Author Archives: Stuart Burns

LME nickel prices hit $13,200 per ton last Wednesday, the highest level since June 2015 before investors took profits and the price fell back a touch to $12,870 per metric ton.

Prices were led higher by the ShFE, where stock have fallen to 48,920 tons from over 90,000 tons just a year ago — and consumers are worried about a supply squeeze, Reuters reports.

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The Philippines’ ongoing environmental campaign has perpetuated the closure of four key nickel mines in the Zimbales region, according to Wilfredo Moncano, the director or the Philippine mines and geosciences bureau. Moncano said “no extraction, no new mining activities, what’s only allowed is hauling up ores for their stockpiles,” according to Reuters.

The supply squeeze story has been exacerbated by news that Sumitomo Corporation has suspended output from its mine in Madagascar following a cyclone.  Not surprisingly, investment funds are at increased net long positions on the NME and SHFE, with LME positions doubling from early November. LME nickel stocks are still substantial at 368,292 tons, but are down from levels above 470,000 tons in June 2015; however, they’re at double the levels seen in May 2013.

Although nickel prices have pulled back on profit-taking, many are still betting the price could move higher as the market is in deficit. Any supply-side disruption is seen as an opportunity to squeeze supply in the face of continued robust demand.

Nickel supply, however, has picked up.

Current short-term issues accepted, according to Fast Markets, Indonesia had awarded quotas for the export of over 20 million tons of nickel ore after its export ban was relaxed early last year. Only a small portion of this, however, has been shipped. The bulk of 2017 quotas are still to be exported.

The incentive for both miners and authorities is to resolve the current environmental stumbling blocks. Exports are expected to pick up. There should also be nickel pig iron smelters being established in Indonesia in 2018, creating more plentiful NPI availability in the market.

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Under the circumstances, the recent $13,200 price spike may, if not prove to be a peak, at least come to be in the upper range of what will remain a volatile market until supply concerns ease.

Sanjeev Gupta, the industrial buyer of distressed steel, aluminum and coal assets (to name just a few of the areas he has expanded into in recent years), has so far managed an uncanny knack of good timing.

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Buying steel assets just before the global steel market finally lifted even Europe out of the doldrums, and now aluminum. To be fair, Gupta is not new to aluminum.

Gupta’s Liberty Group bought the Lochaber aluminum smelter and hydro-electric power plant from Rio Tinto in 2016 in a $410 million deal when Rio was desperate to shed “non-core” assets and raise cash.

Since then, the aluminum price has risen some 30%. Now, with aluminum on a roll, Gupta is again picking over the carcass of Rio’s aluminum assets, this time putting in a $500 million offer for Europe’s biggest refinery: the Dunkerque aluminum smelter.

Lochaber was only 47,000 tons capacity, but Dunkerque is on an altogether different scale, producing 280,000 tons a year. That disparity makes it a steal with respect to purchase price per ton of capacity compared to Lochaber, and is said to be profitable at current aluminum prices.

For most aluminum producers — unless they are niche, high-purity players or have integrated downstream activities — tend to have larger concerns leveraging economies of scale and sometimes integrating upstream into alumina, and even bauxite mining, to secure their supply chains. It is rumored Gupta may have something of the same objective. He is apparently in talks with Rio for more of its aluminum assets, according to the Financial Times. Rio is also looking to sell a 205,000-ton-per-year Isal aluminum smelter near Reykjavik, Iceland, and its Pacific Aluminum business, which analysts say could fetch more than $2 billion, with Gupta rumored to be interested.

Quite how he has managed to fund his rapid acquisition spree in recent years is the subject of some speculation. With purchases of generally distressed assets in shipping, recycling, banking, commodities trading and energy, there does not appear to be an obvious theme to his empire building beyond being broadly metals-related and presumably cheap.

Turning distressed assets around, though, is a hugely intensive and time-consuming process — and not without considerable risk, as many fail.

Yet so far, Gupta’s vehicles, Liberty Group and Simec under the GFG Alliance holding company, have apparently done rather well.

The success of Dunkerque will be contingent on the French nuclear generator EDF continuing to supply electricity at viable rates. That is probably, for now, a given, since the French apparently are more concerned about maintaining employment of the 600 workers at the plant.

