Author Archives: Stuart Burns

You can’t accuse the aluminum market of being boring, which is exactly what most consumers don’t want to hear.

As buyers, we like nothing better than a nice steady predictable market. A little bit of price inflation is good if you are a stockist or trader, as it keeps the market turning over and encourages forward buying. But as consumers, most buyers would rather the market be flat and boring, the same next month as this and predictable for six months out. “Can’t think when it was last like that,” you will say.

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The problem is that the most highly traded metal on the LME and the second most highly produced metal after steel is still buffeted by squalls from every quarter. Recently, talk (and let’s remember that so far it is mostly talk) of capacity closures next winter in the greater Beijing hinterland to combat pollution has helped lift the price by encouraging talk of scarcity. Beijing has shown solid intent in this direction, already denying planning approval to 2 million tons of new capacity in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang and clamping down hard on plants elsewhere that it deems to be failing environmental standards.

The next target is said to be smelters in China’s heavily industrialized provinces of Shandong and Inner Mongolia. Of China’s total illegal aluminum capacity (which, according to some sources, is between 3.7 million metric tons and 6.6 million metric tons), the clear majority of it (up to 4.3 million metric tons) is situated in Shandong, Aluminium Insider reports.

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This means that the impact of proposed closures could be profound. While Beijing was being dismissed for environmental posturing just months ago, the market is now taking it at its word. The expectation is that we will be seeing more of the same, with further closures likely during this year. Combined with the potentially more serious closure of alumina refining and carbon anode production capacity removal of even 2-4 million tons out of China’s 31+ million metric tons annual primary smelting capacity would tighten the market, probably pushing it into outright deficit.

At the same time, among a flurry of 100-day directives emanating out of the White House, President Donald Trump is due to sign an executive order this week calling for the Department of Commerce to accelerate the investigation on aluminum imports in the name of national security. The allegation is that damage to the U.S. aluminum industry from imports, particularly overproduction in China driving down global prices, has implications for national security. A positive ruling on this could result in tariffs or other restrictions against the estimated 55% of current US supply that is met by imports.

Both developments could be supportive of higher prices this year. In fact, when you look at the aluminum market, set against a backdrop of solid global growth and continued above GDP growth in the use of aluminum, you must ask where negative price pressures are to come from.

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One could be a more rapid appreciation of the U.S. dollar. A stronger dollar usually has a negative impact on commodity prices, but the market is already factoring in three Fed rate rises this year, and potentially inflationary tax changes proposed by the new administration are at least a year away from implementation. Short-term profit taking aside the only medium-term cap could be a psychological one of $2,000 per ton. But once breached, that becomes a support level for further rises.

It will certainly be an interesting year for aluminum.

10 years ago, the concept of self-driving cars seemed the stuff of science-fiction. Today, self-driving cars are not an uncommon sight in some cities and the U.K. government has just approved their trial operation between London and Oxford in a bid to bring the technology more rapidly to market.

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Companies like Google, Uber, Apple and a host of mainstream automotive giants are all investing hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the technology to reality. Over a few brief years, we as the general public have begun to accept the statistics that self-driving cars are dramatically safer than those is piloted by human beings.

Flying car!

Why don’t we have flying cars yet? They’ve been promised by science fiction for decades. Source: Adobestock/Sergeysan.

As a result, acceptance by both the public and the insurance industry is now almost a given for the probable implementation by the end of this decade. But what of flying cars? A concept equally the stuff of science fiction for 70 years or more that now thanks to the dreams and deep pockets of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs may be becoming a reality sooner than we think.

Uber has announced plans to demonstrate flying vehicles by 2020 in Dubai and in the Dallas Fort Worth area, with full scale operations by 2023 the Financial Times reports. Unlike its efforts in self driving cars where Uber has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the technology in-house for flying cars the ride-hailing service is forming partnerships with established aerospace firms like Brazil’s Embraer, Bell Helicopter; Mooney, a Texas-based light aircraft manufacturer and Aurora flight sciences, a Virginia-based drone maker. Like Uber’s taxi service, the firm sees flying taxis as being initially human piloted but later autonomous as the technology and FAA approval permits. Construction of four landing pads will begin in the Dallas Fort Worth area within the next year the FT reports and as part of the Dubai Road and Transportation Network Study into flying cars, Uber expects to have a demonstration service running there to coincide with the World Expo in 2020. Read more

Gold bears have had quite a ride since the start of this year. The price spiked to $1,286 per ounce last week, a rise of 11% since the end of last year as this chart courtesy of the Financial Times shows.

