Copper Supply Glut Seen Tripling as Prices Sink 10%: Commodities

The worldwide glut of copper supply is poised to almost triple in 2014, driving prices to the lowest in at least three years at a time when the International Monetary Fund says economic growth will be weaker than forecast.

The surplus will reach a 13-year high of 272,000 metric tons, according to data from Barclays Plc and the International Copper Study Group in Lisbon. Codelco and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., the biggest producers, are among those scheduled to add supply next year. The metal will drop as low as $6,450 a ton in 2014, or 10 percent less than last week’s close, the median of 22 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg shows.

New mines or expansions to existing pits from Mongolia to Indonesia to Chile will boost output as producers respond to prices that more than tripled in the past decade. Shortages occurred in seven of the past 10 years as the Chinese economy expanded almost sixfold. Mining companies are finally catching up just as growth in China, the world’s second-largest economy and consumer of two in every five tons, is projected to be the lowest in almost a quarter century.

“We’ve got enough of a surplus to keep prices under pressure,” said Robin Bhar, an analyst at Societe Generale SA in London who has covered metals for about 25 years. “You’re going to have to see demand really surprise, which I don’t see given the economic environment, to knock those expectations seriously off course.”

Nickel Surplus

Copper fell 8.7 percent to $7,243.25 on the London Metal Exchange this year, tumbling into a bear market in April. The LMEX index of six industrial metals dropped 9.3 percent because of surpluses in aluminum and nickel. The Standard & Poor’s GSCI gauge of 24 commodities declined 1.7 percent, the MSCI All-Country World Index of equities gained 14 percent and the Bloomberg U.S. Treasury Bond Index lost 2.6 percent.

Production will jump 5.1 percent this year and 4.9 percent in 2014, twice the pace in 2012, according to London-based Barclays. Growth in demand will slow to 4.1 percent, from 4.8 percent in 2013, expanding the surplus from 94,000 tons. Stockpiles in warehouses monitored by bourses in London, New York and Shanghai reached 934,654 tons in June, the most since 2003, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Barclays’s prediction for a bigger copper surplus in 2014 contrasts with its forecasts for smaller gluts in aluminum, nickel and zinc. Lead shortages will worsen and the deficit in tin will be little changed, the bank says.

Costliest Mines

Copper producers may not need to curb output any time soon because the costliest mines need about $6,600 to break even, or almost 9 percent below prices now, according to data compiled by Macquarie Group Ltd.

Orders to withdraw copper from LME-tracked warehouses, known as canceled warrants, rose fivefold this year, indicating demand may be stronger than estimated. The orders reached a record 375,425 tons in June and were last at 258,275 tons, still seven times the average over the past decade, bourse data show.

Supply regularly gets disrupted by everything from strikes to landslides. Freeport-McMoRan, based in Phoenix, lost about 125 million pounds (56,700 tons) of output in the second quarter after halting work at its Grasberg mine in Indonesia because of a tunnel collapse May 14. Rio Tinto Group’s $6.6 billion Oyu Tolgoi project in Mongolia was delayed because of disagreements with the government on funding.

“I’ve been to Asia recently and I see solid demand,” Javier Targhetta, the senior vice president of marketing and sales at Freeport-McMoRan said in an interview in London on Oct. 8. “I’ve seen a very solid market in China. The recovery of the U.S. is a fact. There are promising signs in Europe.”

Manufacturing Index

A Chinese manufacturing index compiled by HSBC Holdings Plc and Markit Economics reached a six-month high in September. The government’s broadest measure of credit rose more than forecast in August, signaling that a rebound is strengthening.

Faster economic growth may not be enough to spur an acceleration in the country’s refined copper imports, which rose 4.8 percent from a year earlier in August, according to customs data. Unwrought imports climbed 16 percent from a year earlier in September, reaching an 18-month high. Stockpiles held in China’s bonded warehouses, separate to those tracked by the Shanghai Futures Exchange, climbed 50,000 tons to 450,000 tons in August, Maike Futures Brokerage Co. says.

That’s more than the 31,500 tons withdrawn from bourse-monitored depots in the past three months. Premiums that buyers pay on top of the exchange price to secure immediate supply fell in September, an indication more metal was available, according to Standard Chartered Plc.

Five Years

Codelco, owned by Chile’s government, plans to invest $4 billion to $5 billion annually in the next five years to boost output, Chief Executive Officer Thomas Keller said in a Oct. 7 interview in London. The Santiago-based company’s $3 billion Mina Ministro Hales is scheduled to open later this year, eventually adding another 183,000 tons to global supply.

Mina Ministro Hales and Chinalco Mining Corp.’s Toromocho mine in Peru will be among the 10 biggest capacity additions next year, adding a combined 811,000 tons of output, according to Morgan Stanley.

Freeport-McMoRan will report a 15 percent drop in profit to $2.59 billion this year, the mean of nine analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg shows. Shares of the Phoenix-based company, which gets 79 percent of its revenue from copper, fell 2.2 percent to $33.44 in New York trading since the start of January. They will reach $36.94 in 12 months, according to the average of 16 analyst forecasts.

Processing Ore

Aurubis AG, Europe’s largest producer of refined copper, cut its annual profit forecast on Aug. 13, citing price swings and weaker European demand. The Hamburg-based company should be able to charge mining companies more for processing ore next year as mine output expands, CEO Peter Willbrandt said in an interview in London on Oct. 7. Higher returns for smelters worldwide may accelerate the surge in supply.

“As you get into the end of the year, the surplus will become more apparent,” said Gayle Berry, an analyst at Barclays in London who has covered metals for more than a decade. “Things are looking better from a demand perspective but you look at supply, copper mine supply is growing at the fastest that it has in almost a decade.”

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