Author Archives: Stuart Burns

A recent article from news service Reuters raises concerns over the continued strength of the aluminum price.

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

Global aluminum prices have risen over the last six months, led by a strong rebound in the Chinese market. From a low of just over 9,000 yuan (electric town) in November 2015, the Shanghai price as risen steadily to above 14,000 yuan today as this graph from Thompson Reuters illustrates.

Source: Reuters

Spurred by healthy demand and the rising price, smelters have responded with gusto. As primary metal production in the rest of the world has fallen by an annualized 182,500 metric tons per year, output in China has surged. Although monthly figures are subject to considerable swings, Reuters reports January hitting a record of 2.95 million mt according to figures from China’s non-ferrous metals industry association. That is equivalent to an annualized rate of 34.7 mmt or 56% of global output, a staggering 19% year-on-year growth. Read more

The surprise announcement that PSA, holding company for the Peugeot, Citroën and DS brands, is in talks with General Motors to acquire GM’s European Opel and Vauxhall brands has set the cat among the pigeons in European capitals.

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

One of the first justifications for any major merger or takeover is the opportunity for cost reduction from economies of scale and consolidation. PSA’s interest in the Opel/Vauxhall brands has some logic to it.

Constructeur Automobile Mondial?

Acquiring the brands would catapult PSA into the major league, closer to Volkswagen and Fiat in terms of automobile sales volume. Not surprisingly, the French publication Le Monde was one of the first to cover the story in depth (site est en francais, mes amis). As the newspaper explains, for GM, Opel and Vauxhall make up only 12% of the company’s production of roughly 12 million vehicles a year, but for PSA an additional 1.2 million units on top of the existing 1.9 million should create considerable opportunity for economies of scale, at least in the European market where PSA currently sells 1.9 million vehicles out of a total production of 3.1 million worldwide.

Will a deal selling Opel/Vauxhall to Peugeot mean more 308s? Source: Adobe Stock/mrivserg.

The worry in European capitals, though, is that those economies will be achieved by closing production facilities. With PSA 14% owned by the French government and Opel a major employer in Germany, the telephone lines between Paris and Berlin have no doubt been humming seeking reassurances that if European approval is to be given, no job losses will result in Germany or France. Read more

Reuters reported that U.S. stock index futures rose to record intraday highs on Tuesday as oil prices surged and investors assessed earnings from top U.S. retailers.

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

The theory is share prices are being driven higher by a strong oil price and retailers who are reporting better than expected store sales. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Macy’s, and Home Depot sales are all up on robust consumer demand. If stock prices were supported on consumer confidence alone, we could see an argument for this bull run in share prices to continue.

Stocks are up

Stock prices continue to rise thanks to strong retail sales and oil prices. Source Adobe Stock/Tiagozr.

There is plenty of optimism around. Donald Trump’s much-vaunted infrastructure projects are expected to create significant demand and have an inflationary impact on the economy… when they eventually see the light of day. 2018 At the earliest is our expectation since few are shovel-ready and all will have to get past Congress first. Meanwhile, though, the economy is adding jobs at a steady rate and unemployment is low.

Oil Supply

However, if Reuters is right and shares are being driven higher in part due to the oil price, we have a few concerns. The oil price was driven higher by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries‘ production cap agreement last year, an agreement to which both major OPEC producers and 11 non-OPEC countries like Russia signed up to in an effort to reduce excess production and bring the market into balance by the summer. Read more

The London Metal Exchange steel scrap contract is coming of age much more rapidly than the old steel billet contract did. Unlike its older sibling, the steel scrap contract has the prospect of becoming a meaningful and valuable tool both for the trade but also for analysts and financial players.

MetalMiner Benchmarking: Click Here for Current Metal Prices

The LME Ferrous Monthly Update report for February reported there was steady uptake of both scrap and steel rebar contracts last year and that there was  a surge of activity in January, for both February dates and out to September of this year. LME Steel Scrap and LME Steel Rebar both traded record volumes last month. LME Steel Scrap traded the equivalent of 262,450 metric tons composed of almost 2,500 individual trades, the LME reports.

