Author Archives: Stuart Burns

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Stock and currency markets have been a little perkier the last week or so as expectations rise of some form of Chinese stimulus to boost demand — and, hence, global growth.

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That optimism, though, may be somewhat misplaced.

China has limited scope of debt-fueled stimulus of the type employed in the past, so a pick-up in demand resulting from fiscal measures may be more muted than some optimists hope.

Still, hopes were raised when Premier Li Keqiang closed a briefing to the National People’s Congress with a number of announcements. Beijing intends to use tools such as lowering bank reserve requirements, according to Bloomberg.

However, a promise to reduce VAT on manufactured goods from the current 16% to 13% from April 1 gave a definite fillip to traders and cast depression among hard-pressed aluminum semis manufacturers in the region. More competitively priced Chinese aluminum semi-finished product is the last thing regional aluminum producers want on their doorstep.

The measure is expected to further boost exports, which have already been running at near-record levels in 2018-19. According to Aluminium Insider, exports have risen from 517,000 tons per month last August to 552,000 tons in January to set a new record. Primary producers, who had been meeting to negotiate capacity closures in the face of slowing demand, are reportedly now likely to reverse that decision in the hope demand will pick up.

According to Aluminium Insider, the move is expected to pump in the region of CNY 600 billion (U.S. $90 billion) into the manufacturing sector, boosting the country’s gross domestic product by 0.6%. The move comes as the latest in a series of changes to the country’s tax regime conducted by Beijing, carried out to bolster the economy after manipulations of monetary policy and further debt-based spending have become increasingly difficult avenues for effecting change.

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Optimism is supported by the widespread belief that an agreement on China’s trade war with the U.S. is just a matter of weeks away — but the much-touted trade summit between President Donald Trump and Premier Li Keqiang has been postponed yet again, and may now not take place until well into April or even May.

A successful trade deal is by no means a certainty, as much as the markets will look for any deal to be better than no deal.

Well, some folks have been talking about it for a while, but figures this week suggest the long-anticipated slowdown has arrived.

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Negative numbers out of China have been reported for some months now, particularly falling PMI figures suggesting a steadily deteriorating outlook. Beijing has set a target of GDP growth range of 6.0-6.5% this year, according to The Telegraph, down from a hard target of 6.5% over the last two years, and blamed the trade war.

It’s debatable whether China will even manage 6% this year. While the trade war with the U.S. has exacerbated problems, the slowdown started before President Donald Trump’s Section 232 and Section 301 actions.

Nevertheless, the trade war is certainly making matters worse.

Another article in The Telegraph reports a sharp fall in Chinese shipments. Imports and exports are both falling, while Premier Li Keqiang is quoted as saying this week that “Instability and uncertainty are visibly increasing and externally generated risks are on the rise, downward pressure on the Chinese economy continues to increase, growth in consumption is slowing, and growth in effective investment lacks momentum.”

Until now, a sluggish Europe and a slowing China were being counterbalanced by a robust U.S. economy and decent growth in other emerging markets.

But last week, shock jobs data suggests U.S. growth is not a given.

The 20.7% slump in February was four times greater than predictions of a 5% decline, with just 20,000 workers added to payrolls — some 160,000 fewer than expected.

Some are attributing the sharp slowdown to the impact of tariffs and negative investment sentiment, mounting pressure on the president to reach a deal with the China this month. The tariffs were promoted as a solution to the growing trade deficit, but so far at least the opposite has prevailed.

The U.S. Department of Commerce is quoted as saying last week that a 12.4% jump in December contributed to the record $891.3 billion goods trade shortfall last year. The overall trade deficit surged 12.5% to $621.0 billion, the largest since 2008, effectively junking suggestions that the U.S. could tariff its way out of the deficit.

The situation may not have been helped by the president’s tax giveaway that has in part been spent on the import of luxury goods, such as autos. The impact of higher domestic prices, though, seems as much psychological as actual, with consumers postponing purchases in the face of rising prices.

Salaries are rising, unemployment is low, consumers are not fearful of their future in the way they are in a recession, but they may be deferring buying in the hope of a trade deal and a reduction in costs later in the year or next.

The danger is by then we really may be in a recession if the economy, both in the U.S. and globally, does not get back on track this year.

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Negative sentiment has a tendency to be self-fulfilling.

March 29 is currently supposed to be the date by which Britain’s future relationship with the European Union is finally settled.

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There are several possible outcomes of varying likelihood. Britain could remain part of the E.U., which is looking comparatively unlikely.

Or, it will leave based on the agreement Prime Minister Theresa May has reached with Brussels, but including some last-minute tweaks around the longevity of the Irish border question (the most likely option).

