s metal production sector, particularly in steel.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The expected boost in infrastructure spending in US will help support steel prices. However, the main driver to steel prices continues to be China. In 2017, steels buyers need to monitor if China is able to spur demand growth rates and whether its steel supply falls amid pollution issues.

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Copper prices retraced in December. After the huge price run in November we were expecting to see some profit taking as prices need to digest gains.

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So far, the decline has been limited, with prices holding above $5,500/mt. Although copper has lost some of its post-election gains, it still managed to end 2016 with decent yearly gains, suggesting that sellers are not totally in control.

Copper’s Bullish Narrative

One of the key factors supporting copper prices is the earlier-than-expected supply deficit. While most analysts were previously projecting the copper markets to move into deficit by the end of the decade, many of them are now expecting a deficit as early as this year.

Another factor supporting copper prices is higher energy prices. Oil prices, the main benchmark for energy prices, regained the $50/barrel level in December. Saudi Arabia said it could be ready to cut output more than originally agreed upon at the latest Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting. Non-OPEC countries, including Russia, also agreed to an output cut north of 500,000 barrels a day. Energy is key in the metals industry. For copper, energy can form almost 20% of the production costs.

President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed infrastructure investments are also positive for copper prices. However, in our view, the key demand driver continues to be China, by far the largest consumer of the red metal. China’s Caixin manufacturing purchasing managers’ index rose to 51.9 in December from 50.9 in November and beat market expectations. That figure marked the sixth straight month of growth and the strongest upturn in Chinese manufacturing conditions since January 2013.

What Could Add Pressure to Copper Prices

The better-than-expected demand from China explains the ongoing strength in industrial metal prices. However, there are concerns that the country’s demand growth rates could slow next year. The real estate and automotive sectors are the engine propelling this rapid growth. If the demand growth from these sectors slows, this could have strong repercussions on China’s demand for industrial metals.

Another factor to watch is the ongoing strength of the U.S. dollar. Copper is no different than other commodities that have a negative correlation to the dollar. Further appreciation of the dollar could negatively impact copper prices. Higher interest rates in the U.S. are among the factors contributing to a stronger dollar. In December, The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a quarter point, as expected, but policymakers signaled a likelihood of three increases in 2017, up from prior expectations of two moves.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The recent price decline in copper prices wasn’t that dramatic. So far, it seems like the bulls are still in control. A strong dollar and a possible slowdown in Chinese demand are factors that could bring prices down. Up until now, China’s demand looks strong and the dollar hasn’t had a big impact on metal prices. Therefore, we need actual reasons to turn bearish on copper.

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After surging in November, base metals fell across the board in December. That selling pressure spread into aluminum markets, limiting any upside moves into the year-end. Prices however didn’t give that much ground as aluminum’s fundamental story remains rather bullish. The drops look a lot like classic profit-taking.

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The auto industry is a key driver of aluminum demand. Auto sales in US and China (the world’s biggest car market) finished the year on a strong note. Total vehicle sales in the U.S. hit an 11-year high in December, aided by a fourth-quarter surge in demand that exceeded expectations. In China, car sales hit an all-time record in November, up 17.1% year-on-year.

Although the figures came in strong, they should be taken with a pinch of salt. In the U.S., cars were sold at an average 10% discount off the original asking price and that’s an incentive level not seen since the beginning of the financial crisis. Similarly, in Q4, China announced a 50% cut in its sales tax on automobiles with small engines. The tax cut was effective only until the end of 2016 although some analysts expect China to extend the tax cut into next year.

Chinese Supply

One of the factors supporting higher aluminum prices has been that there were fewer smelter restarts than expected smelter in China. In addition, we foresee limited additional restarts this year due to rising production costs and pollution issues in China.

First, alumina seems headed for a supply deficit this year following Chinese curtailments. Second, coal prices have surged since China reduced the hours for workers in its coal sector, supposedly in a bid to control pollution and curtail its excess industrial capacity. Truth be told, though, China really relaxed the mining day norm simply to control skyrocketing — some would say artificially high — prices. However, we expect the maneuvers will keep China’s supply of coal and aluminum in check this year.

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For years, China’s cities have been choking on the smog spewing from China’s industrial production sector but things have recently gotten much worse. Two weeks ago, authorities asked 23 cities in northern China to issue red alerts as inspection teams scoured the country. The scale of the red alert measure shows that the Chinese government is taking air pollution seriously. Given that coal burning is the biggest contributor to air pollution in China, industrial metals supply could shrink this year, particularly steel and aluminum.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The massive existing overcapacity and questions regarding China’s ability to maintain its rate of growth are the main factors that could spoil the party for aluminum bulls. However, for the reasons explained above, it seems early to make a call on that. We still see upside potential in aluminum prices.

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China’s Caixin manufacturing purchasing managers’ index rose to 51.9 in December from 50.9 in November and beat market expectations.

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The figure marks the sixth straight month of growth and the strongest upturn in Chinese manufacturing conditions since January 2013.

China Caixin Manufacturing PMI. Source: Tradingeconomics..com.

By now it’s pretty clear that this growth has been the main driver of higher metal prices in 2016. Industrial production in China has been on an upswing for most of the year, mainly because of the surge in infrastructure spending.

China PMI Up

However, there are concerns that the country’s demand growth rates could slow next year. The real estate and automotive sectors are the engine propelling this rapid growth. If the demand growth from these sectors slows, this could have strong repercussions on China’s demand for industrial metals. Read more