Metals lose shine with demand below forecast
What a difference a year makes. This time in 2018, the UK was still set to leave the EU in 2019, the US and China were on speaking terms, and industry figures from the world of metals were all optimistic as they gathered in London for the big annual bash at London Metal Exchange’s Metals Week.
But this year couldn’t be any more different.
Doom and gloom pervades the event as those same industry figures now lament how three important industrial metals – copper, zinc and aluminium – have all missed their growth forecasts, flashing the same warning signals that occurred before the financial crisis.
The most important of them all, copper, is also the most concerning.
A year ago, it was estimated that demand for copper would grow by 2.6% in 2019. In the first half of this year however, copper demand actually fell by 0.7%, surprising market watchers.
Copper is closely watched as the metal is an economic bellwether, given it is used in practically everything.
Weak global manufacturing figures have led to weaker copper demand, with the worldwide manufacturing sector now in recession. The last time things looked that bad was at the end of the financial crisis.
Though the short-term picture is gloomy, many investors believe the long-term fundamentals for copper growth remain strong.
The same gloom has also encircled aluminium and zinc, with actual demand for the former 1.5% lower than forecast so far this year, and demand for the latter down 0.9% on what was expected, according to Bloomberg.
Aluminium in particular is struggling as the industry grapples with the triple whammy of lower supply but also lower demand and therefore lower prices.
Despite the gloom, there is one superstar in the room – nickel. What a difference a year makes for that metal too.
All the talk at last year’s Metals Week was about copper, with nickel barely mentioned.
But this year its price has surged as an 8.6% rise in stainless demand from China (nickel is a key metal in stainless steel), coupled with a surprise accelerating of a ban on unrefined nickel exports from Indonesia has got metal buyers panicking.
Nickel demand will rise 5% this year according to the International Nickel Study Group, while thanks to the Indonesian ban actual stocks of nickel in London Metal Exchange warehouses fell off a cliff in October, with just 76,000 tonnes left compared to the 230,000 tonnes in the warehouses this time last year.
Though as with any metal that gets hyped, some in the market are warning against getting carried away over nickel.
Investment bank ING says: ‘We think the nickel price is overdone and we also believe a pullback is justified, however, it’s too early to judge whether the stainless steel sector will provide the significant downside some expect.’