Prices fell sharply in December, bringing a great opportunity for buyers to purchase metal near support levels. A tightening market and recent weakness in the dollar pushed the metal higher in January.
Lead refined production vs. usage. Source: Metalminer analysis of ILZSG data.
The latest International Lead and Zinc Study Group data showed a tighter supply/demand situation. The lead metal supply exceeded demand by only 16,000 metric tons during the first 11 months of 2016.
In addition, global lead mine production fell 7.5% over the first 11 months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. As mine output falls at a faster pace than refined output, this should eventually lead to a depletion of concentrate stocks. Meanwhile, strong U.S. and Chinese auto sales in December bode well for lead’s demand.
When To Buy Lead
The lead supply/demand demand picture is not as bullish as zinc’s. However, lead’s production is falling and, in the context of a bull market in the industrial metals complex, we can expect prices to at least remain supported above $2,000.
China has issued its first batch of crude oil import quotas for non-state companies at 68.81 million metric tons, or 1.38 million barrels per day (bpd), four refining sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
29 Companies received quotas, including independent refiners and trading companies, the sources said, citing an official document.
Architecture Billings End Year Strong
The Architecture Billings Index (ABI) concluded the year positive, with the December reading capping off three straight months of growth in design billings. As an economic indicator of construction activity, the ABI reflects an approximate nine- to 12-month lead time between architecture billings and construction spending.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported the December ABI score was 55.9, up sharply from 50.6 in the previous month. This score reflects the largest increase in design services in 2016 (any score above 50 indicates an increase in billings).
In an about face on Indonesia’s 2014 export ban across a range of minerals, Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Ignasius Jonan said this week that local miners might be allowed to export up to 5.2 million tons of low-grade nickel ore a year, partially reversing the ban intended to force buyers to set up value-add refining facilities in Indonesia.
The export ban has been relatively successful. Export volumes, of course, plummeted from about 60 million metric tons before the 2014 ban was enforced but new refineries have been set up and refined volumes of value-add material have increased. Read more
After a recovery late last year, the oil market seems to have settled with a price around $55 a barrel… at least for now. That level is not likely to dissuade consumption but most Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members seem to feel it justifies their oil output cut agreed to late last year.
A few producers, such as Venezuela, that are running massive budget deficits have targeted $70 or more, but most analysts would agree that if oil can hang onto recent price gains for the next six months it will be doing well. Read more
Indonesia issued significant new mining rules last Thursday that will relax its ban on exports of nickel ore. Over the weekend, I went to check analysts’ opinions on this new development. Not surprisingly, almost everyone thinks this is bearish news for nickel prices.
I am often a contrarian and this time, of course, I have a different opinion. I think the outcome of this revision is bullish for prices. What’s more, I think this is a great opportunity to buy nickel since prices might trade above today’s levels for the rest of the year.
Indonesian Nickel Ban
Before we get to analyze the price impact of the new rules, let’s quickly review what the ban was about in the first place:
Indonesia imposed an export ban for unprocessed material — essentially raw ore — back in 2014. A year before the ban kicked in, Indonesia exported around 60 million metric tons of nickel ore. Nickel ore contains an average of 1 to 3.5% of nickel. Indonesia banned exports to encourage downstream investment as this would eventually be better for the country, as it would generate more revenue as the material is processed domestically and it would build a local processing industry. Read more
Global aluminum demand is more robust than most expected. Chinese stimulus measures boosted demand for aluminum in the auto and real estate industries. In addition, the U.S. is expected to demand more aluminum amid Donald Trump’s plans to inject one trillion dollars in U.S. infrastructure.
Strong demand is supportive for aluminum prices this year. However, in this piece we are going to focus on the supply side. We believe three factors are going to disrupt global aluminum supply. As a result, we’ll see higher aluminum prices this year:
Graphic: Raul de Frutos, MetalMiner.
Last week, U.S. customs officials seized $25 million worth of aluminum linked to a Chinese billionaire accused of stockpiling the metal across the world. The move is the most potent action yet by federal authorities probing whether U.S. companies connected to Chinese magnate Liu Zhongtian illegally avoided nearly 400% tariffs by routing the metal through other countries. Currently, Homeland Security is conducting laboratory tests on the aluminum to determine whether the metal is restricted under U.S. law. Read more
Ore production jumped 22% between April and October, according to figures released by the government. Iron ore production stood at 100 million metric tons during the resurgence, against 81 mmt during the same April to October period a year ago. What’s brought even more cheer is the news that exports, too, jumped 9 times their previous level, to 9 mmt from last April to September, as compared to 1 mmt, the same period last year.