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Amongst a plethora of news, comment and opinion, it is often like struggling through a jungle when trying to get clarity on the commodities landscape. Sometimes, there is almost too much information.

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So, an analysis in the Financial Times entitled “Five things to watch as Brent crude oil nears $70” makes a refreshingly simplified but no less comprehensive summary of the key issues currently driving the oil price.

The crude oil price rise has been relentlessly rising for the last 3-4 months and while plenty of opinion has been espoused — in these columns too, I should add — about the moderating effect of U.S. shale oil on global supply (and hence, prices), the reality is so far the impact has been minimal. Prices have continued to show stubborn resistance to any such moderation.

Iran has certainly been a factor. Opinions differ as to how much impact unrest in the region has contributed to price rises. However, as the third-largest oil producer in OPEC, contributing to some 4% of global supply, civil unrest was a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.

In practice, protests had no impact on oil output. The street protests have now subsided, but Iran remains a source of tension in the region, with an antagonistic stance towards Saudi Arabia with respect to its military intervention in Yemen providing the potential for a flare-up. Oil output in the region generally has suffered some setbacks, with output in Kurdistan dropping after Baghdad took back control of disputed oilfields in October.

Output elsewhere has remained restrained in those countries participating in the Saudi-Russian led coalition to reduce inventories, but question marks remain as to how well they will stick to the deal as the oil price remains firm in 2018. Many may believe the heavy lifting is done and treasuries now deserve replenishing.

Not so fortunate to have a choice is Venezuela, which is quietly imploding.

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President Trump is not unused to controversy — some say he even courts it.

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So, a recent proposal following an executive order signed last April to widen energy exploration should come as no surprise.

The draft Five-year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program has been enthusiastically welcomed by the oil and gas industry but vociferously opposed by a cross-party coalition of governors, lawmakers, environmental groups and the military.

The proposal is to open up 25 out of 26 regions of the outer continental shelf in which oil and gas exploration had been banned by former President Barack Obama near the end of his term. The ban blocked drilling about 94% of the outer continental shelf, but the Department of the Interior said the new proposal would open up 25/26 regions on the Eastern seaboard, the Californian coast, the Gulf of Mexico and in the Arctic.

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Gold has defied interest rate rises and record equity markets to rally to its highest level in more than three months, the Financial Times reported this week.

Rising more than 6% since early December to over $1,300/ounce — its highest level, the paper reports, since September 2015.

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Gold is normally considered a safe-haven asset and a store of wealth in times of financial stress and uncertainty. So, why the surge in demand?

Performance of the U.S. Dollar

The U.S. and Europe are both expanding and emerging market growth is set to top 5% this year. One theory is the weakness of the U.S. dollar — as the dollar falls, all commodities priced in the currency become relatively cheaper and therefore more attractive to buyers in other currencies.

The dollar has been the worst performer of the G10 currencies in 2017, falling some 10% over the year. Investors also have expectations of higher inflation in the U.S. due to President Donald Trump’s tax reforms and a rising oil price, which often stokes inflation is seen by some as a risk. But while the dollar is attributed with the majority of the rise in gold, it may not be the whole story.

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After hitting a low of below $43/barrel in mid-2017, the oil price has risen inexorably to its highest level since 2015, according to the Financial Times. Rising some 35% since July, Brent crude hit over $67/barrel as hedge funds heap long positions despite the market, by most accounts, still being in surplus.

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Source: MacroTrends.com

OPEC’s alliance with Russia and a few other non-OPEC producers has certainly restricted supply (and the market is tighter as a result). However, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast in December that U.S. oil production would rise by 780,000 barrels a day in 2018, as prices continue to increase.

But for the first time in several years, the talk is more about demand and geopolitical risk than about excess supply.

Venezuela is rapidly imploding with output from the world’s second largest proven oil reserves failing steadily. Iranian unrest has added further anxiety for fear the protests could continue and possibly begin to impact output. Meanwhile, one-off crises like cracks found in a major North Sea pipeline and a fire in Austria have added a sense of vulnerability to the market that wasn’t there just a few months ago.

“Geopolitical risks are clearly back on the crude oil agenda after having been absent almost entirely since the oil market ran into a surplus in the second half of 2014,” the FT quotes Bjarne Schieldrop, chief commodities analyst at SEB.

