Market Analysis

Bizarrely, although zinc prices have soared this year on the back of demand for galvanized steel for construction, further strength this week may have been heightened by a loss of investor appetite for those same steel products.

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Following booming steel prices this year, the Shanghai exchange increased trading charges last week in an effort to curb speculative activity. Steel prices have consequently slumped by 3.5% as investors got out of steel and into steelmaking raw materials with lower transaction charges, such as zinc.

Surging Shanghai zinc prices have in turn encouraged a rise in the London Metal Exchange price, hitting a peak of $2,994 per metric ton — not seen since October 2007, Reuters reports.

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Unlike the steel mergers of the mid-noughties, the mergers currently in the news are born out of weakness, not strength, a recent Financial Times article suggests.

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According to the piece, profitability among the continent’s steelmakers plunged from a peak in the third quarter of 2008 — when each ton shipped delivered on average €215 in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization — to just €46/tonne in the first quarter of 2016, according to calculations by UBS.

The figure has recovered since to about €83/tonne in the first quarter of 2017, but at the cost of 86,000 job losses since the financial crisis and years of losses contributing to the bankruptcy of the continent’s largest steel production plant, Ilva, in Italy.

Source Financial Times

Despite years of suboptimal capacity utilization, there has been limited rationalization of production continentwide, with governments fiercly opposing job losses in their backyard and steelmakers hoping the other guy will make the cuts. Even Ilva is now being taken over by ArcelorMittal rather than closing completely, and following a major investment will be back in production next year.

Source Financial Times

Although the industry acknowledges Europe will never need as much steel as it once did, ArcelorMittal is quoted as saying the industry is looking to governments to do more to stem imports from Russia and China, and facilitate the planned and phased closure of persistently loss-making plants. Less foreign competition and more consolidation is the agenda in the hope fewer more-consolidated steelmakers can achieve greater clout with buyers in a more constrained market, forcing through higher prices.

Source Financial Times

When ArcelorMittal’s takeover of Ilva is complete, the combined entity will control some 30% of European flat-rolled steel production, up from 26.5% for ArcelorMittal now. While Tata Steel’s proposed and much-delayed merger with ThyssenKrupp’s steel division — currently Europe’s second-largest steel producer — would raise their combined market share for hot-rolled flat products to over 20%.

Steel prices are already up nearly 60% from the bottom in 2015 on the back of improved recovery in steel demand and a gradual increase in anti-dumping legislation restricting some types of steel imports into Europe. Producers would like to see this go a lot further, of course, but consumers are fighting to keep the import market open, fearing — with some justification — that more action will reduce competition and result in significantly higher prices.

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For the first time in years, steelmakers at least seem to have a plan and are actively pursuing it. Whether that plan is to the eventual benefit or detriment of consumers remains to be seen — but a healthier domestic steel industry must certainly be advantageous to all.

AdobeStock/Stephen Coburn

Two articles in the Financial Times this week give polar opposite views on the direction for oil prices next year.

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The first is a report on bets taken by the highly successful hedge fund manager Pierre Andurand on the direction for prices. Andurand is predicting prices will rise above $100 per barrel by 2020 as demand growth exceeds the ability of the U.S. shale industry to meet demand at current prices.

The article quite reasonably points out investment in the oil industry has fallen dramatically as prices have declined, saying on average 40 new developments were approved annually between 2007 and 2013 by the oil majors. That number fell to just 12 last year, as the low oil price left only the most simple and straightforward projects viable.

Furthermore, Andurand believes the U.S. shale industry will find it increasingly difficult to justify new investment if prices remain at current levels — as new fields will become more expensive to develop and maintain, the industry is surviving on the low-hanging fruit at present.

The second article reports on the International Energy Agency (IEA) announcements last week that, despite robust consumption, the current level of cuts is failing to curtail commercial inventories fast enough and still stand at some 3 billion barrels.

Noncompliance from some oil producers exempted from the supply cuts agreement and widespread cheating by others have failed to deliver the level of constraint needed to counter rising U.S. shale output.

Impacts of Oil Price Fluctuations on Metal Prices

True, oil prices have rallied some 8% since July as stockpiles have eased and reports of global demand rising have encouraged the market — but here is why this is relevant for more than just the cost of a tank of gas.

Oil prices are one of the key drivers, along with GDP and the strength of the U.S. dollar, in determining metal prices. A continued weak oil price would help constrain rises in metal prices next year, at a time when stock markets show no sign of falling and the U.S. dollar has remained persistently weak this year. Metal prices are on a rise this month and many consumers fear we are in for a period of sustained price increases through the end of this year.

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Let’s hope the IEA’s more pessimistic forecast is closer to the truth than Andurand’s bullish bets.

The lead price grew this week following a Chinese-issued ban on North Korean exports.

According to a report from Reuters, lead’s sister metals also rebounded, in response to once-rising geopolitical tension easing up a bit and Chinese data, a top metals consumer, coming in higher than expected.

