Market Analysis

Aluminum prices have risen around 15% since the beginning of the year.

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The metal is currently trading at a two-year high, just below $1,950 per metric ton. A slow but steady rise.

The aluminum 3003-H14 Sheet price. Source: MetalMiner Price Benchmark.

This year’s rally comes as markets tries to price in Chinese anti-pollution capacity cuts next winter. The world’s largest nation-producer of the metal will force about a third of aluminum capacity in the provinces of Shandong, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi to be shut down over the winter season, which runs from the middle of November through the middle of March, putting at risk about 1.3 million mt of production. Read more

Most base metals will finish the first quarter up, but nickel is one of those exceptions to the rule.

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The metal has traded up and down to finish the first quarter close to flat. Nickel prices are significantly higher than they were one year ago and traders are now finding little reason to be any more bullish than bearish due to a mix of news that helps both positions.

Nickel prices finish Q1 close to flat. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Philippines Threatens to Stop All Mining

On March 13, The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to stop all mining in the country while reiterating his support for Department of the Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez. Philippine lawmakers recently opted to postpone a decision to confirm or reject the ardent environmentalist as the head of the department. Further confirmation hearings are expected to take place in May. The country’s miners hope Duterte won’t reappoint Lopez and instead find someone more moderate.

Indonesia to Restart Exports

Despite additional closures last month and the potential for more, nickel prices fell this month. It could be that traders doubt that Duterte will enforce such strict regulations, but it also has to do with fears that the resumption of exports from Indonesia will compensate for any supply shortfall in The Philippines. Read more

US Cold-rolled coil prices since 2012. Source:MetalMiner IndX

U.S. Cold rolled-coil prices rose to their highest levels since March of 2012 this week. Spot steel prices saw some upward action in January, however, prices really came under pressure in early February.

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In March, U.S. steel mills are pushing for another round of price hikes. So far, they seem to be succeeding.

China Steel Prices

Hot-rolled coil price spread. Source: MetalMiner IndX

Back in November, we predicted a surge in steel prices as we moved into the new year. When international steel prices rise, U.S. mills can more easily justify a price hike. Chinese prices set the floor for international prices. Last summer, U.S. steel prices declined sharply while Chinese prices held well. That caused the international price arbitrage to come down to normal levels.

The price arbitrage started to widen again this year as momentum in U.S. steel prices picked up. However, the arbitrage is still relatively narrow compared to historical levels, especially in hot-rolled coil. Therefore, U.S. mills still have some room to hike prices. Still, for the rally to be sustained throughout the year, Chinese steel prices will need to keep rising.

Falling Chinese Steel Exports

In January, Chinese steel exports fell near 24% compared to the same month last year. In absolute terms, January steel exports were at their lowest level since June 2014. Exports fell by double digits in the last four months of 2016. While more countries act against the threat of a flood of Chinese steel, we could see further moderation in exports this year, which bodes well for global steel markets. What’s surprising is that exports have falling despite rising output.

According to the data released by the World Steel Association, China’s January steel production rose 7.4% to 67 mmt while global steel production rose 7% from a year ago. In addition, China’s operating steel capacity increased in 2016, since most of the announced cuts in capacity were already idle.

So far, solid demand in China has absorbed the increase in output, or at least most of it. The Caixin Manufacturing PMI in China rose to 51.7 in February, beating market expectations and marking the eighth-straight month of growth. In addition, there are rumors that China is stocking its excess steel production. According to SteelHome, hot-rolled coil and rebar inventories in China have surged so far this year.

All About Production Cuts

In conclusion, U.S. mills could continue to raise prices in the short-term. However, for a sustained bull market in steel prices, Chinese steel prices will have to rise as well. China’s domestic demand looks strong, but it won’t be enough to support a rising price trend in the face of rising output.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Beijing has ordered curbs on steel and aluminum output in as many as 28 northern cities during the winter heating season, as it steps up its fight against pollution, but we need to see if those cuts actually materialize this year. China will need to intensify its efforts to curtail excess steel capacity. Otherwise, if production continues to grow unabated, it could hamper this price recovery.

The U.S. dollar fell sharply last Wednesday against a basket of currencies as the Federal Reserve announced a rate increase of a quarter point.

US Dollar index: Source @stockcharts.com.

The move seems to contradict common economic wisdom. In theory, higher raters in the U.S. should make the dollar more attractive for yield-seeking investors when interest are rates are lower around the globe. Then, what caused the currency to weaken?

