Market Analysis

Most aluminum consumers seem quite content with the range-bound behavior of the light metal over recent months.

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Aluminum on the London Metal Exchange has been trading broadly between $1,700 and $1,750 per metric ton for much of the fourth quarter. Maybe not to the same extent as copper or zinc, but aluminum along with most of the base-metal sector benefited from renewed investor interest as 2016 went on. Although net long positions have been trimmed back following some recent significant deliveries into LME warehouses, the consensus remains positive regarding prices for 2017. Read more

The price you pay for your steel pretty much depends on two things:

  1. Prices in China, since they set the floor for international steel prices.
  2. How much of a premium U.S. mills are able to justify over that price.

 

Graphic: Raul de Frutos/MetalMiner.

Prices in China are moved by supply and demand dynamics. We’ve explained in previous posts that overall, things are setting up for Chinese prices to continue to trend higher. While demand has been better than expected, China met its 2016 capacity cuts goal and further cuts are expected to take place this year as the country tackles its pollution issues.

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However, in this post we’ll focus on the premium that U.S. customers pay. This price spread between U.S. and international prices is also very important and could make your purchases more expensive in the coming months.

Spread HRC US – HRC China. Source: MetalMiner IndX.

Spreads have fallen sharply over the past few months. The spread between U.S. and Chinese hot-rolled coil (HRC) prices is now $97/ton. To put this in context, consider that this spread was $276/ton just seven months ago. Read more

Average grain-oriented electrical steel surcharges fell for the third year in a row. 2016 average surcharges took the biggest hit because Allegheny Technologies stopped production of GOES. AK Steel did not implement a surcharge until July 2016.

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Our own GOES M3 MMI showed only small price movements from month to month. The index hit a low of 181 back in July and today shows a modest recovery to 192, a 5% gain.

GOES follows its own fundamentals (e.g. supply and demand) and does not always follow the price arc of other more common forms of steel such as cold-rolled coil or hot-rolled coil. In fact, some of the wider trade dynamics for those forms of steel had little to no impact on GOES.

Which brings us to a larger issue. Will President-elect Trump, who is arguably pro-steel and who has gone on record against China’s trade practices, implement any policies that will likely impact GOES markets?

To begin, the nature of trade between the two countries, the U.S. and China, appears more complicated than what can be seen by the naked eye. Raw material/commodity-like supply chains lack the complexities of supply chains found in industries such as electronics. Blanket tariffs are easy to issue and calculate for commodities that move from point A to point B. But electronics industry supply chains involve components, parts, sub-assemblies, final assembly, etc. across multiple countries and locations. A blanket tariff on electronics will harm China much more than other countries as the tariff would apply to the “final point of assembly.” This could create all sorts of electronics shortages and problems here in the U.S.

Why Are We Discussing Electronics Supply Chains?

Because it would be easier to get tougher on China for commodities such as steel. And though China has curbed excess capacity in recent years, we could see a scenario in which tough trade policies such as a tariffs could significantly limit Chinese imports, which currently make up about 10% of domestic steel demand according to a recent analysis by Stratfor.

China will retaliate but a scenario exists that China could account for far less steel imports into the U.S. than it currently does (China has cut excess capacity already). In terms of grain oriented electrical steel, however, China does not represent the bulk of GOES imports into the U.S., in fact, Japan, Russia and the U.K. are far bigger GOES exporters to the U.S.

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Therefore, any President Trump trade policy that goes into effect (no pun intended) will likely have a bigger impact on the broader steel markets and a far less significant impact on the U.S. GOES market.

Next month, we will examine the potential impact of NAFTA changes on GOES markets.

Grain-Oriented Electrical Steel M3 retook last month’s loss rising by more than 3%.

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What will 2017 bring for the steel industry?

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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 Stainless MMI fell by two points in December after a mixed performance.

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On the one side, surcharges for 304 and 316 stainless steel rose by 34% and 25% respectively, as the chrome portion of the benchmark jumped month-on-month. The mill-announced price increase, combined with higher surcharges, marks the largest month-on-month increase seen in recent history.

On the other hand, nickel prices retraced in December on profit-taking across the industrial metals complex. Nickel prices are now at attractive levels wherein we could see investors pushing prices back up. That will depend on upcoming news that will either boost them or send prices lower. One thing is for sure: volatility is guaranteed in the weeks ahead.

Will Indonesia Relax its Export Ban?

Indonesia banned raw ore exports in 2014 to stop mineral wealth disappearing overseas. The country was the top supplier of nickel ore to China for use in (nickel pig-iron) stainless steel before the export ban. Indonesia hoped that the band would encourage smelter investment, but investments haven’t exactly progressed as quickly as expected.

