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As China Slows, Metals Prices Take a Hit

In particular, base metals tied to Chinese construction slump as surpluses grow. On the plus side: copper and nickel.

  • By Matt Mossman

The commodities supercycle of rising prices that defined the 2000s is over. Thanks to sluggish global growth and a slowdown in Chinese demand, base metals have limped to the finish in 2014. Though betting on base metals is no longer as simple as following China’s growth story, even at a slower pace the country remains the biggest consumer of these commodities, and a slowdown there, especially in construction, may mean a global metals glut.

“China had a state-run economy with massive overbuilding, and we’re paying the price for that now,” says Rick de los Reyes, a metals- and mining-focused portfolio manager for T. Rowe Price based in Baltimore. “Investment in fixed assets is past its peak in China, and as a result, so are metals.”

China’s attempts to boost consumer spending and reduce its reliance on state spending on infrastructure and construction remain a work in progress. According to the International Monetary Fund’s most recent World Economic Outlook, published in October, China is expected to grow by 7.4 percent in 2014 and 7.1 percent in 2015, down from 7.7 percent in both 2012 and 2013. “China’s growth story is no longer going to be the same engine it has been for the last decade,” says Timna Tanners, a mining and metals analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York. The main near-term risk to the Chinese economy is a drop in real estate values, with properties overvalued in big markets and oversupplied in smaller ones.

In comparison, global growth is expected at 3.3 percent for 2014 by the IMF, revised down from an expected 3.4 percent pace in July. It sees advanced economies still struggling from the legacies of the global financial crisis, and emerging markets suffering as a result. The IMF’s projection for 2015 is for 3.8 percent growth, down from 4 percent in its July forecast. “Base metals have in our view reverted to being a trade on global rather than Chinese growth alone, so many of the mined commodities can rally only when both China and World ex-China are cyclically strong,” according to research from Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s global commodities research team.

China’s slowdown means surplus supply for commodities tied to construction as well as lower prices for 2015 and beyond. Iron ore hit a five-year low in November, and prices for metallurgical coal, used to make steel, dropped to a six-year low in September. Together, the two are known as bulk commodities. Both are expected to be in surplus for the next several years because Chinese demand led to investment in new production that is no longer needed. For 2014 the iron ore glut measured about 60 million tons, and will expand to 110 million tons in 2015, according to Goldman Sachs Group research. The picture is a bit brighter for other metals, according to de los Reyes. “Base metals could do better because the potential for production disruptions is higher,” he says.

That group starts with copper and nickel. The latter has been the best-performing metal in 2014 on the London Metal Exchange, climbing 13 percent, thanks to a decision by Indonesia in January to ban exports of raw ores to stimulate investment in domestic processing facilities. Chinese buyers bought more nickel from mines in the Philippines instead, and that led to nickel prices spiking in September after a plan in that country to implement an export ban. Prices fell in the fourth quarter, though, after a legislator said that implementing the proposed ban would take seven years. For 2015, supply concerns are based on questions about how fast new smelters can be completed in Indonesia to provide refined nickel for export, and the extent to which production from the Philippines can bridge the gap. One concern, according to research from French investment bank Natixis, is that imports will fall during the rainy season.

Copper markets faced a key supply disruption after Zambia announced a plan to boost royalties on mines and mining operations starting on January 1. That led Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp. to announce on December 18 a suspension of operations at its Lumwana mine. Copper isn’t likely to post large gains, but it might fare better relative to iron ore and coal because it’s used in a wider variety of ways in China. “There’s plenty of copper used in construction, but it has other applications as well, like consumer electronics or building out the power grid,” says de los Reyes. BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company by market capitalization, said in early December that it would switch the focus of its investments toward copper and away from iron ore in response to Chinese demand.

Another important factor for copper is China’s State Reserve Bureau, which maintains a strategic stockpile of the metal and in 2014 bought between 700,000 and 1 million metric tons, according to Natixis. Domestic copper-refining capacity is on the rise, however, and a risk to copper prices is a Chinese decision maintaining that a strategic reserve isn’t necessary. “Were it to maintain its strategic purchases, the market may remain close to scarcity,” according to Natixis’s analysis.

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