Author Archives: Stuart Burns

Last week President Donald Trump announced to the world his decision to pull the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, but a little-discussed change in the sulphur content of marine fuel oil is likely to have a significant impact on transport costs by the end of this decade.

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The international shipping industry is a major atmospheric polluter. In terms of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases, it is projected to account for 17% of global emissions by 2050, according to the Guardian newspaper last year.

In addition, the shipping industry burns the dirtiest of fuel types. Marine bunker fuel is produced from the waste leftover in refineries when more volatile and valuable fractions are extracted from crude oil. As a result, current levels of sulphur in maritime fuels can be as high as 3.5%, representing a major source of pollution, as anyone who has seen a large tanker or cruise ship fire up prior to departure — spewing out dirty, unscrubbed funnel fumes in vast plumes — can attest.

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Ford Motor Company has bet the farm on electric and driverless cars, to borrow a phrase from an article this week.

The appointment of Ford’s new boss, Jim Hackett — who previously headed Ford’s Smart Mobility subsidiary from March 2016 but prior to that, was boss of Steelcase, a business furniture company — illustrates more graphically than words that Ford has read the runes for the internal combustion engine and the current automotive business model, and decided it needs a radical shake-up in its thinking and approach.

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A rethink of where the industry is going over the next 10 years has prompted not just the hiring of this talented outsider, but also, earlier this year, Ford’s $1 billion investment in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company that, it is hoped, will produce the software needed for a new generation of self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars, though, are dependent not just on developing new technologies but a host of legal, insurance policy and regulatory changes that will take time to evolve.

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Beijing’s focus on supply-side reforms of China’s giant aluminum industry has been a prime mover for the metal price this year.

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But primary metal price rises aside, of more concern to aluminum consumers should be the nature and extent of China’s aluminum semi-finished product exports. There have been various facets to China’s product exports, as Andy Home of Reuters succinctly explained in an article last week.

On the one hand, the growing volume of product exports has ignited considerable trade tensions with the U.S. and Europe. In the case of the former, the article reports, it led to a formal complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and, more recently, a Section 232(b) investigation under the Trump administration. In Europe, expiring duties have been rolled over on imports of aluminum wheels from China and further action sought by trade bodies on a range of aluminum products.

Meanwhile, rumours that an indeterminate but significant proportion of China’s semi-finished product exports were in fact primary metal being illegally classified as semi-finished product to circumvent export duties on unwrought aluminum have at least partially been vindicated, as a focus has been brought to bear on a massive stock of aluminum held in Mexico last year that appeared to originate from Vietnam but with links to China.

Home explained that China’s exports of commodity code 7604 (bars rods and extruded profiles) have mushroomed from just over 6,000 tons in 2012/2013 to 463,000 tons in 2015 and 510,000 tons in 2016. Some of that metal appeared in Mexico last year before media attention encouraged the metal to be recycled back to an obscure port in Vietnam. Read more

“Moody’s downgrades China,” proclaims many a recent headline, while the accompanying article warns that a credit explosion will continue even as growth slows. Sounds serious, doesn’t it? Should we be concerned?

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Ratings agency downgrades are nothing new. The U.S. had a downgrade earlier in this decade, as had the U.K. and many other countries. Life goes on, and even for countries with large external borrowings, costs rarely rise by much — if at all.

There are exceptions, of course. Just think of Greece and many of the Southern European states whose borrowing costs rocketed. But the cause was not only downgrades. In the case of those countries, there had been a profound and sudden loss of market confidence in their ability to service their debt. And therein lies one of the issues for China.

Although China’s economy-wide debt is already 256% of GDP and rising, much of it is funded internally. It is not reliant on overseas investors, and as such is easier for the Bank of China to manage. According to a report in The Telegraph, China’s government debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to rise only gradually to 45% by the end of the decade, which is in line with similar countries rated at an “A” investment grade.

The downgrade has so far been confined to Moody’s, which dropped China’s rating by one notch from Aa3 to A1, keeping it apparently within investment grade territory. Moody’s pressed Beijing to accelerate supply-side reforms as the country faces challenges in the years ahead of an aging population, slowing productivity growth and the legacy of excessive state led investment.

