Copper has been traditionally viewed as a gauge for how healthy the global economy is. The metal has had a bit of a roller coaster ride so far this year, and investors are reeling from the whiplash. As it stands, copper prices are flat year to date, but there’s good reason to believe that they will continue to plunge.
To start off, this year there were many signs that the global economy was improving and commodities were starting to see gains. Gold, silver, copper, and steel enjoyed quick gains in late January through mid-March. For copper, the case was made that global supply of the industrial metal was in decline. This came during a time when most producers similarly cut back, creating an environment in which the slightest increase in demand would spell outsized gains.
But since those tantalizing clues for a recovery were revealed, they’ve been overshadowed by more recent data.
Stormy Weather Ahead for Dr. Copper
Copper may have had a brief respite from its gloomy depths to start off the year, but some analysts are saying that the metal is well on its way to its longest losing streak in two years. Even though supply has dwindled, it will still outpace consumption as the global economy stagnates.
The world’s largest copper producer, Chilean-based Codelco, warned investors recently that there were very few positive signs for increased demand and a true recovery isn’t expected to happen until 2018. Barclay’s seemed to agree with estimates of falling copper prices throughout this quarter. A seasonal uptick in Chinese economic activity is expected to be far short of being able to offset high inventory levels.
Codelco’s CEO says that copper is highly susceptible to losses right now after that bump up earlier this year without any underlying fundamentals to support it. Barclay’s estimates that copper will average about $4,520 per ton for the second quarter – down from its earlier four-month high of $5,131.
Higher-than-expected GDP estimates from China helped give copper a boost, but the lack of tertiary support for the metal makes it a temporary gain. Initially, news that copper inventories on the LME were in decline were lauded as a reason to be bullish, but it turns out that the activity was simply part of an arbitrage trade taking place in copper. The move was only in copper storage and not due to supply and demand changes.
The Bottom Line
Copper bulls and bears are caught in a kind of standstill right now, not knowing which way the metal will end up heading. Ultimately, it’ll be the Chinese import data that tells the true story. A shortage in copper was expected in 2016 but the long-term strength of the metal is still in dispute. Any upside economic surprise in China could put a floor on copper or even turn it around depending on what the data says, but as it stands, copper looks like a commodity that’s heading lower.