Author Archives: Raul de Frutos

Industrial metals for the most part fell in April, but that wasn’t the case for aluminum. The lightweight metal outperformed its peers as aluminum is expected to be the next target of supply-side reform in China, according to Goldman Sachs.

The New Steel?

While China tries to transition from a manufacturing economy to a service-driven one, it is aiming to cut industrial overcapacity due to environmental problems. China previously indicated its strong intentions to implement supply-side reforms in the steel industry. As a result, steel prices in China rose by 70% in less than a year.

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

China’s energy intensive aluminum smelters receive nearly 90% of their energy needs from coal. In addition, China has received a lot of international pressure to reduce its aluminum capacity. For these reasons, aluminum could be the new steel this year.

To start, China announced in late February that it would cut as much as 30% of its aluminum production over the winter months. As my colleague Stuart Burns put it, “Beijing has shown solid intent in this direction, already denying planning approval to 2 million tons of new capacity in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang and clamping down hard on plants elsewhere that it deems to be failing environmental standards.” In addition, industry watchers believe that this might just be the beginning as more closures are expected to come in heavily industrialized provinces.

For full access to this MetalMiner membership content:
Log In |

Our Global Precious Metals MMI inched up a point in April. However, this year the index seems to be struggling near 84 points. Let’s take a look at gold and palladium, two of the precious metals integrated in this index, to better understand the ongoing trend in precious metals.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Gold

Some analysts are saying that gold is up this year on its safe haven appeal due to rising geopolitical instability. But that’s simply not true. Otherwise, we would see it reflected in stock market indexes, which are trading at record highs. Not only the U.S. but also Europe, China and other emerging markets are seeing their stock markets hit multi-year highs. Investors are confident about the prospects for the global economy, and until something proves them wrong, gold is lacking any appeal as a safe haven.

Gold CME contract. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com

If you held gold this year, don’t thank rising political tensions; simply thank a weaker dollar and some dip buying. This year’s rally in gold follows a 18% price slump in Q4 of last year. But prices are back to their average and just 8% below $1,380/oz, a level that has been a ceiling to gold prices for four consecutive years. This means that investors will have to find good reasons to chase prices higher. Given the ongoing strength across global stock markets and the rather neutral picture of the dollar, we wouldn’t expect gold investors to get a good return on their money for the balance of the year.

Palladium

As I’ve written earlier on MetalMiner, “palladium prices rose to a two-year high in April, making it the biggest gainer among precious metals. Last month we outlined some of the factors contributing to the palladium price rise: a growing auto sector; a strong South African currency; a falling dollar; and bullish sentiment across industrial metals. However, as prices continue to climb, it’s time to question how high prices can go. Despite a still solid outlook, there are some reasons to believe palladium prices could be nearing their peak.”

One of them is a potential slowdown in demand for cars. U.S. car sales declined in April, following a disappointing month of March. Markets suspect that the car industry boom that has run since 2010 has now come to an end.

Meanwhile in China, car sales are still going strong, but the pace is not the same as last year. As I wrote before, “weaker sales tax incentives have put pressure on demand this year and are expected to slow down demand even more next year. Buyers of cars with engines up to 1.6 liters paid a 5% purchase tax last year, but they are now paying a 7.5% rate. Buyers are still finding incentives to rush on buying cars this year since the rate will increase to 10% in 2018.”

Palladium nears long-term resistance levels. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data

Finally, as with the case of gold, palladium might need the stronger fundamentals to lure investors to chase prices higher. Historically, palladium has peaked in the range of $850-$900. Prices closed in April at $827.

FREE REPORT: How Circumvention Impacts Both Downstream, Value-Added Manufacturing

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Precious metals gained this year, but gains won’t come easily from now onwards. The opportunity to buy or invest in precious metals might have passed by.

Read more

Our Copper MMI fell by two points in April, dragged down by a sell-off in industrial metals. In addition, supply concerns have eased as strikes at some mines ended.

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

The strike at Escondida in Chile, the world’s largest copper mine, ended in late March. Soon after, a 18-day strike at the Cerro Verde mine in Peru also came to an end. A new strike at the mining company Southern Copper Corp. in Peru took place in April, but it lasted only two weeks, leaving no significant effect on production.

Meanwhile, Freeport McMoRan finally obtained a permit to export material from its Grasberg mine, the second largest copper mine in the world. The new permit will allow the company to export 1.1 million tons of copper concentrate through February of next year.

However, Freeport now has a new problem on its hands. Workers have threatened a one-month strike starting in May. The company had laid off about 10% of its workers, saying that there may be more layoffs in the future to stem losses. Moreover, the company is still confronting Indonesia over rights to the mine. With this problematic combination of protests from workers and tensions with the Indonesian government, it’s no wonder that investors are concerned about further supply disruptions this year.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Although supply disruptions eased in March and April, there is overall plenty of potential for further disruptions this year. Prices took a dip in April, but that seems to be a normal price action given that most industrial metals fell in the same month.

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

After a spectacular rally in Q4 of last year, prices are now consolidating in the price range of $5,500-$6,100/mt. Bulls seems still in control but they probably need another bullish development to chase prices above this price range. That development could come in the for of additional supply disruptions this year. We will be watching closely the developments at the Grasberg mine in the coming week in addition to the several mines that have contract negotiations due to this year.

Actual Copper Prices and Trends

For full access to this MetalMiner membership content:
Log In |

Our Raw Steels MMI fell seven points* due to the slump in China’s steel prices in April.