Growth is predicted to slow to 5% from current 6.7% levels by the end of this decade. But while that is “poor” for China, it is still exceptional for any other country of comparable size. Read more

What with news of the terrorist massacre in Manchester reverberating around the world, while President Donald Trump first snuggles up to the Saudis and then to the Israelis — it is hardly surprising that news of yet a fourth Greek bailout has failed to make much headway in the headlines.

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News that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is working on a compromise with Greece’s creditors that would smooth the way for a €7 billion ($7.8 billion) disbursement of rescue cash all sounds rather calming and reassuring. But rest assured Greece is in danger of yet another default this summer as it seeks to get its hands on the latest tranche of an €86 billion rescue package to meet debt obligations this July.

According to an article in The Telegraph, Greece’s debt currently stands at nearly 180% of gross domestic product. The Greek economy fell back into recession in the first quarter of 2017, and it is an economy that is still some 27% smaller than in 2008, crushed under the EU-IMF austerity program.

According to the Associated Press, the IMF has argued that the Eurozone forecasts underpinning the Greek bailout are too rosy and that the country as a result should get substantial debt relief so it can start growing on a sustainable basis. The Greek economy has spent more time in recession than growth since the financial crisis.

The Eurozone, on the other hand, has so far ruled out any debt write-off, saying it would rather extend Greece’s repayment periods or reduce the interest rates on its loans after the bailout next year. Germany and the Netherlands are keen to avoid debt relief, probably because they do not want to set a precedent that others such as Italy could turn to later to solve their own problems. Read more

One could say it’s slightly ironic that an industry championed in the U.K. as an area of expertise to be taken to the world is in practice dominated here by a Danish company, Dong Energy.

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The industry is offshore wind turbines — and I make the distinction between onshore and offshore because many countries have been early adopters of wind turbines. The U.S. invested $14.5 billion in wind power project installations in 2015, and China leads the world in onshore wind generating capacity. Offshore, however is only just taking off — no pun intended.

The principal driver in offshore’s growth is cost, according to an article from Wind Energy Update: “Danish company Vattenfall’s record low offshore wind price of 37.2 ore per kWh (49.9 euros/MWh; $53/MWh) for the 600 MW Kriegers Flak project last year showed how falling costs and new tenders are spurring intense price competition in the offshore wind market.”

Cost reductions are being driven in part by the development of ever larger turbines, more practical off shore than on shore, where aesthetic objections are more frequent with giant wind turbines accused of spoiling the landscape. Wind also blows more consistently off shore, increasing the utilisation rate of offshore turbines closer to that of conventional power sources. Read more

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You should credit them for trying. As one of the first foreign multinationals to invest in the Indian market, General Motors has been persevering for over 20 years.

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This month, however, it has finally pulled the plug, announcing that it will stop making cars in India for the Indian market by the end of this year. That doesn’t mean it will cease all manufacturing. Although the firm has already stopped its production in Gujarat, it will continue with its manufacturing foundry at Talegoaon in Maharashtra, making parts and cars for export to the Asian and South American markets.

As part of a wider re-structuring aimed at improving profitability, the BBC reported, GM has put a $1 billion investment plan for India on hold, while also pulling back in South and East Africa. The firm plans to sell a 57.7% shareholding and grant management control to Isuzu in its East African operations, as well as stop selling cars in South Africa and sell its Struandale plant there to the Japanese firm in a re-structuring aimed at creating savings of $100 million per annum.

To be fair, minor successes aside, GM has struggled in India and failed to make much impact on a market originally dominated by domestic brands but latterly by Japanese and Korean firms. Even after more than 20 years, GM’s Chevrolet brand only has 1% of the market.

Commenting on the earlier plan to invest $1 billion in the market to develop its product range in what is forecast to become the world’s third largest car market, GM’s International president Stefan Jacoby is quoted as saying, “We determined that the increased investment required for an extensive and flexible product portfolio would not deliver a leadership position or long-term profitability in the domestic market.” Read more

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It isn’t an idle question. Oil prices are a proxy for energy prices, and a rising oil price can be supportive for energy intensive metals like aluminum.

