Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kicking Copper while its down

A little more than six months ago I laid out a bearish case for the red metal, also known as Dr. Copper by those in the markets for its ability to predict future economic change.  With the recent thrashing copper and many other risk assets have taken I thought revisiting the topic would be a good idea.

While China is a large factor in all base metals prices let's start with the Old World and the seemingly mundane issue of actually counting how much copper inventory is on hand.  While this would appear to be as simple as looking up the LME (London Metal Exchange) and COMEX (US futures) inventory numbers it really isn't.  The BBC ran a three part series on rising commodity prices in late May and spent nearly a third of the program on copper.

BBC Radio - Bubble Trouble - Part 1 - May 28,2011
BBC Radio - Bubble Trouble - Part 2 and 3
Ft.com blog highlighting the inventory issue
In part 2 around the seven minute mark the presenter takes a tour of a well known base metals warehouse in which the warehouse representative reveals only about 40% of the copper in the warehouse is registered as LME inventory.  When I heard the words I had to replay it several times to ensure I understood that correctly; my brain almost rebelled at the concept of anyone just coming out and publicly stating such a figure.  Now I'm not suggesting the LME reported amount is under counting European stocks by 40%, just that this one warehouse has a lot more copper inside its walls that is reported to LME.  Please listen to at least part 2 of the radio series to get the full details.  If it can happen in one warehouse in Rotterdam what is preventing it from happening elsewhere in the world?

So why is the copper 'hiding'? Some of it is because costs are cheaper to store it in a non registered warehouse versus an official LME warehouse. Another factor may be what is suspected to be going on in China. FT Alphaville has discussed import/export trading firms there are using copper as a credit funding vehicle because other more official forms of credit are drying up.

From ft.com blog
Here’s the gist of it.In the first instance, our source says, the strategy is not exclusive to copper markets but goes on across most commodity markets.
The banks call it “inventory financing”. And of course, we should stress, it is completely legal. The practice mainly involves pledging an asset in return for an exchange warrant or cash.
According to our source, traders can deposit copper in an exchange warehouse in order to receive a warrant which can then be used to gain financing, usually via a broker, and less a 15 or 20 per cent haircut needed to cover futures margin deposits (sometimes called margin or warrant financing).
Read the whole article to get the full weight of what they are doing. This copper-as-financing would help explain why copper continues to be imported even though for most of 2011 it has been cheaper on the domestic Shanghai exchange. For the credit focused copper trader the money created by the transaction has greater value than the actual copper, it is just a funding mechanism.

While the discount has been steadily falling one must understand China is a net importer of Copper; so why has it been cheaper to buy copper inside China?

Izabella Kaminska followed up a few weeks later with more details on the same copper-as-collateral trade
More worryingly however is that the primary use of copper in bonded warehouse appears to be as a financing mechanism to provide cheap working capital for various types of business often unrelated to the metallic industry.
Another copper financing entry at ft.com

Simon Hunt, of Simon Hunt strategic services actually goes to China and tries to see what is happening on the ground and his opinion is not bullish.  An audio interview from March 29 is very interesting.

Having just come back from China my impression is that more and more people are beginning to understand that a lot of copper that has been imported has not gone into furnaces, that it is held by both foreign and Chinese financial institutions and others and I do think that even at the top level in government there is now starting to be a concern of the impact of this speculation on China's economy.  Because it is not just copper - it goes much deeper than that.  With money which has been so freely available in recent years, and with negative deposit rates, any company or individual is very reluctant to hold funds on deposit.  So they are looking for other means of investment and it goes into commodity markets generally - the stock market, it goes into manufacturing investment and so on so forth.  Whether government does anything to stop this game going on I've no idea, but there is at least a realisation at a pretty senior level that these developments are ongoing. 
Mr. Hunt also brings up the insidious problem of negative real interest rates in a growing economy.  Empty cities such as Ordos are an example of what happens when people respond to the obvious distortion of losing money when you put it in a bank account.