All About Expectations

A rate increase came as no surprise to U.S. markets. The real surprise came in the language that wrapped the announcement. Fed officials intend to keep raising rates, however they want to keep the economy from getting too hot… but also not too cold.

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Investors were probably betting on an acceleration in the path of raising interest rates, not a warming down. Read more

3-Month London Metal Exchange zinc price. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Zinc prices climbed last week. The metal is now trading near the milestone of $3,000 per metric ton. The last time prices hit this level was in September 2007.

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

Zinc has doubled in price since it hit bottom in January of last year. As prices climbed, many buyers probably made the mistake of thinking prices were too high, missing this spectacular rally. However, buyers that subscribe to our monthly outlook, didn’t miss this rally. We recommended buying forward starting in April of 2016. Ever since, prices have risen without looking back. Read more

Our March price trends report, which analyzes the entire month of February’s price data from the MetalMiner IndX, shows robust price increases in metals markets that are still running with the bulls.

March Price Trends

Our Stainless MMI led the pack, increasing 6.8%, but the copper, raw steels, aluminum and rare earths sub-indexes all showed strong gains, as well.

One area of concern this month is that oil prices have fallen back below $50 per barrel as U.S.
shale producers beat expectations by adding 8.2 million barrels to existing reserves. Low oil
prices would benefit metals producers by keeping energy and transportation costs lower, but
they also may drag down other commodities with them.

We don’t usually see investment metals such as platinum and gold increasing at the same time
as base metals, either, but positive sentiment about the economy had both increasing this month. So, until we see anything that points otherwise, a rising tide is still lifting all the (metals) boats.

If I was a copper miner, I would be rubbing my hands because copper prices are looking healthy as a horse.

Supply Disruptions

Workers at Cerro Verde mine in Peru put down there tools on Friday, halting output of 40,000 metric tons per month in a dispute over labor conditions (here’s a video interview and analysis I did about it for Swiss Financial Television). The strike stretched into its fourth day yesterday after a meeting between the union and management failed to resolve it on Monday. The mine is currently making about half as much copper as it normally does, because owner Freeport-McMoran hired contract workers to operate key areas.

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

The action adds to disruptions at the world’s two largest copper mines, Escondida in Chile and Grasberg in Indonesia, which are losing production daily due to a strike and an export ban respectively.

The Technical Picture

Three-month London Metal Exchange copper. Source:MetalMiner analysis of fastmarkets.com data.

The technical picture is important because it tells a lot about what buyers and sellers are doing. Copper rose nearly 30% in November. Usually, after such a huge run it’s normal to see some selling but we haven’t really seen that yet.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Since November, prices are holding pretty well and that’s a sign that bulls are still in control. A sharp price decline in oil prices last week would normally bring other commodities down but copper held its ground well. The red metal continues to make higher highs and higher lows, a textbook definition of a healthy uptrend.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The diagnosis is that while copper’s bull market doesn’t show real signs of weakness, we continue to expect further upside moves. Buyers should keep an eye on the ongoing supply disruptions because they could hurt your budget.

Following two consecutive hearings last week, the Philippines’ mining industry expressed its confidence that the Commission on Appointments (CA) will reject Gina Lopez as the Environment secretary, emphasizing that she was unable to persuade the members of the committee. Lopez is among just a few of President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointees yet to be confirmed by lawmakers. Nickel prices fell 10% as bears believe there will be a rejection.

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

Nickel’s bull market started when Duterte became president of the Philippines in June. Prices gained throughout the year as Lopez led an environmental crackdown on the Philippine mining industry.

Developments in the nickel industry. Source: Raul De Frutos/MetalMiner analysis of LME data.

The Philippines is the top nickel ore exporter and Lopez’s approval would probably sustain worries over supply disruptions that could lift global prices this year. On the other hand, a rejection would give miners a key win in the battle against environmentalists, adding pressure to nickel prices.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

President Duterte continues to throw support to Lopez, but at the same time he is hoping for a happy compromise between environmentalists and the mining industry, amid rising concerns over job and revenue losses. Read more

U.S. M3 grain-oriented electrical steel prices dropped slightly with the M3 index moving from 200 to 197.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Though U.S. prices dipped slightly, China’s Baosteel announced a price hike for GOES close to $40 per metric ton, according to a recent TEX Report. Although the Chinese have led recent GOES and other steel product price hikes, others have not necessarily followed. Nevertheless, Chinese steel prices set the floor for global steel prices.