Or, Britain will plunge out with no formal agreement — and to judge by the opinions of much of the business community and many commentators, it would plunge into an extremely uncertain and volatile future.

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Cutting through the polarized hype on climate change is one of the toughest challenges for firms trying to position themselves and their enterprises for the future.

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On the one hand there is a broad green or environmental lobby, which rightly shouts out the risks of rising global temperatures and the link greenhouse gases play in that rise.

Unfortunately, at the same time, many in that lobby claim a switch to a zero-carbon future would be simple.

On the other hand there are complete naysayers who do not even accept there is a climate change issue to address, let alone have any interest in finding less environmentally polluting options.

Governments rarely help; in fact, the U.S. is actively rolling back previous legislation, apparently in a perverse belief that if you say something is fake news enough, it actually does become fake news.

In many other countries, governments act with varying degrees of commitment, but at times appear to promote one solution while still supporting another cause of pollution in a different part of the economy. As a result, policies are not joined up.

Oil majors can hardly be said to be neutral in this debate, but their periodic reports are the subject of so much scrutiny that they have to be reasoned and their assumptions have to be logical or they would suffer ridicule.

So, when Andy Brown, Shell’s upstream director, told The Telegraph that zero net emissions are technologically and economically possible by 2070, his comments at least bare scrutiny.

He went on to add electric power would have to jump fivefold by that time. Wind and solar would have to increase by 50 times. It would require 10,000 Carbon Capture Sequestration (CCS) projects able to sequester six gigatons of carbon each year, accompanied by sweeping reforestation for such a goal to be reached, even over such an extended timeframe.

In the intervening decades, global temperatures may well have risen past the point of no return.

Ranged against that goal is the relentless demand for autos around the world. The same article points out a chilling statistic: Americans have roughly 900 cars per thousand head of population, yet the current figure is closer to 150 for China and 25 for India — and these rising nations aspire to The American Dream as much as anyone.

However, we should not fall into the same trap as many when looking at global warming; automobiles plays their part, but it is a relatively small part. Transportation — trucks and ships — play a bigger role, and the agricultural industry is even larger. If humans were to switch to a plant-based diet, we would buy ourselves decades to combat climate change.

Even so, for the energy industry, transportation and petrochemicals remain the focus. In an industry that operates on decade-long investment planning, it is no surprise that firms are changing priorities with increasing speed.

Saudi Aramco plans to switch 2 million to 3 million barrels per day to petrochemical production over the next 10 years, and potentially 7 million barrels per day over two decades. This is a staggering amount, The Telegraph observes — Saudi Arabia’s entire oil exports in January were 7.2 million barrels per day.  The Kingdom is also launching a $150 billion dash for lower-polluting natural gas, with plans for production to reach 23 billion cubic feet per day within a decade, equal to 60% of today’s global market for liquefied natural gas.

The following graph, courtesy of The Telegraph, illustrates the motivation for the shift in priorities.

Source: The Telegraph

Rarely has the energy industry been at such a crossroads and never has the oil industry faced such an uncertain future. Even in the febrile market of the early 1970s following what was then deemed an energy crisis did oil companies seriously doubt there would be a need for their product in the decades to come.

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But today there are genuine questions facing planners about what product mix oil companies should optimize for by the middle of this century, let alone what the landscape will look like 10 years from now.

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When is a poor deal a bad deal?

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That may be the question we are asking in a few weeks time after U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s president, Xi Jinping, meet sometime in March at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach resort.

Trump is tweeting a deal is making “substantial progress” and he expects a deal to be concluded face-to-face with Xi sometime in March.

But fears are growing the president’s enthusiasm for a “win” may overshadow the need for a comprehensive and enforceable agreement to a number of issues that have dogged U.S.-China trade relations for years.

Stock markets, oil prices and currencies have all moved positively in response to what is seen as progress to defuse trade tensions. In reality, no details have been given on what has been agreed to or what a final agreement is likely to achieve.

Drawing on a Financial Times analysis, we can identify several key objectives.

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OPEC may not be what it once was, but in concert with non-OPEC countries like Russia the cartel is showing it can still influence prices to its advantage.

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After extensive negotiations behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia and Russia have agreed to reduce output to “manage supply”; that is, to support prices, the fruits of which are only just beginning to become apparent.

So far in February, Saudi Arabia has shipped 6.9 million barrels per day, its lowest level since August 2017 and down from 8.3 million barrels per day in November, the Financial Times reports, resulting in a significant fall in global output and directly supporting a rise in prices.

Source: Financial Times

As the graph notes, circumstances have conspired to aid a general tightening of supplies.

