The United States is crawling into 2014 with the Federal Reserve Board doing everything it can to stave off deflation. Years of zero percent interest rate policies along with the current $85 billion per month in stimulus have failed to generate inflation in anything but the stock market. This leaves GDP well below 2% and unemployment remains stubbornly high. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank just cut their rates in half, now at a .25%, to spur any kind of economic growth of their own. Typically, two thirds of the world, North America and Europe mired in economic doldrums would lead to a generally soft commodity outlook. However, China’s growth continues to be the real story and this is best explained by the inner workings of the copper market.
China’s growth rate continues to exceed 7.5% and is expected to register a third consecutive quarter of growth, which may top 8% for Q4. The vast majority of this growth is in building. Industrial infrastructure and residential construction continue to boom. China’s arcane domestic investment laws are partly to blame for this as their residents have very few open channels of investment other than real estate. Further muddying the waters is their version of the loan qualification process, which now accepts hard assets, like copper as collateral. This has put China in the top spot in global copper consumption. In fact, they consume approximately 40% of the world’s copper shipments.
We often refer to copper as, “the economist of the metals market.” The logic follows the line of copper as a base need for economic expansion, which we view as building stuff – houses, electronics, buildings, cars, etc. It appears that the Chinese growth story is bigger than old world economic malaise. The copper market has seen renewed interest in commercial buying since Bernanke’s tapering talk in August signaled an, “everybody out of the pool,” moment. In fact, cash copper prices are trading above the copper future’s price and copper miners are negotiating just how high they’re going to set their premiums for 2014.
The current spot premium is around $.05 – $.07 per pound which reflects the highest premium since the collapse of ’08. The surge in demand is prompting premium increases of 50% and higher as producers negotiate with Europe, Asia and America. Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer has announced planes to raise Chinese premiums by 41%. There are similar increases of 50% for the U.S. and up to 75% for the European Union. These price rises come in the face of an expected surplus of 200, 000 tons (less than 2% of total market) after experiencing a three-year supply deficit. In spite of the projected surplus, Codelco has openly admitted that they’ve hedged none of their forward production.
Commercial traders in the copper market were what tipped me off to the market’s increasingly bullish outlook. I was so busy looking at our domestic economy that I didn’t see the rebound in their buying after initial talk of tapering, which pointed to slowing growth and declining demand created the bearish scenario I outlined in Augusts’, “Copper Points to Slowing Economy.” Clearly, the cash market premiums are leading end line users to hedge their future needs through the purchase of forward copper futures contracts.
The largest net long position I can find for commercial traders in the copper market is near 40,000 contracts. This was made during the July sell-off. Previously, the largest net long commercial position I could find was in February of 2009 when copper was trading at $1.75 per pound and we were coming out of the major market crash. What the market is seeing now is a greater willingness to own copper at much higher prices. This buying support is putting a floor in the market around the $3 per pound level and is prolonging the sideways market direction that has persisted throughout the year. The longer this occurs, the closer we are to breaching the downward sloping trend line that originated at the 2011 highs around $4.80 and now comes into play around $3.36 per pound. Obviously, a move above this would confirm the move for 2014.
We see two potential concerns in this 2014 scenario. First of all, China has always been an opaque marketplace where the economic statistics produced by the government must always be taken with a grain of salt. There is talk that end line demand is nowhere near as strong as Chinese imports suggest. However, for our purposes, it is pretty irrelevant if China is using their copper imports or, storing them. Either way, supplies are being taken off the market. Secondly, much of the mining that’s counted in moving us to surplus is in new mines whose production is only estimated. Therefore, their production numbers aren’t yet solidified. Finally, all things considered, copper may be one of the best physical assets to own as we approach 2014.