Gold in 2017

Source: Financial Times

Despite a gradually improving global economic picture, geopolitical tensions have increased in recent months first with Syria and more recently with President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was prepared to take military action in North Korea.

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In Europe, investors looking to protect themselves against the political risk associated with the first round of the French presidential elections where the fear of a shock victory by the far right leader Marine Le Pen was considered a distinct possibility. During this same period, the U.S. dollar has weakened somewhat in value and with gold inversely correlated to the currency, as the dollar falls gold, and other commodity prices, rise.

Well, what a difference a week makes. North Korea has shown itself to be less capable and in the face of a tougher stance from America, less belligerent than during previous bouts of posturing.

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In the French elections, the least bad option, Emmanuel Macron, has emerged victorious from the first round over Marine Le Pen with nearly all observers expecting he will win through in the second round of voting on May 7. Later this week we should hear President Trump’s tax policies which are widely expected to include substantial reductions in personal and corporate tax rates. On the back of solid U.S. and global economic growth, such inflationary fiscal stimulus will only hasten further U.S. Federal Reserve rate increases. Not surprisingly, Goldman Sachs is not alone in predicting further weakness in the gold price, which weakened promptly on the news of the French elections and is targeted by Goldman to fall to $1,200 per ounce this summer. While not a universal truth, Goldman Sachs predictions do tend do have an element of being self-fulfilling simply because so many investors take their advice into consideration when making investment decisions.

Gold Bears

These gold bears haven’t had as big a run as their metals brethren. Source: Haribo

Of course, there remain counter arguments as to why the gold price may yet rise. Trump’s presidential decrees are easier to make than getting legislature onto the statute book. Proclamations this week over the tax reduction will likely meet a more favorable Republican response than there was the case with healthcare but, even so, may be much delayed or watered-down before having any impact on the economy.

Likewise, U.S. growth could slow reducing the impetus for the Fed to deliver on its three expected rate increases this year. The Fed has frequently undershot rate rise expectations over recent years. Finally, our friend in Pyongyang has the ability, and no doubt inclination, to still do something stupid despite pressure being brought to bear to back down by his Chinese bankers. On balance, though, gold bears have probably had as good run this year as they are likely to get and profit-taking is now inevitable for all but long-term holders of the yellow metal.

France’s first round presidential run off may not have matched Britain’s Brexit referendum of last year or the United States of America’s presidential election of Donald Trump in upsetting the pollsters, but it does say a lot about the mind set of French voters all the same.

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Novice centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and Far Right leader Marine Le Pen advanced to the second round presidential run-off on Sunday and in the process achieved a historic wipe out of the two principal political parties that have traded power in France since World War II.

Neither Benoit Hamon of the Socialists, whose popularity had dwindled to single figures under the bungling of outgoing president Francois Hollande, nor the centre-right candidate — Francois Fillon, a former front runner — came close to challenging the two eventual victors. France has clearly had enough of the established order and much like Britain almost exactly 20 years ago cho0sing a young and charismatic Tony Blair,  the new favorite Macron is young, dynamic, charismatic and unquestionably clever. Read more

Think of Indian automotive manufacturing and you may think of a Japanese auto parts hub for the southeast Asia region, like Thailand only less successful. Or, you may think of failed projects like the home grown Tata Nano, but one sector that has been a rip roaring success story is motorcycles.

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According to the Financial Times, more than 16 million motorcycles and scooters were sold in India during the 2016 financial year, far more than in any other country and nearly six times the number of passenger cars sold. For many people, the motorcycle is their first and often only form of motorized transportation.

It’s a motorcycle or nothing. A car is still too much of a financial stretch for millions. So, a strong home market is to be expected but it is the growth of domestic brands and manufacturers that is the most encouraging. Those same manufacturers have been far more successful than their automotive peers in export markets. Indian motorcycle exports in that same 2016 period reached 2.5 million, up from 1.5 million five years before.

Venu Srinivasan, chairman of TVS, a particularly innovative and successful Chennai-based manufacturer, is quoted by the FT as saying “We’re hoping that within the next three years, exports should be 35 to 40% of our sales,” up from 20% today.

Image courtesy of www.bikepanthi.com.

Siddartha Lal — chairman of Eicher Motors, owner of motorbike producer Royal Enfield — has overseen the opening of showrooms in London, Paris and Madrid, hoping to capitalize on the retro appeal of the world’s oldest surviving motorcycle brand. The first Royal Enfield motorcycle was made in the U.K. in 1901, and while production in the U.K. ceased in 1970, it thankfully continued at the company’s Indian joint venture.

