Copper has had quite a run, but is it legit? Numerous experts are calling for continued strength in the commodity as well as continued supply deficits. I offer a contrary opinion.
There are several fundamental reasons for this alternate opinion and we'll go over them. From a technical standpoint copper as well almost all other commodities has been on a tear upwards ever since the announcement of QE 2. Recent events in the Middle East have slowed the rise in prices and higher oil prices may dent future economic growth worldwide so forces may be aligned to drive copper down in the near future.
Chinese Copper Demand
Copper is traded worldwide on several exchanges and as such provides an opportunity to see where prices (and by implication demand) are higher.
One can see the real time arbitrage price difference on Bloomberg. While the arbitrage values do swing between positive and negative, since mid July the arbitrage price has been negative. Take a look at the long term trends and you'll see periods of negative arbitrage have coincided in the past with lower future prices as well as increasing inventory levels.
LME, SHFE, Comex) bottomed mid December and have risen nearly 130,000 thousand tonnes since then and are rising at over one thousand tonnes a day right now.
Furthermore the number of cancelled warrants continues to drop and has remained well below 20,000 for several weeks now. A low cancelled warrant number is an indication of fewer lots of copper coming out of inventory for delivery.
A most interesting news article ran across Bloomberg late last year regarding Shanghai and bonded warehouses.
Why provide this option of delivering copper from 'non official inventory' warehouses if it did not already exist? While getting hard numbers about how much hidden inventory exists is nearly impossible, this rule change leads one to believe there is significant supply available, otherwise why provide the option?
Furthermore the 'movement' of inventories into and out of the official stockpiles occurs rather easily. In January aluminum inventories went up 100,000 tonnes in one day.
http://traderightuk.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/now-you-dont-now-you-see-it/ 100 thousand tonnes is a LOT of material. The largest ships in the world move 150 thousand tonnes of cargo to give you a sense of the mass involved.
Just because you can't see the copper (or aluminum) doesn't mean it is not there. There are other quantitative numbers showing us there is a lack of demand in China such as the the lower relative price as well as a lack of imports.
Both refined and scrap copper imports have leveled off over the last few years and do not show a sustained rise in imports as one would expect if China is truly the voracious eater of copper as people have posited.
Four dollar copper does wonders for encouraging more supply. Heck, there's even supply developing underwater. Nautilus minerals is currently building an underwater 'mine' and if they can pull it off the potential is huge.
Furthermore a little corruption goes a long way. There's a 17% VAT tax on copper in China. Does one honestly believe there is no skirting of the law? A truckload of copper would be an easy thing to 'misplace' at a large import facility.
Betting against the house
Looking at copper futures over the past several years one can see (green line) how commercial traders have never been this short as they have been during this recent run up in price. Remember when you are buying copper right now the person selling probably has more information about copper prices than you do.
Almost all commodities have been on an tear upwards since Ben Bernanke announced QE 2 in late 2010. The results have come home to roost however as higher food prices may have been the spark that set off the political unrest in the Middle East. Higher oil prices from the riots and regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have people wondering who is next and what will that do to oil supplies. Oil prices are now well above $100 a barrel and that price shock has yet to be fully realized throughout the world economy. To hedge my short base metals position I'm also long precious metals and this combination has worked out well recently. Continued tension in the oil producing nations will most likely keep gold rising and depress copper prices as people grow concerned about future economic growth.
Alternative learning annex
For those of you who can't stand looking at data and trying to understand the nuances of localized supply and demand I have created a short video explaining the high points of this post.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoFQQlBWcOk (YouTube version)
More supply on the way:
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/13/chile-codelco-investment-idUSN1328075420110113?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 -- 16 Billion for Codelco alone
Other base metals not doing so hot on a fundamental or technical level.
Financialization of commodities and correlation to equity markets.
http://www.cochilco.cl/english/productos/estadisticas.asp - Long term copper stats from Chile
Chinese copper imports:
The author is short base metals and long precious metals.