Venezuela has seen its crude exports drop to about 1.1 million barrels per day compared with 1.5 million barrels per day in November, while Iran has seen its exports average 1.2 million barrels per day so far in February (down from 2.5 million barrels per day a year ago due to U.S. sanctions).

But the most dramatic shift has been in Saudi Arabia with the fall in output coming in just a few months since November.

Optimism for rising demand took a fillip this week with apparent progress in U.S.-China trade talks, suggesting a deal may be within reach and pushing Brent crude futures prices to over $67/barrel (their highest since November).

But maybe the surprise is not that prices have risen, but that they haven’t risen further.

Ten years ago, such a curtailment in output coinciding with an optimistic view of future demand would have seen oil powering toward $100/barrel.

The fact that it isn’t is down to U.S. shale.

According to Reuters, quoting EIA data, the U.S. is set to be pumping 13.2 million barrels a day by 2020, making it by far the largest producer in the world. Shale oil and gas have proven the doubters wrong, showing immense resilience in the face of at times low oil prices and poor collection and distribution infrastructure within the U.S.

What started as largely a gas play now meets virtually all the U.S. oil and gas demand, with oil imports from the Middle East dwindling to an average of just 1.5 million barrels a day last year.

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Higher prices will only further fuel investment in U.S. shale. Growth so far has been dramatic despite poor collection and distribution infrastructure, the Financial Times says. However, new pipelines going in to serve the giant Permian field in Texas and New Mexico will fuel further increases in output.

In the face of such relentless growth, global oil prices are not going to rise as far or as fast as they would otherwise do; shale will continue to exert a drag on prices, much to the reassurance of consumers.

Britain has been in paroxysms of concern over the fate of its car industry.

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In January, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), announced it will lay off 4,500 employees as part of a plan to save £2.5 billion ($3.2 billion) in the face of a collapse in the sale of diesel cars (some 90% of JLR’s cars were diesel last year).

Nissan, the largest of the Japanese car builders in the U.K., announced it would not be building its new X Trail model in the U.K., contrary to earlier promises made to secure millions in public support. Honda announced it was planning to cut 800 jobs at its Swindon plant this year.

Then, according to the Economist last week, Ford unveiled the European end of a global effort to cut costs by $14 billion a year, which may see 24,000 of its 200,000 workers laid off.

Such is the political fever in the U.K. at present, and the fault is being laid firmly at the door of Britain’s departure from the European Union (that is, Brexit).

In reality, while the uncertainty created by the U.K. government’s bungled exit negotiations have not helped, all these decisions reflect a wider downturn in the global automotive market.

Back to the Economist piece, citing automakers blaming falling sales and the need to merge operations or share platforms – such as Volkswagen and Ford’s recent tie-up for vans and pick-ups – to counter the threat from automotive electrification.

Yet many of the factors cited, while certainly constituting threats in the medium term – the move to car sharing or ride-hailing services could certainly decimate sales of personally owned cars in the medium term — are still in their infancy in terms of overall numbers and haven’t begun to impact total car demand yet.

Nor has the electric vehicle (EV), said by some to be the death knell of traditional manufacturers of internal combustion powered vehicles, as the likes of Google, Tesla and even rising Chinese EV manufacturers take over.

Source: The Economist

The drop in sales both in Europe, the U.S. and, most importantly, China is real enough — but the reason is much simpler than a change in consumers’ buying preferences.

GDP is slowing, most markedly where the fastest decline in sales has been: China. Consumers are worried by trade wars, slowing growth, fears over the stock market and even talk of recessions.

Rising sales come on the back of confidence and rising living standards; when consumers fear for their economic future, they stop or postpone buying.

That is what is happening in China and we are seeing beginning to happen in Europe, South America and probably later this year in the U.S.

According to The Economist, China, the world’s largest car market, shrank for the first time in over 20 years in 2018. Sales fell by 2.8% to 28.1 million vehicles and slid by 13% in December alone, giving a taste of what may be in store this year.

The U.S. market could be due for a severe shakeup if President Donald Trump’s threat to slap import tariffs on foreign cars comes into effect.

UBS Bank reckons that the worst case — tariffs of 25% — would see the American market shrink by 12% next year.

Further out, there are certainly challenges.

The consulting firm Bain & Company, is quoted by the paper as saying that America’s driving-age population is not growing (a trend mirrored in the rest of the world, the paper says). The firm reckons that the American market, currently at 17 million cars a year, could shrink to 10 million by 2025.

But for now, automakers are struggling to cope with a market that was growing strongly but has now taken a turn for the worse. China was for many Western brands their most profitable market. Not only have overall passenger car sales fallen, but Western automakers have been most heavily hit as the Chinese have reacted to the trade standoff by shunning foreign makes.