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“Those Chinese numbers (on Monday) were quite soft … I suppose the only glimmer of light came in the new yuan loans, which beat consensus, and maybe that suggests that things will remain stable as we go forwards,” Robin Bhar, head of metals research at Societe Generale in London, told Reuters.

“The metals seem well poised. After a period of consolidation this week perhaps we’ll have another push towards those (recent) highs going forward,” Bhar added.

Lead Price Movement in August

Earlier this month, our own Fouad Egbaria reported that Chinese primary lead posted a price increase, growing 3.3% to $2,694.90/metric ton.

How will lead and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth lead price forecast and outlook in our brand-new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report.

For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:

The demise of the iron ore price has been repeatedly predicted but has failed to materialize over the last few months. Miners line up to announce strong sales and yet repeatedly voice notes of caution that excess supply could overwhelm the recovery.

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Yet the market continues to be confounded by not just a rising iron ore price, but continued strength in Chinese steel prices and a wider strength in metals prices.

Several factors are feeding this robust performance and it will take a reversal of one or more factors to spark a change in direction of metal prices.

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Our August MMI report is in the books, and it paints a positive picture for a wide range of metals.

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In our June MMI, four sub-indexes posted no movement. The July MMI? Only one stood pat.

Our August MMI, meanwhile, painted a different picture.

Nine of the 10 sub-indexes posted positive movement, with the remaining sub-index (GOES) dropping.

It was a strong month for the Renewables MMI, which grew 6.9% to hit 77. The Raw Steel MMI rose 5.6% to hit 75.

As Irene Martinez Canorea wrote Friday, there’s a bullish outlook behind metals like aluminum, copper and zinc these days. Can they continue that momentum throughout the rest of the calendar year? That remains to be seen, but they’ve certainly been on an uptrend.

Speaking of aluminum, the U.S. Department of Commerce last week made a preliminary determination in a countervailing duty investigation of Chinese aluminum foil, declaring that the products are unfairly benefiting from Chinese government subsidies. The decision was met with applause from the U.S. aluminum industry, particularly the Aluminum Association.

“The association and its foil-producing members are very pleased with the Commerce Department’s finding and we greatly appreciate Secretary Ross’s leadership in enforcing U.S. trade laws to combat unfair practices,” said Heidi Brock, President and CEO of the Aluminum Association, in a prepared statement.

What could come of the investigation? Duties as high as 81% could be slapped on Chinese aluminum foil.

In other investigations, the Department of Commerce’s Section 232 investigations of steel and aluminum imports remain pending. The investigations don’t appear to be at the forefront of the Trump administration’s agenda right now. Furthermore, the deadlines for Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to present President Donald Trump with policy recommendations don’t hit until January.

Of course, things can change quickly — but, for now, a final ruling on trade policy regarding steel and aluminum imports possibly won’t materialize for a while.

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You can read about all of the above and much more in our August MMI report, which you can download below.

The bullish trend has become even stronger.

Copper and zinc prices have joined the bullish trend led by aluminum in the latest rally, which started at the beginning of August.

This new uptrend in these three metals is accompanied by heavy buying volume — signaling a a bull market.

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As suggested in our article published Tuesday, aluminum prices have outperformed and broke out from their sideways trend.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

Copper prices have decided to join in on the fun, and are also trending up again.

After the breathtaking rise that copper prices demonstrated at the end of July, prices are up again. A bullish sentiment has returned for copper.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

Zinc prices have also hit their highest levels recorded since 2007, according to FastMarkets historical data, and point to a possible continuing uptrend. A rally in zinc prices occurred just after the sharp increase in aluminum prices. Buying trading volumes remain heavy, therefore the uptrend is underpinned by strong buying sentiment.

Overall Outlook

Although MetalMiner considers a variety of variables, indexes and data to analyze market sentiment, the most important variable is how metal prices behave.

Commodities have re-started a short-term uptrend after they lost steam at the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, industrial metals have moved from bullish (to nearly sideways/top, as we had even considered switching our industrial metal outlook to bearish but did not) to absolutely bullish again (mainly caused by these three metals rallies). The U.S. dollar has fallen relentlessly since the beginning of the year.

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What This means for Buying Organizations

Buying organizations should watch metal prices closely to determine the best strategy to commit long- and short-term purchases.

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A once abandoned U.K. mine with a rich tin mining history may get another shot at resurrection thanks to a Canadian company.

The South Crofty tin mine in Cornwall has been shut down for nearly two decades, but Canada-based Strongbow Exploration is well on its way to reopening the mine still rich in tin.

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According to a report from The Telegraph, the South Crofty mine didn’t shut down because its tin bounty depleted — in fact, it shut down because of falling tin prices.

The news source states that if all things go according to plan, the mine could be reopened by 2020. The hope is that the continual recovery of tin prices will buoy the mine’s resurgence.