In recent months, rumors are that the Indonesian government is relaxing its export ban. In October, Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s then-acting mining minister, said that Indonesia was reviewing its mining rules and that the country could could give companies up to five more years to build smelters, and reopen exports of nickel ore banned since 2014. However, soon after he was quoted saying Indonesia would “almost definitely” keep in place a ban on nickel ore and bauxite exports. Which is it?

Many smelters were hoping that they could temporarily export ore to raise funds for downstream investment. Nobody knows what Indonesian’s final decision will be, but the consensus in the market now seems to be shifting towards Indonesia permitting some exports. This fear might explain why nickel prices haven’t really picked up like metals such as zinc or tin.

Others think that there won’t be any relaxation of exports of nickel ore and bauxite. Investors have already spent billions of dollars on smelters in Indonesia. Easing the ban would risk risk flooding the overseas market and undermining prices. Those investors wouldn’t be very happy about that, as it would contradict promises by the nation’s president.

I personally think it would be an unwise move to ease the ban but any outcome is still possible. Stainless buyers need to keep in mind that a relaxation of the ban could put downward pressure on nickel prices while Indonesia keeping the ban in place would have the opposite effect.

Filipino supply

When Indonesia introduced the ban in 2014, the Philippines ramped up production to fill the gap, but the country’s mining industry is now facing a raft of closures for environmental reasons. The Philippines and the still relatively new Duterte administration have already halted the operation of 10 mines and another 20 face suspension.

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Before the month ends, the country is expected to determine which of these 20 mines will be suspended. Last month, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez was confident that more mines will be suspended.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Nickel prices fell in December but remember that the overall sentiment in the metals complex is still bullish. If Indonesia keeps its export ban in place and The Philippines suspend more mines, investors will significantly lift prices from current levels.

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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.

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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.

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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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Copper prices retraced in December. After the huge price run in November we were expecting to see some profit taking as prices need to digest gains.

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So far, the decline has been limited, with prices holding above $5,500/mt. Although copper has lost some of its post-election gains, it still managed to end 2016 with decent yearly gains, suggesting that sellers are not totally in control.

Copper’s Bullish Narrative

One of the key factors supporting copper prices is the earlier-than-expected supply deficit. While most analysts were previously projecting the copper markets to move into deficit by the end of the decade, many of them are now expecting a deficit as early as this year.

Another factor supporting copper prices is higher energy prices. Oil prices, the main benchmark for energy prices, regained the $50/barrel level in December. Saudi Arabia said it could be ready to cut output more than originally agreed upon at the latest Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting. Non-OPEC countries, including Russia, also agreed to an output cut north of 500,000 barrels a day. Energy is key in the metals industry. For copper, energy can form almost 20% of the production costs.

President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed infrastructure investments are also positive for copper prices. However, in our view, the key demand driver continues to be China, by far the largest consumer of the red metal. China’s Caixin manufacturing purchasing managers’ index rose to 51.9 in December from 50.9 in November and beat market expectations. That figure marked the sixth straight month of growth and the strongest upturn in Chinese manufacturing conditions since January 2013.

What Could Add Pressure to Copper Prices

The better-than-expected demand from China explains the ongoing strength in industrial metal prices. However, there are concerns that the country’s demand growth rates could slow next year. The real estate and automotive sectors are the engine propelling this rapid growth. If the demand growth from these sectors slows, this could have strong repercussions on China’s demand for industrial metals.

Another factor to watch is the ongoing strength of the U.S. dollar. Copper is no different than other commodities that have a negative correlation to the dollar. Further appreciation of the dollar could negatively impact copper prices. Higher interest rates in the U.S. are among the factors contributing to a stronger dollar. In December, The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a quarter point, as expected, but policymakers signaled a likelihood of three increases in 2017, up from prior expectations of two moves.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The recent price decline in copper prices wasn’t that dramatic. So far, it seems like the bulls are still in control. A strong dollar and a possible slowdown in Chinese demand are factors that could bring prices down. Up until now, China’s demand looks strong and the dollar hasn’t had a big impact on metal prices. Therefore, we need actual reasons to turn bearish on copper.

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It looks as if European Union tariffs on Chinese solar materials will last a little longer.

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In a presentation of the preliminary results of its anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigation into the import of Chinese solar modules and photovoltaic cells into the E.U., the European Commission has proposed an extension of the current tariffs on Chinese solar panel raw materials for two more years once the current tariffs expire in March.

Based on confidential documents Reuters reviewed, the Commission said ending the measures would likely lead to a continuation of Chinese subsidies for the solar sector and a significant increase in dumped imports of solar cells and modules.

So, no lucrative European markets without tariffs for China, but some in the European solar industry are also blanching at a continuing lack of competition for solar projects.

SolarPower Europe president Oliver Schaefer told PV Magazine that the Commission’s recommendation to maintain the trade measures for another two years is the wrong decision, stressing that the organization will look to E.U. member nations to redress some of what it calls the “inaccuracies reported.”