With a steep price hike in global markets aided by protectionist measures for the domestic steel industry, will India see a resurgence in iron ore exports? Not so fast.
India has plentiful iron ore stockpiled but taxes are holding up exports. Source: Adobe Stock/nikitos77.
The protectionist measures imposed by India’s government previously included an export duty tax of 30% on high-grade iron ore. Many within the mining sector are of the opinion that the export tax must go, or at the very least be reduced, to boost exports. Read more
By anyone’s reckoning, iron ore and coking coal had a stellar year in 2016. Driven by infrastructure investment and a robust construction market, Chinese imports of our iron ore could top 1 billion metric tons for the first time in 2016. Prices more than doubled in the space of 12 months and the supply-demand situation seemed to be largely in balance for much of the year.
After topping $80 per mt in early December, prices eased back a little toward the end of the year prompting many to ask “have we seen the peak in iron ore prices?” Mills typically cut output during the quieter winter months when construction demand slows. Many steel mills have already curbed output due to chronic smog alerts across northern China.
Seasonally, it would not be unusual if iron ore prices remained subdued up to the Chinese New Year and then picked up in preparation for the peak production months of late spring and summer. But, while Chinese demand defied many expectations of a slowdown in 2016, the recent softening of both iron ore and coking coal raw material prices, and the price of some finished steel products over the last week or 10 days, has lent support to some analysts’ predictions that we could be seeing markedly lower Iron ore prices throughout this year and next. Read more
At the beginning of the year, it’s always fun to look forward and pick out some of the themes for the year. 2016 was certainly volatile as hot-rolled coil pricing went from $360 a ton to $600/ton, then back to the low $400s/ton before recovering to $600/ton. Phew! Read more
Our Raw Steels MMI fell by two points, dragged down by a sharp drop in coking coal prices. Chinese coking coal prices have been quite volatile over the past few months. But despite the recent decline, prices are still well above last year’s levels.
On the bullish side, we saw a big increase in steel flat product prices, both domestically and internationally.
Hot-rolled coil and cold-rolled coil prices in the U.S. have risen 13% and 17% respectively since they hit bottom in mid-November.
Additionally, steel prices in China continued to climb in December. We already noted, that one of the reasons to expect higher steel prices in the U.S. was rising Chinese prices. Prices in China set the floor for international prices and the spread between U.S. and international steel prices has narrowed so much in some steel product categories, like HRC, that there isn’t much incentive for domestic steel buyers to look for import offers.
While prices in China have risen, Chinese steel exports have fallen, suggesting that the country is absorbing more steel. In November, Chinese steel exports fell 16% compared to last year. For the first eleven months, exports are down 1% compared to the corresponding period in 2015.
The real estate sector is among the world’s largest steel consumers. Total investment in real estate in China during the first eleven months of 2016 rose 6.5% compared to the same period of last year. China’s passenger car sales rose 17.2% compared to the same month last year and it’s the seventh consecutive month were car sales rise in the double digits.
China’s Steel Supply to Fall In 2017
While China’s better-than-expected demand was a key driver to higher steel prices in 2016, we believe that China’s supply might be the key to higher steel prices in 2017.
For years, Chinese cities have been choking on the smog spewing from China’s industrial production sector, but things have gotten much worse lately. In December, authorities asked 23 cities in northern China to issue red alerts as inspection teams scoured the country. The scale of the red alert measures shows that the Chinese government is taking air pollution seriously this time.
China’s energy consumption is mostly driven by its industry sector, the majority of which comes from coal consumption. Coal burning is the biggest contributor to air pollution in China. One of the principal users of coal, and therefore most polluting, is its steel industry.
China has previously applied stricter anti-pollution rules and supply-side reforms designed to cut capacity in the coal and steel sectors, which helped push prices up. Now that the situation is getting unbearable for citizens, China has no choice but to get tough in its self-declared “war on pollution.” The result is that we could see significant supply disruptions in China’s metal production sector, particularly in steel.
What This Means For Metal Buyers
The expected boost in infrastructure spending in US will help support steel prices. However, the main driver to steel prices continues to be China. In 2017, steels buyers need to monitor if China is able to spur demand growth rates and whether its steel supply falls amid pollution issues.
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