Meanwhile, though, the elephant in the room is stirring.

U.S. shale production is on the rise and U.S. exports are also increasing sharply, offering the potential to undermine global markets. Platts estimates in its December 2017 Insight report U.S. crude exports could average 2 million b/d by 2019, having already nearly breached this figure in late September. The capacity is in place to export 3 million b/d now and will be closer to 4 million b/d during 2018, Platts reports.

Source Platts

Nor is rising supply from U.S. shale the only source of supply-side excess.

New projects in Brazil and Canada could add as much as rising U.S. exports matching rising global demand and leaving the market at best in a balanced state. For now, the bulls have the market by the horns — to muddle my metaphors — but 2018 will see a fascinating tussle between OPEC-led cutbacks and growing supply from the Americas.

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On the plus side, strong global growth, both among mature and emerging markets, is lifting demand. For the time being, the bulls are in the ascendancy and it would be a brave wager to bet against them in the short term.

Everyone loves a forecast, a prediction, even a few ideas on what the future holds, and we become particularly obsessed with such ideas at the start of a new year.

So, we thought it would be fun to review a few sources’ suggestions on what 2018 may hold, some as specific predictions like those in the Financial Times, and some as possible standout black swan events that could catch us off guard, such as those in The Telegraph newspaper.

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Firstly, some of the Financial Times’s suggestions. They came up with 20 of them, but many are political and somewhat niche for our readership, like whether or not Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May still be in power by the end of 2018. It’s a topic only the Brits are obsessed with and as it’s not exactly going to roil international markets one way or the other, we will ignore it here, as will non metal-market issues, like whether the AT&T-Time Warner merger will go through without big changes to both.

However, of more interest are questions like “Will Trump trigger a trade war with China?” Yes, in the FT’s opinion. The paper believes Trump will deliver on his protectionist campaign rhetoric and take punitive actions against China in 2018, resulting in China either imposing retaliatory measures or taking America to the World Trade Organization (WTO). (While on the Trump train of thought, another ditty from the FT is “Will the president will be impeached in 2018?” — or, at least, whether or not proceedings will be brought against him by the end of the year.)

Back to China, the driver for metal markets will be Chinese demand and Chinese GDP growth. At least officially, growth will continue to headline at 6.5% throughout 2018, the FT believes, although it clearly does not believe the official figures and makes the point real growth will be somewhat lower. Emerging market growth overall is expected to rise above 5% through 2018 despite the U.S. Federal Reserve increasing rates, which could spark taper tantrum spoilers (as in 2013). Even so, emerging market growth is expected to remain robust, aided by ongoing strong growth in the U.S. and Europe.

Political Turmoil Shakes Things Up Worldwide

Politically, 2018 could be an interesting year.

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Copper is on a tear.

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Copper rose to its highest point in nearly four years last week following further curbs on domestic production in China, closing at new year-to-date high for 2017. LME and Comex copper continued its longest bull run in more than a year, after closing at its highest level since January 2014 on Dec. 22.

Analysts suggest prices are being lifted by hopes that a stronger U.S. economy under a lighter tax regime will fuel demand for the metal. Maybe of more importance is the largest copper producer in China, Jiangxi Copper, was rumored to have been ordered on Monday to halt output for at least a week before a further assessment based on local pollution levels. The effect has been to boost support for Shanghai copper, which rose to a 2-month high. The firm disputes it has been ordered to halt production, but so bullish is sentiment the market has shrugged it off and continued to buy copper.

Following years of oversupply, robust demand for copper, particularly from buildout of charging networks required for electric cars and infrastructure for the integration of renewable energy investments, is driving expectations of further price rises, according to the Financial Times. As a result, prices hit U.S.$7,312/metric ton last week, the highest level since January 2014, as import data for China showed November refined metal imports jumped 19% to 329,168 metric tons.

While demand appears robust, the impression is developing that the supply market will be squeezed next year.

The Financial Times reports that analysts at Citibank estimate that nearly 30 labor contract negotiations are set to take place in copper-mining countries next year, potentially affecting 25% of global mine supply.

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Q1 could see prices take a breather and may present a time to buy forward if prices come off a little. Chinese New Year holidays often see a run-up in demand before the holidays, but overall the quarter suffers from the prolonged closedowns.