Even the Chileans are publicly talking about the excess inventory in China
The world No.1 copper producer, Chile's state-ownedCodelco, sounded a warning shot at the CESCO copper industrygathering in Santiago on Monday, saying copper stocks in China were abnormally high and needed to be watched carefully.

Figures are tossed about regarding how much inventory has been tied up in these financing deals but one never really knows how much until the real washout hits and people are forced to dump their positions.
That being said, some analysts are putting out huge numbers as to the extent of hidden inventory, again from ft.com blog
The ICSG data shows an increase in Chinese demand of 99% for the four years between 2005 and 2009 when Chinese GDP probably rose by about a third. Obviously, there cannot possibly have been such a massive rise in copper’s intensity of use in China. You can look through all the intensity of use curves for every commodity for every economy in history and you will never find a doubling in consumption against a one third increase in GDP over so short a period of time.  
The numbers are large, around 4 million tonnes since the end of 2006. This dates from when global fabricators and others started to understand that a new paradigm in the copper market had begun. It was the involvement of the financial community by buying copper directly from producers and others and warehousing the metal outside the reporting system.
Standard Chartered puts the amount of hidden inventory lower, but still extensive, April 28
 High inventories in bonded warehouses point to the possibility of destocking, which could hit copper prices on the London Metal Exchange (LME). As of this week, we estimate that total copper stocks in bonded warehouses in Shanghai (usually 80% of the national total) have hit 650 thousand tonnes (kt) – equivalent to roughly four weeks of China's domestic use, a record-high level (Chart 2). This is significantly higher than 550kt in late February and the 200kt average over the past three years.

ETFs have been a useful tool to allow banks to move risk off balance sheet. When a bank takes on risk through lending to or financing a big commodity player, say for an acquisition, there is a need to hedge potentially huge commodity exposure — so as sell to lock in the commodity price, and you couldn’t sell that volume easily into the terminal market; although you could transfer a large amount of exposure to investors through an ETF more easily. The only way this used to be done is by the bank taking proprietary risk, but they now have other risk issues and aren’t prepared to carry that sort of exposure.
Using ETFs becomes a mutuality of interest, with everyone moving to launch products to investors – retail and institutional – so that they can carry the risk instead. It’s all about de-risking your book. And you saw it in the dot com bust when investment banks pushed dotcoms, but offloaded the risk to investors. When the NASDAQ crashed the investors carried the bulk of the exposure.It all has similarities to the Abacus CDO. If you want to short the market you have to create the demand, like Paulson did. If you are an institutional advisor you can do that by hyping the commodity.

The actual import numbers going into China for both refined and scrap do not mesh well with the meme of voracious demand. On a year over year basis both are falling.

Furthermore the reported inventory numbers have been wandering around the 600k number for a while. Ironically the last time year over year inventory numbers dipped into negative territory for a while was 2008.

I'm not the only one who is not a copper bull.  The Reformed Broker sums it nicely while debating a copper bull:

I will admit some of my thesis is based upon information that is not reported as cut and dried numbers that can easily be looked up on a computer screen but what I do find does not add up to the template of China hoovering up all known copper deposits in the universe:

  • Copper is cheaper in Shanghai than in London
  • Copper imports of all kinds are dropping
  • Public reports of a LOT of hidden copper stocks, in the Old Word as well as China and confirmed by Chileans
I could go on but you need to put in some work as well. Read over the links below. I saved a few bombshells  for your discovery...

Additional reading:

https://customers.reuters.com/community/newsletters/metals/MetalsInsider20110729.pdf -- Page 2 -- If the warehouses are about to be empty of any metal, why buy them?
http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/2011/09/07/671416/more-than-2-8m-tonnes-of-hidden-copper-stocks/ - another estimate in an SEC filing guessing there's 2.8 million metric tons in hidden copper stocks.
http://traderightuk.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/guest-blog-simon-hunt-on-copper/ - More on the 2.8 million ton question.

The Author is long precious metals and short base metals

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