Source London Metal Exchange

As volume and liquidity builds, the contract will become more representative of real market prices and as a result increasingly relevant as a viable tool. One measure of liquidity is the narrowing of bid/offer spreads. In a non-liquid market buyers and sellers are harder to find and spreads tend to be wider, but as volume has built market makers have been able to narrow the spreads reducing trading costs and increasing the attractiveness of the contract for hedging. Read more

One of the major gripes about environmental legislation is that while the West creates ever stricter laws and ever lower emissions targets, many parts of the world completely flout agreements or do not even sign up to them in the first place.

MetalMiner Benchmarking: Click Here for Current Metal Prices

The steel industries of Europe and the U.S. frequently complain that they must meet tough emission targets that their competitors in China, India and elsewhere can avoid either because their governments have not signed up to such restrictions, or because they simply are not enforced.

The True Cost of Air Pollution

Well, finally after years of complaints it appears the tide is turning but tragically it has come about due to an appalling loss of life that is only just being recognized. Air pollution alone causes 6.5 million early deaths a year the Guardian newspaper reports. That is double the number of people lost to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and four times the number killed on the world’s roads. In Africa, air pollution kills three times more people than malnutrition. Read more

I am not sure this would go down well in the U.S., but take the most populous country in the world, with an estimated population of 1.3 billion of whom 22% are judged to be living in poverty and give them a state-provided universal basic income (UBI) payable to every single person. Sound like madness? Sound like a recipe for financial disaster? Sound like a socialist pipe dream? Maybe, but the idea is being actively debated in India according to the Economist.

Click Here for Current Metal Prices

Although the pre-annual budget economic survey, published on January 31, did not make any promises, it did outline an idea to pay every citizen 7,620 rupees ($113) a year. Far from a king’s ransom — it is equivalent to less than a month’s pay at the minimum wage in a city, but it would cut absolute poverty from 22% of the population to less than 0.5%. The money would largely come from recycling funds from around 950 existing welfare schemes, including those that offer subsidized food, water, fertilizer and much else besides. Altogether, these add up to roughly the 5% of GDP that the UBI would cost, the government’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian estimates. Read more

You may feel it cynical to say anyone would engage in a blue sky thinking if someone else is going to pay for it, but you have to question whether Voestalpine AG and its partners would be embarking on a research program that appears to have little prospect of economic viability in the next 20 years if the European Union was not funding the lion’s share of €18 million.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

The Austrian steelmaker Voestalpine, Siemens of Germany and Austrian renewable energy company Verbund party are building an experimental facility to economically produce hydrogen from water, which would then be used in place of coking coal for steelmaking. You may remember that my colleague, Jeff Yoders, noted that Voestalpine touted research into using hydrogen to reduce iron ore at its new DRI facility in Texas when the facility opened last year.

Voestalpine Corpus Christi

Voestalpine’s $750 million direct-reduced iron ore facility in Corpus Christi, Texas, could one day be fueled by hydrogen and not natural gas. Image: Jeff Yoders.

By the consortium’s own admission, an economically viable hydrogen process could take 20 years but should it eventually prove successful the benefits in decarbonizing a range of energy intensive industries such as ceramics, aluminum, glass, and cement in addition to steel could dramatically reduce emissions from one of the largest sources of industrial CO2 emissions. Read more

Nickel was said to be in a supply deficit last year of 209,000 metric tons, according to Bloomberg, and is projected to remain in deficit this year to the tune of 188,000 mt.

Click Here for Current Metal Prices

The Philippines has just ordered the closure of 21 mines and the suspension of another six. The island chain is a source of around half of the country’s nickel output. After Indonesia’s 2014 export ban, the Philippines became the world’s largest exporter of nickel ore and the primary supplier to China’s massive nickel-pig iron industry, raw material for the alloying of stainless steel.

Stagnant Prices

Yet, while there has been an uptick in prices, nickel’s performance can hardly be said to have been stellar. Since the middle of the summer the London Metal Exchange‘s LMEX index of six key base metals is up almost 18% yet nickel has risen by only 1.2%.

Deficit or not, the market does not seem to be in short supply yet. Between Indonesia and the Philippines the two countries produced about 700,000 metric tons of nickel a year in 2014 and 2015, with about 170,000 mt of that coming from Indonesia due to the export ban.

Chinese buyers simply switched to the Philippines as supplies dried up from Indonesia and drew down on extensive stocks they had amassed in advance of the export ban. Just as the Philippines’ new firebrand environment and natural resources secretary, Regina Lopez, moved to close environmentally damaging open pit mines, Indonesia is increasing exports again. Investors have their eye on a probable surplus towards the end of the decade as both countries return to some level of consistent supply. This graph illustrates the rise of the Philippines and since the export ban the relative decline of Indonesian shipments.

