Author Archives: Raul de Frutos

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

According to Inside Advantage’s Outlook 2016 report, “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.”

Chinese car sales for the first two months of 2017 beat expectations and were 8.8% higher compared to the same period in 2016. According to a Market Watch report, the pace is still weaker than the 14% increase reported last year by the industry as tax incentives urged customers to buy cars. 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 the high levels reached last year, Chinese citizens will still likely take advantage of a lower tax in 2017.

According to a recent Reuters article, “March’s figures for the world’s second-largest automotive market came in below market expectations and gave early evidence that the growth in America’s car sales may be running out of steam. Sales in March fell by 1.6% compared with the same month a year ago.”

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, and controls 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.

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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.

 

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 still supports 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 Lopez as the head of that department. Further confirmation hearings are expected to take place in May.

 

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.

 

Commodities and industrial metals have always moved in tandem. However, things have changed over the past few months. Industrial metals continue to rise in price while commodity indexes struggle to hit new ground.

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What’s up with that?

CRB commodity index (in orange) vs DBB industrial metals index (in black). Source: MetalMiner analysis of @Stockcharts.com data.

Two things have caused industrial metals to outperform the rest of commodity groups (agriculture, energy, etc) this year:

First, in November industrial metals got a boost as Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election and his Republican party kept control of both houses of the Congress. Investors now hope that a Trump-led GOP government will boost domestic infrastructure, which could be a boon for industrial metals demand. In addition, the new president has stated he is willing to institute more measures to protect domestic producers.

China’s Pollution Performance

Second, and more importantly in my opinion, industrial metals have been benefiting from a tailwind since January when China’s pollution problems got worse. Steel and aluminum are leading this year’s rally. This is because these two are the most energy-intensive metals and China has shown a commitment to cut output. Read more

Aluminum prices have risen around 15% since the beginning of the year.

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

The metal is currently trading at a two-year high, just below $1,950 per metric ton. A slow but steady rise.

The aluminum 3003-H14 Sheet price. Source: MetalMiner Price Benchmark.

This year’s rally comes as markets tries to price in Chinese anti-pollution capacity cuts next winter. 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,” reported Reuters, which runs from the middle of November through the middle of March, putting at risk about 1.3 million mt of production. Read more

Most base metals will finish the first quarter up, but nickel is one of those exceptions to the rule.

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The metal has traded up and down to finish the first quarter close to flat. Nickel prices are significantly higher than they were one year ago and traders are now finding little reason to be any more bullish than bearish due to a mix of news that helps both positions.

Nickel prices finish Q1 close to flat. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Philippines Threatens to Stop All Mining

On March 13, The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte “threatened to stop all mining in the country,” according to an article in Economic Calendar, while reiterating his support for Department of the Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez. Philippine lawmakers recently 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. The country’s miners hope Duterte won’t reappoint Lopez and instead find someone more moderate.

Indonesia to Restart Exports

Despite additional closures last month and the potential for more, nickel prices fell this month. It could be that traders doubt that Duterte will enforce such strict regulations, but it also has to do with fears that the “resumption of exports from Indonesia will compensate” for any supply shortfall in The Philippines, according to Economic Calendar. Read more

US Cold-rolled coil prices since 2012. Source:MetalMiner IndX

U.S. Cold rolled-coil prices rose to their highest levels since March of 2012 this week. Spot steel prices saw some upward action in January, however, prices really came under pressure in early February.

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In March, U.S. steel mills are pushing for another round of price hikes. So far, they seem to be succeeding.

China Steel Prices

Hot-rolled coil price spread. Source: MetalMiner IndX

Back in November, we predicted a surge in steel prices as we moved into the new year. When international steel prices rise, U.S. mills can more easily justify a price hike. Chinese prices set the floor for international prices. Last summer, U.S. steel prices declined sharply while Chinese prices held well. That caused the international price arbitrage to come down to normal levels.

The price arbitrage started to widen again this year as momentum in U.S. steel prices picked up. However, the arbitrage is still relatively narrow compared to historical levels, especially in hot-rolled coil. Therefore, U.S. mills still have some room to hike prices. Still, for the rally to be sustained throughout the year, Chinese steel prices will need to keep rising.

Falling Chinese Steel Exports

In January, Chinese steel exports fell near 24% compared to the same month last year. In absolute terms, January steel exports were at their lowest level since June 2014. Exports fell by double digits in the last four months of 2016. While more countries act against the threat of a flood of Chinese steel, we could see further moderation in exports this year, which bodes well for global steel markets. What’s surprising is that exports have falling despite rising output.

According to the data released by the World Steel Association, China’s January steel production rose 7.4% to 67 mmt while global steel production rose 7% from a year ago. In addition, China’s operating steel capacity increased in 2016, since most of the announced cuts in capacity were already idle.

So far, solid demand in China has absorbed the increase in output, or at least most of it. The Caixin Manufacturing PMI in China rose to 51.7 in February, beating market expectations and marking the eighth-straight month of growth. In addition, there are rumors that China is stocking its excess steel production. According to SteelHome, hot-rolled coil and rebar inventories in China have surged so far this year.

All About Production Cuts

In conclusion, U.S. mills could continue to raise prices in the short-term. However, for a sustained bull market in steel prices, Chinese steel prices will have to rise as well. China’s domestic demand looks strong, but it won’t be enough to support a rising price trend in the face of rising output.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Beijing “has ordered curbs on steel and aluminum output in as many as 28 northern cities during the winter heating season, as it steps up its fight against pollution,” according to Bloomberg, but we need to see if those cuts actually materialize this year. China will need to intensify its efforts to curtail excess steel capacity. Otherwise, if production continues to grow unabated, it could hamper this price recovery.

The U.S. dollar fell sharply last Wednesday against a basket of currencies as the Federal Reserve announced a rate increase of a quarter point.

US Dollar index: Source @stockcharts.com.

The move seems to contradict common economic wisdom. In theory, higher raters in the U.S. should make the dollar more attractive for yield-seeking investors when interest are rates are lower around the globe. Then, what caused the currency to weaken?

All About Expectations

A rate increase came as no surprise to U.S. markets. The real surprise came in the language that wrapped the announcement. Fed officials intend to keep raising rates, however they want to keep the economy from getting too hot… but also not too cold.

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Investors were probably betting on an acceleration in the path of raising interest rates, not a warming down. Read more

3-Month London Metal Exchange zinc price. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Zinc prices climbed last week. The metal is now trading near the milestone of $3,000 per metric ton. The last time prices hit this level was in September 2007.

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

Zinc has doubled in price since it hit bottom in January of last year. As prices climbed, many buyers probably made the mistake of thinking prices were too high, missing this spectacular rally. However, buyers that subscribe to our monthly outlook, didn’t miss this rally. We recommended buying forward starting in April of 2016. Ever since, prices have risen without looking back. Read more