GOES MMI

Now that the Trump administration has begun to settle in, market observers have paid close attention to trade actions within the metals industry, particularly the cold-rolled coil circumvention case and most recently a case filed by the Aluminum Association against China involving aluminum foil. Both the domestic steel and aluminum industries have pursued trade cases to address overcapacity concerns.

GOES Prices and NAFTA

GOES markets follow some of these same patterns. Back in 2013, GOES from China accounted for about 10% of total U.S. GOES imports (by tonnage). Clearly, the trade cases filed by the domestic producers at the time limited Chinese imports, but that trade case sought to stop other countries’ imports as much as China’s.

Herein lies a big difference between the GOES case and the aluminum case as well as the prior flat-rolled product steel cases. The GOES trade case did not result in any finding of injury, so no anti-dumping and countervailing duties were assessed. Instead, domestic power equipment manufacturers shifted their global supply chains to source GOES globally and purchase transformer parts and wound cores from NAFTA countries.

Some have speculated that two years ago, the addition of two new harmonized tariff codes for both transformer parts (8504.90.9546) and wound cores (8504.90.9542) would set the stage for future trade cases brought by the lone domestic GOES producer. We think this looks like a “stretch” and, legally, we’re not even sure there is a case to be had as AK Steel currently does not manufacture transformer parts or wound cores.

Import volumes for wound cores have modestly increased, but imports for transformer parts have actually declined:

GOES imports from 2015 to today

GOES imports from 2015 to today. Source: Lisa Reisman/MetalMiner.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: Adding GOES Price Benchmarking Soon!

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The World Platinum Investment Council‘s bullishness on platinum as a key investment and industrial asset, which we reported on last fall in an interview with the Council’s Director of Research Trevor Raymond, seems to be bearing fruit as we approach the end of Q1.

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Platinum bar prices and a couple other precious price points led MetalMiner’s Global Precious Metals MMI to rise 2.4% for March 2017, landing at a value of 84.

Global Precious MMIIndeed, the U.S. platinum bar price, up by nearly 3% this month, has been on an upward trajectory for the past three months, starting the month out above the $1,000-per-ounce level for the first time since October 2016.

A Focus on Platinum

Worries over supply shortages of the namesake of platinum group metals (PGMs) are still behind the investment opportunities that the WPIC foresees — so much so that the Council is pushing new initiatives on two separate global fronts.

Although holdings of platinum-backed exchange-traded funds (ETFs) fell to their lowest since mid-2013 last October, Reuters reported that WPIC “plans to launch an ETF in China, the world’s biggest consumer of the precious metal, and a coin-based fund in Europe in 2017,” according to an executive of the council.

“We are working on two deals in China for investment products. (An) ETF and retail platinum bars with a big state-run enterprise,” Marcus Grubb, director of market development at WPIC, told Reuters. The ETF itself was formed by leading platinum producers to develop investor demand for the metal, according to the news service.

Grubb told Reuters that India’s platinum jewelry sales are rising by 25-30% a year. The PGM’s star has been rising on the subcontinent, with some questioning whether it will overtake gold as the go-to in jewelry demand in India (which is the world’s second-biggest gold consumer, so not likely anytime soon…but still).

The council will also launch a $50 million coin-based platinum fund in Europe, he told Reuters.

Auto Market Fine…For Now

It helps that car sales still appear to be cruising along, even if at, well, only cruising speeds. Even though U.S. car sales dropped 1.1% in February over the same month last year, total vehicle sales in China, including trucks and buses, came in 0.2% higher year-on-year to 2.5 million units.

But, as my colleague Jeff Yoders reported, China is also entering the planned final year of a major government automotive purchase rebate which could affect sales as the incentive winds down. What this will mean for platinum use in vehicles remains to be seen.

The Supply Game: Latest Producer Moves

Back to the supply side. Shortage concerns have recently caused companies such as South Africa’s Northam Platinum Ltd. to buy up more platinum assets including mines, in this case from Glencore, Reuters reports.

Glencore’s Eland mine, containing some 21.3 million ounces of the metal, play into the Northam’s long-term production strategy — which, of course, banks on continued demand and higher platinum pricing.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

However, Northam said that the global economic outlook and low-dollar metal prices “remain a concern for them, at a time when it faces increasing power and labor costs,” according to Reuters. As of this writing, $1 = 13.08 rand, worse than last month.

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