“It’s going to be a modern mine in the location of an old mine,” Richard Williams, Strongbow Exploration’s chief executive officer, told The Telegraph.

Once operational, the mine could employ as many as 300 individuals, not counting suppliers.

“We know there’s a resource there, we can identify it with new technology and make the project economic,” Peter Wale, its director, told the The Telegraph.

Once it opens again, the South Crofty mine will be one of just several functioning mines in the U.K., joining Wolf Minerals and ICL, the news source stated.

Tin Price Movement in 2017

How will tin and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth tin price forecast and outlook in our brand-new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report.

For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:

Gold prices rallied during the first three months of 2017 on the heels of the presidential election and a weaker U.S. dollar.

However, gold prices showed some weakness during March and have traded sideways since then, with an average price of $1,250/ounce.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

Gold prices have not been able to surpass the resistance level of $1,300/ounce, which would ensure the metal retain its bull market status.

In July, however, gold prices increased together with other base metals and commodities.

The U.S. Dollar

The U.S. Dollar weakness in 2017. Source: MetalMiner analysis of TradingEconomics

Gold prices received a lift from a weaker U.S. dollar.

A bearish U.S. dollar contributes to rising gold prices. The U.S. dollar is currently at its lowest level in a year and is close to its support level.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of TradingEconomics

The U.S. dollar could rebound from this support level and recover — or it may continue its sharp downtrend and show weakness. Gold prices could remain supported by a weaker dollar.

Stock markets

The S&P 500 has continued its uptrend since 2016. The index has reached an all-time high. The rising stock market may have kept a lid on gold prices this year.

However, the increase in stock markets has shown low volatility.

Low volatility periods (calm periods) are commonly followed by high volatility periods (storm periods).

We may be in the calm before the storm.

S&P 500. Source: MetalMiner analysis of TradingEconomics

What this means for metal buyers

Gold prices have lost steam and have traded sideways since March (with the exception of July’s bullish move).

A stronger U.S. dollar could drive gold prices down again. The opposite also remains a real possibility.

Buying organizations may want to watch the U.S. dollar closely.

An interesting report by Reuters explores the vagaries of supply from Indonesia and the Philippines, the world’s two largest nickel producers — and, unfortunately for the nickel price, it would seem two of the least reliable suppliers.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Source: Reuters

By far and away the most volatile supplier has been the Philippines.

Former Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Regina Lopez’s mining crusade and resulting export ban last year had a cataclysmic effect on output from which the country has not recovered, despite her replacement in May by Roy Cimatu, Reuters reports.

The latest assessment by the International Nickel Study Group (INSG) notes the country’s nickel production fell by 15% to 101,000 metric tons in the first five months of this year. Shipments of nickel ore to China have also been flowing at a reduced pace. Chinese imports from the Philippines slid by 6% over the first half of the year, according to Reuters.

Indonesia’s supply constraint, on the other hand, was driven by a policy to achieve greater value add in-country, started by a 2014 export ban on unprocessed ore which has only recently seen a partial rollback, as progress has been made in setting up nickel pig iron plants in the country. There are now multiple nickel “smelters” producing nickel pig iron or equivalent intermediate product in Indonesia, Reuters reports, quoting INSG estimates that mined production has surged 89% to 122,000 tons in the January-May period.

Meanwhile, the market has been responding to these political proclamations and about-turns with dramatic changes in short and long positions.

Reuters quotes LME Commitment of Traders figures to support price movements and investor position taking. The 18% nickel price rally over the last month to $10,445, a five-month high, followed investors flocking back to the market driving net long positions to 32,363 lots, compared with a net short of 887 lots on May 15. The return to the market seems to have been on the back of the nickel price’s fall to a year’s low of $8,680 and the widespread belief — supported by the closure of half of Indonesia’s processing plants — that refining becomes uneconomic below a nickel price of $9,000 per metric ton.

If $9,000 is the price floor based on current technology, what is the upside, stainless consumers will be asking?

In part, that depends on the potential for constraints to supply.

Demand remains solid. Reuters states Chinese imports of Indonesian “ferronickel” (nickel pig iron) broke through the 100,000-ton barrier in May and stayed there in June, while cumulative imports in those two months were 270,000 tons (bulk weight), exceeding total imports in 2015.

Demand, therefore, remains solid, but so too does supply. Netted between them, the two countries produced 223,000 tons of nickel in the first half of this year, up from 184,000 tons in the  same  period of 2016, according to the INSG. China’s imports of nickel raw materials, ore and concentrates, were also up in the first half of this year by 4% (not counting the separate flow of Indonesian ferronickel).

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Providing Cimatu continues with his conciliatory approach to miners, the market is likely to conclude exports are going to continue. The market has a floor at $9,000 per ton, but according to Reuters it could also be capped by rising supply as both countries ease restrictions and supply remains adequate.