“Opening ex-officio interim reviews on the minimum import price mechanism is simply tinkering at the edges of a profound issue of European-wide importance,” Schaefer said.

European manufacturers of the panels, however, were all for continuing the tariffs. EU ProSun, a manufacturers’ group that includes Germany’s SolarWorld said there is no shortage of competitively priced cells and modules in Europe and that the depressed E.U. market was due to political decisions, such as to reduce payments for green energy, not the import measures.

The EC report, itself, said turning back the tariff measures would only have a limited effect on demand and that comparisons between the 50,000 people working in importing and installation and the 5,000 to 10,000 in manufacturing were not appropriate. Job gains in the former could be outweighed by losses in the latter, the report stated.

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Demand for solar panels in Europe is certainly stronger than North America right now, but both industries still rely heavily on government subsidies and prices, as a result, have stabilized at the low level we’ve observed for over three years now. The Renewables MMI was up one point this month.

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As any good rare earths buyer knows, China produces more than 85% of the global supply of rare earths and the country is also the largest consumer.

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What if China was to become a net rare earths importer? A recent report by Adamas Intelligence, a rare metal research firm says that China will, eventually, become just that.

The report reiterates how substitution and replacement have hurt demand over the last six years. It says 30,000 metric tons of annual rare earth oxide demand were lost due end-users’ growing concerns over supply security. On top of that more than 20,000 mt were lost as a result of the ongoing phase out of mature technologies such as fluorescent lamps, some nickel-based batteries, and hard disk drives used in PCs.

This isn’t news to anyone following our Rare Earths MMI. It’s been flat for the last three years and has remained steady at 17 for the seventh straight month.

However, they will eventually recover. According to Adamas, following a lengthy and painful adjustment, the rare earths market will return to strong global demand growth for a number of rare earth elements including neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, and lanthanum by 2020. The resulting rise in price will help “sustain the profitability and growth of today’s dominant producers, and incentivize continued investment in exploration and resource development globally”

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Rare earths demand will boom from 2020 onwards as growth rates of top end-use categories such as electric vehicles, wind turbines and other high-tech applications accelerate. One of Adamas’ key takeaways is that as China’s insatiable demand for rare earth elements continues to grow over the next decade, China’s domestic production will struggle to keep up in all scenarios, leading the nation to become a net importer of certain rare earths at the expense of the rest of the world’s supply security. In fact, by 2025 China’s domestic demand for neodymium oxide for permanent magnets alone, Adamas believes, will be poised to exceed total global production of neodymium oxide by 9,000 mt.

So, even if the market looks essentially flat for the next nine years, the promise of renewed rare earths demand is still there.

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MetalMiner’s index of global precious metals prices dropped yet again this month, falling 3.8% for a January 2017 reading of 76, down from 79 in December.

Key Precious Metal Movers

The U.S. palladium price got a bit too frothy last month, resulting in a December MMI reading of $768 — which was good enough for an 18-month high.

However, for the January MMI reading, that price experienced a pullback, dipping back down under $700 per ounce (although not quite reaching November’s levels).

So a correction in that price point’s journey is evident. The U.S. platinum bar price also had a slight drop-off, as did silver and gold prices across global markets tracked by the MetalMiner IndX.

What’s Happened Since October?

Short answer: a ton.

Trump. Cubs. Brexit. Syria. Refugee crises. Panama Papers. Pokemon Go. (We could keep going…)

But a few of those had a lot to do with what’s happening across precious metals markets right now — especially gold.

Gold in Focus

What’s causing gold prices to fall dramatically? The U.S. dollar.

Gold (in dark) vs the dollar index (in green)

Gold (in dark) vs the dollar index (in green). Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com.

Since mid-August the dollar started a bull run that is still in play. Three main factors are propelling the dollar’s bull run, according to MetalMiner’s Raul de Frutos:

Markets expected the Federal Reserve to raise rates by the end of the year. In December the Fed raised interest rates by a quarter point, as expected, but policymakers signaled a likelihood of three increases in 2017, up from prior expectations for two moves. While interest rates outside the U.S. stay near zero or even in negative territory, it’s no wonder yield-seeking investors are going after the greenback.

The ongoing political tensions in Europe are causing the dollar to appreciate against the euro. The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, Brexit, terrorist attacks and political instability are some of the events causing investors to lose their appetite for the European currency this year.

Finally, the victory of Donald Trump has added fuel to the dollar’s bull market. The new president-elect has proposed new tax policies that will potentially make multinational companies bring their foreign profits back to U.S., increasing the demand for dollars. In addition, the dollar is perceived as a stronger currency since investors expect growth in US to get a boost.

Essentially, what we wrote last month is still holding true, and it’s hard to see a reversal in the near term.

Exact Precious Metals Prices, Movements:

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