Raw Steels MMI

(*Note: We changed one of the data elements of our index to map the underlying market more effectively. That change contributed to a lower number this month.)

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

Since their peak in February, China’s steel prices have fallen by more than 20%, while U.S. prices have continued to climb. But guess what, things changed towards the end of April. Prices in China started to recover (see how we predicted that) while U.S. prices fell (yes, we predicted that too). In this post, I’ll analyze what this price divergence means and how you — assuming you buy or invest in steel — can take advantage of it.

China HRC price. Source:MetalMiner IndX

For full access to this MetalMiner membership content:
Log In |

Palladium prices rose to a two-year high in April, making it the biggest gainer among precious metals. Last month we outlined some of the factors contributing to the palladium price rise: a growing auto sector; a strong South African currency; a falling dollar; and bullish sentiment across industrial metals. However, as prices continue to climb, it’s time to question how high prices can go. Despite a still solid outlook, there are some reasons to believe palladium prices could be nearing their peak:

Palladium prices hit 2-year high. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data

Global Demand for Cars

Eighty percent of palladium demand comes from cars. China has the largest auto market, followed by the United States. Therefore, car sales in these two countries are very important for palladium’s demand outlook.

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

Car sales in the U.S. fell short of expectations in March, down 1.6% compared with March 2016. After two years of record sales, the auto industry seems to have hit a plateau. The U.S. industry might have to come up with discounts and incentives to continue to increase sales.

US total vehicle sales. Source: tradingeconomics.com

Car sales in China rose 13.7% in 2016 compared to 2015. The astonishing performance of China’s auto market helped boost palladium prices last year. Sales are still running strong this year but not at the same pace as last year. According to the Wall Street Journal, sales of vehicles, excluding those typically used for commercial purposes, rose 1.7% to 2.1 million units in March from a year earlier.

Weaker sales-tax incentive have put pressure on demand this year and are expected to slow down demand even more next year. Buyers of cars with engines up to 1.6 liters paid a 5% purchase tax last year, but they are now paying a 7.5% rate. Buyers are still finding incentives to rush on buying cars this year since the rate will increase to 10% in 2018.

Palladium Nears Resistance Levels

Palladium nears long-term resistance levels. Source: MetalMiner analysis of stockcharts.com data

Palladium prices have risen steadily since the beginning of 2016, but the metal is now trading at historically high levels, which could play against this rally. Historically, palladium has peaked in the range of $850-$900. Prices closed last week at $827.

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

This doesn’t mean that prices will necessarily peak at these levels again, but we suspect that the closer prices get to those levels, the stronger the fundamentals will need to be to lure investors to chase prices higher.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Palladium’s outlook continues to look good, but a potential slowdown in global auto sales and stiff price resistance near $850-$900 could put a ceiling to palladium’s rally this year.

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.

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

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.

China’s GDP came at 6.9% in the first quarter, the fastest pace in almost two years, up from a 6.8% growth in the previous quarter and putting the country well ahead of its goal of 6.5% annual GDP. Chinese investment in buildings, factories and other fixed assets rose 9.2% for the first quarter while construction starts surged by 11.6%. If that’s not enough, in April, China’s government announced plans to build a new megacity, which will increase the demand for steel and other industrial metals.

This growth translates into solid demand for industrial metals at the same time that 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.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 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 notion is that the Euro would likely strengthen if Macron wins the election.

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

If centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron gets elected in the final round (May 7), markets might start to focus on a positive European economic picture 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

According to the ITRI, Indonesian tin exports for 2016 fell 9.4% compared to 2015 as Indonesia tightened its rules for tin exports.

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

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% from the same quarter of last year. According to the International Tin Research Institute, many smelters in the country are operating on tight margins, with some understood to have temporarily halted 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.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Sales of concentrates stockpiles at the beginning of the quarter explain why shipments fell. In addition, the Chinese Spring Festival also impacted numbers. For these reasons 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 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. For the first two months, zinc refined output rose by near 4.5% compared to the same period of last year. However, supply might prove less resilient in the coming months.  Some of China’s largest zinc smelters recently 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, according to a recent Reuters article, the second-largest zinc plant in North America has been running at 50% of normal operating levels due to a strike that started on February 12. The plant produces around 270,000 mt of zinc per 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’s GDP came at 6.9% in the first quarter, the fastest pace in almost two years, up from 6.8% growth in the previous quarter putting the country well ahead its goal of 6.5% annual GDP.

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

Construction and infrastructure make up for more than 60% of zinc’s demand. According to Global Finance, Chinese investment in buildings, factories and other fixed assets rose 9.2% for the first quarter while constructions starts surged by 11.6%. In addition, China announced intentions to build a new megacity, which will significantly increase the demand for industrial metals such as zinc

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 a matter of days as a cyclone caused disruptions to Australia’s coal exports. The impact was significant and several miners had to declare force majeure on their coal deliveries.

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

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 after 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.

A recent CNBC article states that Australia is the world’s biggest coking coal exporter and therefore, China’s largest supplier. The recent disruptions are forcing China to look for alternative supplies such as Russia, Mongolia or Indonesia. In addition, China won’t import more coking from North Korea as a punishment to recent 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 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 the U.S. have risen. That is simply not sustainable.

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

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.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Since prices peaked in February, China’s hot-rolled coil prices have fallen nearly 15%. 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.