Royal Enfield image courtesy of www.motorivista.com.

Royal Enfield’s international ambitions have been fueled by surging sales at home of its relatively expensive (by Indian standards) bikes. The popular Classic 350 retails for about $2,000 (Rs130,000), compared with the even-less-expensive Hero Motocorp Splendor, the Indian market leader. Royal Enfield sold 60,113 motorcycles last month, compared with fewer than 52,000 in the whole of 2009. As the technology used in Royal Enfields improves, particularly the reliability of the electric motorcycles, the iconic brand is appealing to retro buyers in mature markets looking for something different, as much as poorer buyers looking for a rugged if simple motorcycle.

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But the TVS range is appealing to an altogether different buyer. Price is key, but in order to compete with its more sophisticated Japanese competitors, such as Honda Motor Co. and Yamaha, in its home market TVS has invested heavily in product development, outsourcing design to the U.K. and made extensive use of robots on the production line. Even BMW has outsourced production to TVS for motorcycles to be sold under the BMW brand in Europe. That’s confirmation, if any was required, that motorcycles are becoming one of an increasing number of industries in which India is making its mark as a global, not just domestic, player.

Beijing is caught in something of a quandary.

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On the one hand, an admirable, and increasingly important social imperative, the Chinese government’s focus on air pollution, has resulted in a crackdown on a range of polluting industries. Coal-fired power stations around Beijing and other major cities have been closed. Steel capacity has been targeted for cutbacks, although not universally.

Reports suggest rebar production used in construction has been prioritized over other product areas and that’s just one example of selective enforcement. A recent report by Reuters states new aluminum production capacity has been halted. What China fails to meet capacity cutback targets — an issue one suspects would have been “worked around” a year or two back when environmental considerations where less of an imperative?

This crackdown on output comes at the same time as the economy is performing quite well. Official data released last week showed China’s economy grew by a better-than-expected 6.9% comparing the March quarter to the same period in the previous year, Australian Financial Review reports. That is up from 6.8% in the final quarter of 2016. Industrial production was also far better than forecast, growing at 7.6% in March compared to 6.3% in first two months of the year. Read more

The rising trend of aluminum processors seeking protection from Chinese imports may be just the beginning if a recent Reuters article is correct.

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Encouraged by a growing delta between the London Metal Exchange and Shanghai Futures Exchange aluminum price quotations, China’s aluminum makers are expected to step up exports in coming months, aided and abetted by a healthier global manufacturing climate and declining world aluminum stockpiles, the article explains.

Should this prove right, higher exports of semi-manufactured aluminum products would depress prices on both the LME and processors conversion premiums in the rest of the world. That would be bad news for producers, but good news for consumers who have been experiencing rising prices of both the underlying LME and conversion premiums for the last six months.

Chinese exports of semi-finished aluminum products fell last year as both LME and SHFE prices collapsed but production has rebounded more than 20% during the first two months of this year as the rising LME has made exports more profitable for Chinese producers benefiting from a relatively weaker SHFE domestic price. According to Goldman Sachs, the profitability of China’s semis exports has jumped 20% this year, encouraging the surge in exports we have seen in Q1 and portending a further increase in the months ahead.

How long the increase in exports is likely to last, and therefore how persistent the negative impact it will have on prices, remains to be seen. Despite the anticipation of rising exports, many still think the surge could be short-lived. Last month, Beijing ordered aluminum producers in 28 cities to slash output by 30% during winter months to limit coal use and curb pollution. In the mean-time, those producers are pumping out every ton they can adding to domestic availability, inventories and depressing the SHFE price. Come autumn, however, if cutbacks are enforced and the physical market tightens that surplus could turn to deficit and prices could rise. In which case exports will become less attractive and the tap will be turned off.

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This isn’t the first time the global aluminum market will be dancing to China’s tune. Consumers could do well to use a dip in prices this summer to cover forward for what may be a winter in which prices rebound.

One of the toughest calls over the last six months has been guessing which of President Donald Trump’s many campaign pledges would be implemented once his administration came into power, and more to the point if they would live up to the rhetoric on the campaign trail.

