Thursday, October 22, 2015

Chile holds firm as copper market corrects

As the world’s leading producer of copper, there are grave concerns in Chile about China’s economic slowdown. The Oilholic doesn’t often touch on base metals on this blog, but being in Chile, one decided to break from tradition.

Over the last decade, China has displayed a voracious appetite for copper, with much of it coming from Chile. Clear indications point to a slowdown and even Beijing admits the country’s growth would be nowhere the double digit percentages it has posted in recent years that made the commodities world grow accustomed to the party.

No party lasts forever, and what the Oilholic finds here in Santiago de Chile is that no one need teach the Chileans that lesson. Policymakers, while anxious about it, saw China’s slowdown coming and are in confident mood they’ll weather the storm. The Chilean government can’t ignore the fact that the Chinese consume just shy of 50% of the world's refined copper, and as such Beijing is both directly and indirectly a major trading partner.

However, local economists’ thoughts and financial journals here in Chile appear to suggest one of the world’s leading copper producers is gearing up for a compound annual growth rate in Chinese copper demand in the range 2.5-3.5%; that’s less than half of the near 8% demand noted between 2010 and 2014.

If anything local forecasts are towards the lower end of Wall Street predictions and those put out by major European investment banks including Societe Generale, Barclays and Deutsche Bank. Droughts in Chile and other disruptions have tempered market sentiment on the oversupply front.

Disruptions in PNG and Zambia have also helped as have cuts announced by Glencore. To this effect, local analysts feel while the copper market is heading for leaner times, the effect would be less pronounced than say in the case of nickel or zinc. Supply/demand imbalances will persist but not to the extent feared both in Chile and beyond.

However, there is one thing though. As with oil, given the extent to which commodities have become an asset class, it is worth examining what the punters think. For the few this blogger has had a chance to interact with here in Chile, the copper market remains net short, using the COMEX copper (not LME three-month futures) contract as a benchmark.

The positioning might be net short, but it isn’t as bad as what local analysts noted over the first quarter of this year, especially mid-February to late-March. So right now, smaller end of life miners in Chile appear to be in trouble, but others including the majors operating in the country appear to be holding firm on their cautious outlook.

Finally, past crises have taught most regional governments a thing or two about managing the situation in troubling times. Some like Venezuela consciously choose not to learn, while others like Chile do learn and manage their exposure to volatility better.

There’s no reason to believe why 2015 would be any different. President Michelle Bachelet who oversaw the 2008-09 downturn during her previous stint in office, remains a steady hand, despite declining domestic poll ratings. That’s all for the moment folks as one heads to Buenos Aires for a short pre-election hop. In the meantime, this blogger leaves you with an amazing view from Cerro San Cristobal. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’! 

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo I: Flag of Chile in Santiago. Photo II: Cerro San Cristobal - Santiago, Chile © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015

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