Copper is often referred to as, “the economist of the metals markets.” This is because of its use in all things that make the economy go round from electronics to commercial and residential construction and general infrastructure. When economic development is robust, copper prices follow suit. More importantly, because copper is a base ingredient in this mix, the price of copper typically precedes any moves in the general economy. Based on the current conditions of the copper market, we expect prices to fall and with it, overall economic activity in general.
The Federal Reserve Board announced its intentions to begin tapering off economic stimulus on June 19th. As a result, Interest rates have soared. Since the Fed’s announcement we’ve seen mortgage rates rise by nearly a full point from May’s low to multi-year highs. This is a 15% increase in two months. The effect on mortgage applications is already taking hold as we’ve seen a decline in mortgage applications of more than 7% in the last two months. This has led to a 13.4% decline in new home sales for the month of July, the biggest decline in three years. Rising interest rates are slowing the economic recovery that has been led by the housing market.
No copper scenario is complete without discussing China. China is the world’s largest copper consumer, taking around 40% of the annual mining total. Unfortunately, separating the governmentally supported information handouts from the man on the street’s first hand economic observations is a difficult task in a country where information is so heavily monitored and controlled. The major news events this week are twofold. First, a group of Chinese investors are stalling on a $3 billion copper mine investment in Afghanistan. Their reasons are many but the five-year delay they just inserted into the talks suggests that the investors aren’t comfortable with current, physical demand levels. Secondly, Chinese manufacturing data, though signaling signs of expansion last month, appears to have done so through inventory reduction more so than actual production. This was seen in the contraction of new export orders, stocks of finished goods and employment.
Funneling the macro data into something tradable leads us to further bearish scenarios. Commercial traders were actively listening to Bernanke’s discussion signaling the end of the monthly injections of $85 billion into our economy. Commercial copper traders clearly see this as a negative as they’ve been net sellers in five of the six weeks since the announcement. Perhaps more importantly, this comes after they had accumulated a very large position around the $3 per pound level we’re currently trading at. This suggests that they were locking in future deliveries based on continued economic expansion prior to the Fed’s announcement. Their actions since clearly state their change of attitude going forward and perhaps most importantly from a trading standpoint provides the potential serious selling if they decide there is no longer a reason to own copper at $3 per pound.
Finally, moving to the technical side of the market it appears that copper’s strength over the last three weeks may have more to do with speculative short covering rather than the creation of new long positions. Copper volume reached its highest level since December of 2009 on June 28th. This coincided with the lowest prices seen since October of 2011. Expanding volume coupled with declining prices is indicative of a strengthening downward trend. This becomes even more obvious in light of the rapid decline in volume and open interest over the last three weeks as the market bounced off its lows.
We feel that the slowdown in domestic construction that has been brought about by the Fed’s actions coupled with a large and now, unnecessary commercial long position will force the copper futures market to follow its typical seasonal path and decline through the end of October. This should certainly lead to a test of the psychologically important $3 per pound level. Violating the $3 per pound level leaves only the 2010 low of $2.90 as support before bringing into question the economic crisis low of 2009 near $1.50. Remember that commodities are not corporations. The world can live without another corporation but copper’s base necessity will serve to put a floor under the market. Therefore, a violation of $3 and even $2.90 is possible however, the market will find waiting buyers at bargain prices.