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Apart from diehard supporters, most commentators expected pledges to be watered-down when Trump got into power and have since been surprised at the vigor with which he has continued to pursue many of those objectives. Now, vigor is one thing, impact is another. His moves on healthcare were largely blocked by Congress but some other policies may gain greater support and Adam Posen, President of the Peterson Institute for International Economics is quoted in the Telegraph as saying, in the Institute’s estimation, the market is seriously underestimating the consequences of some of his more likely polices. In particular he is concerned about Trump’s fiscal stimulus coinciding with a tightening by the Federal Reserve causing a severe spike in the U.S. dollar.

Whether Pozen is right or wrong only time will tell, but for any business with involvement in imports or exports somewhere in their supply chain a significant strengthening of the U.S. dollar could have a significant impact.

“The Fed is going to be far more aggressive than people think. Our view is that there will be three to four more rate rises this year,” Pozen is quoted as saying.

The institute’s primary concern is about the consequences for emerging market debt of Fed tightening. Pozen said the resulting drain on dollar liquidity from the international financial system would have profound consequences after the surge in dollar-denominated debt over the last decade. Our concern here is more about the other implication of rising U.S. Federal Reserve rates and the impact they would have on the exchange rate.

The promise of rising rates has caused the dollar to spike in the past as markets have anticipated rate rises, but Pozen believes investors have become inured to Fed guidance and are discounting the probability of rate rises this year. Yet the economy continues to grow steadily. Employment is high — the U.S. economy is near full employment, and inflation is picking up. If President Trump comes through on his promises rates rises are inevitable, which brings onto the second issue, radical tax cuts combined with fiscal stimulus would cause U.S. federal borrowing to rise.

Quoting from the article, Posen believes there is enough Republican support for corporate tax rate to fall from 35% to 25%, along with income tax cuts for the wealthy and the middle class, and more generous tax deductions for business. Such a policy at this late stage of the business cycle will cause the economy to overheat, forcing the Fed to jam on the monetary brakes, which would send the dollar through roof. The institute suggests this could result in a 15% spike in the dollar hitting exports and undermining domestic manufacturers at the mercy of import substitution.

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There is the possibility that Pozen has this all wrong. It’s not a forgone conclusion that President Trump will achieve his tax cuts, although an increasingly hawkish Fed is already in evidence. But at the very least, the situation deserves monitoring with the awareness that such a combination could have a very detrimental impact on the dollar and potentially for firms trading internationally. Posen is a former rate-setter on Britain’s Monetary Policy Committee, and is known for his work with former Fed chief Ben Bernanke on Japan’s Lost Decade and inflation targeting, he has sufficient experience and credentials to make his warnings worth listening to.

The signals the U.S. is sending in the steel sector really worry Germany, so said Brigitte Zypries, German Economy Minister, according to Reuters in a recent article.

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This isn’t the first time the European Union has had a trade spat with the U.S. over steel but it is unusual for one party or the other to take the case to the World Trade Organization, claiming “accounting tricks” and “protectionism” designed to give domestic producers an “unfair competitive advantage.”

The E.U.’s position is this issue should have been addressed through bilateral negotiations giving them the opportunity to show Germany, French and Austrian steel producers are not dumping steel and are not being subsidized, but President Trump signed executive orders last Friday aimed at identifying abuses causing the huge U.S. trade deficit, and Germany is deemed one of the worst culprits.

Port Talbot steel plant

British Steel and its Port Talbot plant could be the next company in line for carbon and alloy steel plate tariffs from the U.S. Source: Adobe Stock/Petert2

However, by issuing a final finding that European and Asian producers dumped certain carbon and alloy steel cut-to-length plate in the U.S. market, the Department of Commerce says it is allowed to impose duties ranging from 3.62 to 148%, but the E.U. claims the decision has been determined on the basis of dodgy accounting estimates and the correct place to discuss them is at the negotiating table or via the WTO, not by applying duties which will then take months to address and impact trade for a year or more, essentially shutting European mills out of the U.S. market. Read more

A recent Financial Times article lays the blame for falling iron ore prices in China firmly at the door of Australia’s Department of Industry Innovation and Science, whose latest quarterly report predicted average prices in China would fall to $65 per metric ton this year before ultimately declining further to $51 per mt.

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The FT quoted the department’s report saying prices would be weighed down by the combined impact of ongoing growth in low-cost supply and soft demand.

Source: Financial Times

While we don’t doubt that investors will have taken notice of the department’s report, the fact is analysts have been calling for a fall in the iron ore price for months now. Indeed, the rising tide of supply has been expected to weigh on prices for much of the last six months, such that continued price resilience and robust demand have caught some by surprise. Read more