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A rising oil price is also taken as a proxy for rising industrial demand – a bullish indicator that global growth is strong. A falling price, on the other hand, should be good for consumer spending as it keeps more money in drivers’ pockets and lowers the cost of goods sold for companies far and wide – but particularly for those in the transportation or more energy intensive sectors.

But despite rising last year following the agreement on the parts of OPEC and major non-OPEC oil producers to limit output, the price has since fallen back so consumers are not surprisingly wondering where it goes from here.

Just this month the two architects and key players in last year’s agreement, Saudi Arabia and Russia, announced they would continue with the agreement, set to shortly expire, until March 2018 and indeed will accelerate cuts to reduce near record inventories. It should be said the announcement still must be officially agreed at next week’s meeting of OPEC ministers in Vienna.

While initially slow to contribute, Russia has stepped up cut backs of late and combined non OPEC cuts are said to be some 255,000 b/d in April, but others such as Brazil and Canada are expected to increase output in Q2 and the USA has added substantially since last year. According to Oilprice.com, U.S. oil production has risen to approximately 9.3 million barrels a day and is projected by the EIA to reach 10 million barrels a day by 2018. Read more

The headline of this article from The Telegraph provocatively reads “The end of petrol and diesel cars? All vehicles will be electric by 2025, says expert.”

However passionately the argument is made, the 2025 deadline that comes from a report entitled “Rethinking Transportation 2020–2030” by Stanford University economist Tony Seba is almost certainly wildly optimistic. Nevertheless, it makes a good headline, and The Telegraph loves nothing better than good attention grabber.

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Seba is well known for his challenging and — some would say — self-publicising proclamations. But the basic logic of his argument that a combination of trends and converging technologies will have a transformational effect on the energy and transportation markets sometime in the next decade is probably out only in terms of timing.

Long a vocal advocate for renewable technologies, the professor has repeatedly pointed to the falling cost of solar power supported by wind, hydro and, in some cases, geothermal and biomass as sounding the death knell for conventional carbon fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. In that respect, his case is hard to argue against.

As an outlier, the British government remains stubbornly committed to subsidising a nuclear power station at Hinckley Point at a cost of around £92.50/MWh ($120/MWh) — when even in the overcast U.K., solar was being won at £71.00/MWh in 2015 and prices have fallen further since.

Wind power can be even cheaper, at least in windy Britain. Although it is widely acknowledged that the power delivery from both wind and solar is intermittent, renewables can be made increasingly viable through a combination of improving storage technology and greater integration of power grids and smart technologies allowing transmission companies to partially even out the generation and consumption over a wider area. Read more

So much has been written in recent months about China and the Chinese aluminum market that we are in danger of losing sight of the performance of major producers outside of that market.

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The position of producers like Alcoa and Rusal arguably have more impact and more significance for Western consumers than those behind the tariff barrier walls of China’s borders. The Financial Times reported last week that Rusal (still the world’s second largest producer, according to Statista) is in robust health and has reported rising profits on the back of stronger first quarter prices.

According to the FT, net profit for the first three months of the year was $187 million, up 48% from $126 million in the same period last year, on the back of 20% rise in revenue to $2.3 billion. While not quite reaching analysts’ predictions, it allowed the firm to reduce debt levels and encouragingly was achieved on the back of only a modest 0.7% increase in production to 910,000 metric tons. Likewise, alumina production was up a correspondingly small 0.9% to 1.889 million tons.

Costs, however, have remained a bugbear with electricity prices, transportation – principally railways, and other raw material costs rising in Q1, in part due to rising commodity prices but also due to a 6.7% strengthening of the ruble.

Nevertheless, demand growth remains robust, and supply outside China remains relatively tight with the forward market spreads not favouring the roll-over of stock and trade storage of primary metal with only a 3.5% margin over 18 months.

Much will depend on China going forward and how seriously Beijing continues to pursue its policy of clamping down on environmental non-compliance and limiting new smelter investment. Aluminum demand in China grew at 7.5% in the first quarter, according to Aluminium Insider, and it is growing at 5.0% in the rest of the world.

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Prices may have slipped back of late but that was probably to be expected after the surge of enthusiasm following Beijing’s clampdown. As the realisation sinks in that China’s winter heating period closures are still six months away, some softening is to be expected.