The U.S. Department of Commerce. qingwa/Adobe Stock

Do we have a case of genuine material injury to U.S. jobs or do we have a case of commercial shenanigans in Boeing’s application to the U.S. Department of Commerce reported imposition of triple digit duties on Bombardier’s sale of new C-Series jets to number two U.S. airline Delta Air Lines?

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Boeing had called for countervailing duties of 79.41% to offset what it described as harmful Canadian subsidies to Bombardier. It also identified a “dumping margin” of 80.5%, based on the unpublished prices at which it claims Bombardier sold the C-Series planes to Delta, for a combined border charge of just under 160% on the Bombardier jets.

Delta, placed an order for 75 of the 100- to 150-seat single aisle C-Series jets some 18 months ago, according to Reuters. While the list price starts at $79.5 million, new project early sales typically enjoy substantial discounts to generate interest in the program and generate an early start to production. In that respect, initial launch discounts are common in the airline industry — whether they constitute dumping is debatable. It may be simplistic, but if all airlines do it then no one airline should be penalized.

Boeing claims that Delta received the planes for $20 million each, well below an estimated cost of $33 million and below what Bombardier charges in Canada. So far inconclusive, the numbers suggest — possibly, if correct — extreme discounts and some action may be valid.

However, dumping prices are usually imposed on products imported into a country. In this case, Delta’s order is to be manufactured on a new assembly line at Airbus’ factory in Mobile, Alabama, technically making it a U.S. airplane.

But this assembly option has arisen only in recent months following Airbus’ surprise move last October buying a majority stake in the struggling C-Series program.

At root, this could be a large part of the issue.

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It is often easier to criticize from the outside than to resolve from within — that is as true of boardrooms as it is of government.

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It should come as no surprise that President Trump’s well-intentioned claims during his election campaign to bring American jobs back to American steel mills — “When I’m president, guess what, steel is coming back to Pittsburgh,” he said during an April 2016 rally — have proved much harder to achieve in office than may have appeared to him and his supporters on the campaign trail.

Some believe the protectionist, low-hanging fruit of withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and ordering investigations into trade pacts such as NAFTA and the KORUS FTA have, if anything, exacerbated problems for domestic steel mills by prompting a flood of steel imports from firms trying to bring in steel before tariffs are hiked or other barriers are imposed. The New York Times has been accused — with some justification — of running an agenda counter to the Trump administration’s policies, but the facts are clear: steel imports have boomed since Trump came into power.

Source: New York Times

U.S. steel imports were up 19.4% in the first 10 months of 2017, compared to last year’s figures, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI). The New York Times points to ArcelorMittal’s decision to close a furnace at its Conshohocken, Pennsylvania steel plant in the new year, laying off 150 of the plant’s 207 workers as evidence of the impact. ArcelorMittal blamed low-priced imports, as well as low demand for steel for bridges and military equipment — both areas Trump promised he would make a key focus for investment if elected.

Although progress on trade issues has come too late for workers at Conshohocken, it is not too late for the industry as a whole.

The administration appears at odds over how to achieve control over imports, with some advocating hefty tariffs, others quotas, and all awaiting the results of the Department of Commerce’s 232 investigation by Jan. 15. The president will then have 90 days to decide what to do, the New York Times states.

If supportive and the report is acted on, plants like Conshohocken stand to benefit the most. Although underutilized at present, its speciality is ultra-strong, military-grade steel (a national security requirement if ever there was one).

Blocking imports, though, is not universally popular.

The auto industry frets that reducing imports will raise prices and impact competitiveness among domestic automakers, resulting in job losses worse than those experienced by the steel industry.

Source: New York Times

The steel industry itself has largely maintained employment over recent years after recovering from the financial crisis of 2008, despite investing in automation, which has helped improve efficiencies and productivity in the face of significant imports from Canada, eastern Europe and elsewhere (China features less nowadays and is well down the list due to earlier anti-dumping legislation).

Quite how the administration balances these competing priorities of domestic steel producers versus domestic steel consumers remains to be seen. Rhetoric so far this year suggests sympathies lie firmly with producers, but legislation needs to be finessed enough not to cause more damage than it intends to avoid.

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As we say, criticizing from the outside is much easier than finding solutions from within. Coming up with viable solutions will be the administration’s big challenge in 2018.