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Car sales are not going to rise until confidence and growth picks up — when that may be remains to be seen, but for this year more of the same seems the most likely.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time and the more people you are trying to please the harder it gets.

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When you are the largest and oldest metals exchange in the world and are trying to balance often competing priorities of a very diverse range of stakeholders — not to mention avoid potential litigation for just saying the wrong thing — it is hardly surprising the London Metal Exchange falls out of favor with one group or another from time to time.

Look at the aluminum load out queues some years ago, hated with a passion by consumers, loved by the warehouse operators and the LME in between facing litigation from Rusal over its efforts to find a solution.

Once again, the LME finds itself the object of someone’s ire.

This time it is a range of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Amnesty International and Global Witness, upset with the LME’s plan to enforce standards of responsible sourcing and environmental stewardship on suppliers (or face their brands being banned from LME approval).

To be fair, the NGOs are not upset that the LME is taking the initiative — they are upset that it does not go far enough.

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Two major dam disasters in three years are enough to put the frighteners on investors and get the media abuzz with talk of supply-side shortages.

Yet as small as Vale’s production loss is, the fact remains the market is relatively tight, and supply is becoming an issue again after many years of plenty.

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According to Reuters, the Corrego do Feijao mine shutdown will result in only a 1.5% production loss to Vale, hardly enough in itself to create a surge in the iron ore price to a four-and-a-half-year high of over $100 per ton last week.

The fear appears to be more about what comes next.

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The aluminum price has been fluctuating between around $50/ton above and below a median of $1,900 for several months now.

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There is considerable uncertainty as to where it is going to go in 2019, yet some commentators, such as ING Bank, are predicting prices will hit U.S. $2,250/ton by the end of the year on the back of constrained supply.

Of course, we should define what we mean by constrained supply.

There are two aluminum markets: one in China and the other being the rest of the world. They no longer operate quite in parallel universes as Alcoa’s ex-boss Klaus Kleinfeld once suggested, their intersection being Chinese exports of semi-finished metal – that metal that both exists within the Chinese market and the rest of the world.

How that volume of semi-finished exports varies tells us a lot about the state of the Chinese and global markets.

Although lifted by record November exports, the January-November figure is up 20.2% from a year earlier, to 5.28 million tons. That figure is on track to hit almost twice the total production of the world’s largest producer outside of China: Rusal.

Much of Rusal’s production is primary, of course, and China’s exports are semis. However, semis flooding the Southeast Asian and wider markets depresses or replaces local demand for primary metal, so the comparison remains valid.

China’s exports are often not given the attention they deserve as a dynamic in the global aluminum price.

Despite the primary metal deficit persevering in the world outside China, premiums have weakened, with ING noting European premiums have edged lower for several months now. As a result, inflows of material into LME warehouses have increased — since early December, LME inventories have increased from 1.04 million tons to around 1.3 million tons.

In Asia, premiums have also been weaker.

Japanese spot premiums are trading at around U.S. $77/t, down from over U.S. $90/t in October, with quarterly premiums for 1Q 2019 of U.S. $83-$85/t, compared to U.S. $103/t in the previous quarter.

Meanwhile, cost pressures have eased with fears of disruption from Rusal’s alumina refineries now removed and an expectation that Norsk Hydro’s Alunorte refinery could be back to full production in the first half, reducing supply-side fears.

At the same time, China has moved from being a net importer to a net exporter of alumina. As a result, alumina prices have fallen from levels as high as U.S. $640/t over parts of 2018 to around U.S. $370/t currently. The alumina/aluminium price ratio has also fallen from a peak of 31% in September 2018 to 19% currently.

Even so, according to U.S. producer Alcoa’s advice last week reported by Reuters, at current prices some 30-40% of the world’s smelters are losing money, which explains why supply-side primary metal growth flatlined in the second half of last year. Even Chinese smelters reacted to the low price environment.

Under the circumstances, ING’s $2,250/ton looks optimistic for the year end. As with every prediction this year, that has to come with the caveat that it depends what happens to trade talks, as so much expectation on the direction of global GDP growth appears to depend on that issue.

The longer uncertainty goes on, the more of a drain it will be on investment and the potential for continued positive growth in H2 and next year. For now, the U.S., China, emerging markets and even Europe appear to remain in positive GDP growth mode (although it has to be said, Europe’s numbers are meager).

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Positive demand growth and continued constrained supply suggest a lift in prices this year is in the cards. However, rising Chinese exports remain a worry.

If the domestic market is not absorbing this tonnage and the SHFE price remains depressed due to oversupply then the deflationary impact of those exports is unlikely to simply go away.