Nickel production

Nickel from major producers in the last nine years. Source: U.S. Geological Survey.

Of course, it’s not clear at this stage how quickly mining companies will be able to implement stricter environmental conditions that are likely to be applied by the new administration of Philippines President Roderigo Duterte, but it would seem that the action is not unjustified with comments in the Financial Times describing the Philippines’ nickel supply chain as an environmental disaster. Read more

One of the biggest social challenges facing the authorities in Beijing is that of environmental pollution. It’s not just the western media that is fixated by measures of particulate matter and images of impenetrable smog in Beijing, the general population has been moved to outright demonstration and the impact on the health of those living in the affected areas is an extremely serious issue causing widespread discontent. Beijing knows it must come to grips with this problem. Drastic action is required, and recent reports suggest the authorities are finally considering just that.

Click Here for Current Metal Prices

According to CRU Group, the Chinese Ministry of environmental protection is consulting industry groups such as the China Nonferrous Industry Association about a proposal to shut down 30% of the aluminum smelting capacity and 50% of alumina refining capacity during the big winter heating period from November to March in an effort to reduce coal-fired power consumption. Rumous of this proposal contributed to recent rises in aluminum prices even though the impact would not be felt before the end of 2017 and there is still considerable debate on how viable such a policy would-be.

Shutdown Plan

The provinces in question are Shandong, Shanxi, Hebei and Henan, home to a significant portion of China’s aluminum smelting and alumina refining capacity. According to an article by Aluminum Insider, Shandong produces 11 million metric tons of aluminum per year, Henan turns out 3.8 mmt, Shanxi is good for 1 mmt, while Hebei puts out 100,000 mt a year. Those four provinces account for 37% of the country’s total output of aluminum. Shandong refines 23.5 mmt of alumina per year, Henan produces 12.6 mmt, and Shanxi produces 20 mmt each year, combining to produce around 78% of the country’s total alumina output. Read more

India is the world’s second-largest importer of gold after China.

Click Here for Current Metal Prices

India’s gold import bill was up 12% in 2015 reaching $35 billion. 2016 final numbers are expected to come in at about the same rate, although a sharp drop in demand during December — said to be due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to scrap 500- and 1,000-rupee banknotes as a “demonetization” crackdown on corruption and tax evasion — is said to have hit the largely cash-facilitated gold jewellery market hard in the short term.

Even so, Gold imports are a considerable burden on India’s balance of payments coming second only to oil in the demand it puts on India’s foreign exchange reserves. India imports 900 to 1,000 metric tons per year, but local gold output is just 2 to 3 mt per year. In the same way that the Indian government has encouraged onshore and offshore oil exploration, you would expect indigenous gold mining would be an industry the government actively encourages.

Although India has mines that go back more than 120 years, its annual gold production is miniscule. According to an article in the Hindu times that could be about to change. The Kolar gold field was forced to close in 2001 due to mounting losses at operator Bharat Gold. The state-owned company had been mining the Kolar reserves since independence in 1947 but the mines are deep — down to 3 kilometers — and Bharat was operating with outmoded technology and a large, unproductive legacy workforce. But Mineral Exploration Corp. estimates show reserves to be worth $1.17 billion in the mines, with another $880.28 million in gold-bearing deposits estimated to be left over in residual dumps from previous mining operations.

How Can India Mine More Domestic Gold?

It is debatable whether state-owned Bharat gold has the expertise to economically exploit such deep and relatively low-grade reserves, but established global miners such as Vedanta may hold more potential. In February 2016, the firm became the first private company to successfully bid for a gold mine in India — the Baghmara gold mine in Chhattisgarh — a mine with potential gold reserves of 2.7 mt of contained metal. Sure, that’s a fraction of Kolar’s 35-mt potential but a good start for a firm of Vedanta’s standing to start in India’s gold mining sector.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

India is never likely to rival South Africa, Canada or Australia as a gold miner, but that’s not the point. Any contribution to the domestic market will lessen the impact gold imports have on the country’s balance of payments. With domestic reserves estimated at over 100 mt there appears to be scope, with the right state and government backing, for miners to reduce some of those imports and create domestic employment.