Lead is poised to rally after erasing this year’s gains with the market returning to shortages following a five-year glut as miners fail to keep pace with record demand for batteries.
Stockpiles monitored by the London Metal Exchange dropped 7.6 percent from the all-time high reached in October. Demand will exceed supply by 150,000 metric tons next year, equal to about six months of U.S. mine production, Macquarie Group Ltd. estimates. Prices will average $2,273 a ton in the fourth quarter, 13 percent more than now, according to the median of 18 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.
Consumption is being driven by industrialization and new technology, with lead usage in batteries for everything from fork-lift trucks to mobile phone towers growing at more than twice the speed of overall demand, BNP Paribas SA estimates. Mine supply will expand at the slowest pace in three years in 2012 as producers fail to develop new deposits, Macquarie predicts. Xstrata Plc will shut a Canadian mine next year after a half-century of digging exhausted all profitable ores.
“If you’re adding demand you need new supply,” said Duncan Hobbs, an analyst at Macquarie in London. “In the next two, three years at least, on the supply side, there is no new primary mine lead supply coming to the market anywhere in the world outside China.”
Lead is down 1.3 percent this year at $2,008 a ton on the LME, compared with a 1 percent gain in the LME Index of six industrial metals. The Standard & Poor’s GSCI gauge of 24 commodities fell 1.4 percent since the start of January and the MSCI All-Country World Index rose 3 percent. Treasuries returned 1 percent, a Bank of America Corp. index shows.
Mine output will advance 1.8 percent to 4.7 million tons this year, compared with 9.8 percent growth in each of the preceding two years, according to Morgan Stanley. Recycling will add another 5.49 million tons, 2.8 percent less than in 2011, the bank estimates. The supply glut will shrink to 13,000 tons, from 156,000 tons in 2011, before flipping into a 154,000-ton shortfall in 2013, Morgan Stanley predicts. Macquarie says next year’s shortage would be the first since 2007.
Global lead consumption will reach 10.56 million tons this year, valued at $22.2 billion based on the average price so far this year, Morgan Stanley estimates.
Demand for lead from manufacturers of industrial batteries will jump about 10 percent this year, compared with growth of 4.5 percent across all applications, BNP Paribas estimates. The products now account for about 33 percent of all consumption, twice as much value as in 2005, the Lisbon-based International Lead and Zinc Study Group estimates.
Industrial batteries contain 80 pounds (36 kilograms) to 140 pounds of lead, according to Thomas O’Neill, the treasurer of EnerSys, the world’s largest manufacturer of the devices. They are used as backup power for mobile-phone towers, at switching stations for land-line phones and in data centers. The Reading, Pennsylvania-based company buys 500 million pounds of lead a year, O’Neill said.
Any gain in lead prices may be curbed by mounting investor concern about the pace of economic recovery, with recessions re-emerging across Europe and China expanding at the slowest pace in almost three years. The metal advanced as much as 14 percent through the end of January before reversing as a 12 percent jump in LME stockpiles in two weeks suggested weakening demand. World growth will slow to 3.5 percent this year, from 3.9 percent in 2011, the International Monetary Fund predicts.
Batteries account for 85 percent of lead demand, compared with 27 percent in 1960, according to the International Lead Association in London, whose members include Xstrata and BHP Billiton Ltd. Vehicles make up 60 percent of battery consumption, according to the ILZSG, created by the United Nations in 1959. Demand is also coming from sales of electric bicycles, each of which requires 12 to 55 kilograms of lead, and there are about 157 million of them on China’s roads.
China’s passenger-vehicle sales had their worst two-month start to a year since 2005, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Growth may not even reach 5 percent in 2012, compared with 33 percent in 2010, Gu Xianghua, a deputy to the secretary general of the association, told a conference in Qingdao on March 20. China will account for 45 percent of lead demand this year, Barclays Plc estimates.
Demand for replacement batteries slowed over the northern hemisphere’s winter because of milder temperatures, according to Brook Hunt, a research unit of Wood Mackenzie Ltd. The average temperature in Beijing in December through February was minus 1.9 degrees Celsius (28.6 degrees Fahrenheit), or 0.6 degrees Celsius above normal, AccuWeather.com estimates. Temperatures were also above normal in New York City and London.
That may boost prices later in the year as the availability of used batteries for recycling slows, Morgan Stanley estimates. Scrapped batteries are trading at more than 40 cents a pound, compared with as little as 35 cents several months ago, Jose Hansen, the vice president of sales and marketing at the Doe Run Co. in St. Louis, wrote in an e-mail. Doe Run is the world’s third-largest lead-mine producer. Shortages of refined lead will emerge as soon as the fourth quarter, Barclays says.
Xstrata, the second-biggest lead miner, will report net income of $5.53 billion in 2012, its third-highest profit ever, according to the mean of 11 analyst estimates. Zinc and lead accounted for 11 percent of the Zug, Switzerland-based company’s sales in 2011. Shares of Xstrata rose 3.6 percent to 1,013 pence in London this year and will reach 1,358 pence in 12 months, the average of 11 estimates shows.
Shares of Melbourne-based BHP, the biggest mine producer, have dropped 2.2 percent to A$33.67 in Sydney trading this year and will reach A$45.19 in 12 months, the average of 12 forecasts shows. The company will report an 11 percent gain in profit to $20.71 billion in its fiscal year beginning July 1, according to the mean of 20 estimates.
An average ton of ore now contains about 2 percent lead, compared with almost 3 percent in 2000, Macquarie data show. Xstrata has said its Brunswick mine, which accounted for 1.3 percent of global supply last year, will close in March. Ivernia Inc.’s Magellan mine in Western Australia was mothballed in April last year after the Western Australian state government ordered it to halt shipments in January 2011 because of health concerns. Ivernia doesn’t have a schedule to restart Magellan, Rob Scargill, vice president of operations, said last month.
New technology is accelerating demand, including the introduction of a fourth-generation wireless standard. Its roll out across the Europe, Middle East and Africa region will require 8.5 million new batteries containing about 700 million pounds of lead, according to EnerSys’s O’Neill. Another 2 million batteries will be needed in the U.S., he said.
Stockpiles in warehouses monitored by the LME dropped 6.4 percent in the past six weeks to the lowest level since Jan. 30, bourse data show. Orders to withdraw metal, or canceled warrants, climbed to the highest level in at least 15 years.
“There has been genuine fundamental tightness in the lead market,’ said Nicholas Snowdon, an analyst at Barclays in New York. “With a relatively tight market balance already in place and solid improvements in the macro picture envisaged during the second half of 2012, that should be supportive for prices.”