2011 Halftime Report: The Cues for Copper

Copper slightly disappointed investors, ending the first half of the year with a decline of 3.50 percent. Worries about global inflation and, more specifically, the potential slowing of China’s economy weighed on copper’s price. The red metal rose 5 percent quickly in the new year, but similar to zinc, lead, palladium and platinum prices, declined sharply at the beginning of May.

Since the end of June, copper has been slowly inching its way up, with the past three weeks having produced positive results. Part of this rise is due to reduced supply issues. Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, has been plagued by power outages, strikes, accidents and heavy rains. Reuters recently reported that a “once in a half century winter storm” caused more than 12 mines to slow or stop operations after the open pit roads became too slippery in the South American country that mines about one-fifth of the world’s copper.

The election of Ollanta Humala in Peru–the second-largest producer of copper–has also been a drag on copper prices as investors debate the probability of Humala electing a mining friendly cabinet. As I discussed in “Is Peru’s Humala Jekyll or Hyde for Mining?,” investors have worried the president-elect could retract policies that encourage mining investment and help grow their economy.

The announcement came this week that Humala will appoint Luis Miguel Castilla, Peru’s former deputy finance minister, as the new finance minister. Carlos Herrera will lead the mines and energy ministry. However, according to the Financial Times, it is still not clear whether Humala will increase the corporate tax rate paid by miners and enforce tighter state controls. The actions of this leader will have an influence on the direction of copper prices for the remainder of the year.

In terms of demand, copper is a necessary ingredient for numerous building projects. Electrical power cables, electrical equipment, automobile radiators, cooling and refrigeration tubing, heat exchangers and water pipes all require copper. With all the construction and infrastructure building in China over the past several years, it’s not surprising that this country is the No. 1 world consumer of copper. It’s estimated that China accounted for nearly 40 percent of global copper consumption last year.

Because of this large demand, similar to our outlook for oil, copper prices hinge on China’s ongoing development. While some have begun to wonder about the health of the country’s continuing growth and development, Macquarie Research believes that “real demand in the country remains robust.”

Take developer activity, for example, which Macquarie says has been a huge driver of construction growth in 2011. The media has focused its attention on ghost cities and lagging sales of property in China. Yet Macquarie thinks it’s important to consider the property sales across all different sizes of cities. In its Commodities Comment, subtitled “Chinese social house – another reason to buy copper and iron ore,” Macquarie acknowledges a weakness in property transactions in China’s larger cities. This was due to the government restricting investment demand to slow growth. However, these larger cities only account for 20 percent of the total market, says Macquarie.

Conversely, many smaller cities, such as Anquing, Guizhou, Luzhou, Mudanjiang, and Shijiazhuang, have had double-digit year-over-year growth in unit sales so far this year. In the case of Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia, sales growth has tripled. Government investment has led to urban space increasing from 80 square kilometers in 2000 to 150 square kilometers last year, according to the city’s government website. Hohhot, which means “green city” in Mongolian, has grown to more than 2 million people and has become a hub for agriculture and manufacturing.

Most importantly, Macquarie says the tremendous sales activity in these smaller cities indicates “there has been enough cash to keep construction activity going.”

In addition, China’s social housing project should drive incremental demand for copper. Macquarie indicated that China is “aiming for 10 million social housing units, up from 5.8 million in 2010.” The country has built only 3.4 million units so far this year, but based on China’s habit of exceeding its objectives, Macquarie thinks the target will be met.

Even if the naysayers think China’s growth will slow because of the government’s monetary policy restrictions, there’s consensus among research experts that the country’s inventory of copper is getting low. Goldman Sachs’ discussion of the copper market indicated that in the second half of 2011, the “winding down of destocking will lead to a stronger Chinese pull on global supply.” China seems to have no choice but to go back to the market for copper, if only to replenish its supply.

Tom Kendall, Credit Suisse’s vice president for commodities research, agrees. In a Mineweb interview on copper’s fundamentals and expectations of further growth, Kendall stated he has seen a “very sizeable drawdown” in Chinese copper inventories this year. He goes on to say, “some point in time, they will get to a point at which they have run down inventory levels to an uncomfortably low level and then there is no alternative to coming back to the international market.”

Portfolio Manager Evan Smith agrees that copper’s pricing looks promising. China is nearing the end of its tightening policies and has shown that its debt is under control based on released results of the country’s comprehensive debt audit. For the Global Resources Fund (PSPFX), he has been incorporating these macro thoughts into the team’s models to identify stocks with superior growth and value metrics that he believes could benefit the most.


Frank Holmes,
for The Daily Reckoning

P.S. For more updates on global investing from me and the U.S. Global Investors team, visit my investment blog, Frank Talk.

The Daily Reckoning