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Base Metals Market Tracker

Base Metals Market Tracker provides independent forecasting and coverage of all the key parameters affecting market movements for copper, aluminium, nickel, tin, lead and zinc. The service brings you accurate and reliable pricing information for all the key physical and financial transactions taking place within the base metals arena.

Latest Issue

  • Market Summary: Q2 to the rescue?

    20 March 2018

    As Q1 draws to a close, the base metal markets will be looking to Q2 and the pick-up in demand that often comes with it. This may help to buoy prices and premiums, which have suffered from stock rises and a less friendly macroeconomic backdrop in recent weeks.

  • Aluminium: Steadier Q2

    20 March 2018

    In the near term aluminium prices are likely to remain vulnerable to further weakness. This is because important technical support was breached last week and because there is no end in sight to the long running, record-breaking stock accumulation in China now that the winter smelter cuts have ended. But there is also a risk that the fundamentals may start to improve gradually from April as demand will begin a seasonal recovery. Prices may even be able to steady in Q2, consolidating their Q1 losses.

  • Technical analysis: 200 DMAs in focus

    20 March 2018

    Most base metals have either breached or a threatening to breach their 200-day moving averages (DMA). Nickel stands out as being furthest away from its 200 DMA, so may have the furthest to fall if it is to realign with the other metals by this relative measure.

  • Copper: Reality check

    20 March 2018

    Copper still has the feel of a market suffering a reality after getting overly bullish at the end of last year. There has been no sign of tightness in the refined market and mine supply disruptions have been modest so far. Stronger demand in Q2 may shore up the picture somewhat, offsetting macro risks like a strong dollar and worries over a trade war. This may allow prices to continue consolidating beneath $7,000 per tonne. We still think Q3-Q4 will see rising prices, especially if supply disruptions pick up in the summer. Low TC/RCs are already factoring in this scenario.

  • Lead: Temporarily under pressure

    20 March 2018

    Lead prices remain under pressure, for now. Physical premiums and stock movements suggest a subdued refined market in which there is good availability. That said, very low TCs point to a still-tight concentrate market, which will keep refined supply constrained this year – enough, we think, to create another annual supply deficit, which should underpin a resumption of the multi-year uptrend in lead prices once the current more risk-averse sentiment fades.

  • Nickel: Holding up well

    20 March 2018

    Since pulling back from their mid-February high of $14,420 per tonne, LME nickel prices have spent more than a month consolidating in an orderly manner within their established up-channel, and continue to do so in the mid-$13,000s. We maintain that nickel appears well-placed to extend its gains when broader risk appetite rebounds.

  • Tin: Sell-off mode

    20 March 2018

    In line with our expectations, downward pressure on tin prices has intensified since the middle of March, with bulls capitulating and $21,000 per tonne breached. Our short-term forecasts still envisage prices averaging out at this level in Q2, which requires them to consolidate recent volatility and edge back up again, supported by stronger demand in the coming quarter.

  • Zinc: More signs of vulnerability

    20 March 2018

    While zinc prices remain supported at the $3,200 per tonne level for now, they are starting to look technically more vulnerable on the downside and the fundamentals less tight. Exchange stocks have been rising, and further monetary tightening at this week’s FOMC meeting risks more off-market stock reappearing out of the woodwork. Meanwhile, Chinese smelters increased production 2.5% year-on-year in January-February, reflecting improving concentrate availability, even ahead of new and restarted mine capacity coming on stream this year. Zinc bulls are likely to require stocks to start falling consistently before they are willing to test the upside again.

  • Base metals investment analysis: Fund interest in copper continues to wane

    20 March 2018

    Speculative long positions are falling, reflecting copper bulls starting to lose conviction. But short positions remain low, so funds are not getting bearish yet.

  • Demand Indicators: March 20 2018

    20 March 2018

    Demand indicators for the base metals market

  • Downloadable Base Metals Weekly Data March 20 2018

    20 March 2018

    Downloadable data for week March 20 2018

Breaking Views

  • Metals prices firmer, but still consolidating overall

    16 March 2018

    For the most part the base metals are consolidating as they wait to see how strong China’s demand is post Lunar New Year and how far the trade wars reach.

  • Metals prices get some support from Chinese data

    14 March 2018

    The pullback in base metals prices appears to have halted for now with most getting some lift off recent lows, no doubt helped by better Chinese data overnight. But given the uncertainty over where trade tariffs are heading it may well be that prices struggle on the upside and need longer to consolidate.

  • Metals prices remain on a back footing

    13 March 2018

    Most of the base metals prices are still looking weak, led by aluminium and lead. Copper and zinc are consolidating after being weak, while nickel and tin prices are holding up relatively well.

  • Metals consolidate Friday's rebound gains

    12 March 2018

    Friday’s rebound in base metals prices halted the recent slide, but with prices lower this morning we will need to see if bargain hunting comes in again today.

  • Metals prices remain under pressure, no relief in sight yet

    09 March 2018

    The base metals remain under pressure and given uncertainty over trade wars, it is not surprising risk is being taken off the table. Sentiment may be weak for a while as this headwind prevails.

  • More breaking views...

More analysis...

A weekly 24-page report:

  • Technical analysis and short-term trading strategies
  • Fundamental analysis and medium term forecasts on production, stocks, trade and consumption of the LME metals
  • Price-modelling and forecasting utilising high-low case scenario planning, quarterly with three year outlook
  • Analysis of speculative money flows and fund activity in the base metal commodities
  • Consensus price forecasts, quarterly to the end of 2017
  • Premiums forecasts, quarterly, forward one year, including European, US and Asian spot benchmarks for all six metals
  • Raw material price forecasts, forward one year, including alumina, copper TC/RCs and zinc TCs
  • Insights into leading industry companies
  • Independent analysis and forecasts covering all six base metals in one report

Additional data, downloadable into Excel:

  • Global supply-demand balances for all LME metals, with ten year history and two year forecast. Regional data breakdown - China, North America, Europe and ROW
  • Daily spot and forward LME prices, stocks, spreads, LME open interest and cancelled warrants by metal
  • Reported stocks by metal on a quarterly basis and demand indicators
  • Raw material prices data
  • Premiums data

All subscribers are eligible for regular individual consultations with the editor of the report.


Andrew Cole

Andrew Cole joined the Metal Bulletin group in 2000, initially as an associate editor with Industrial Minerals. He moved to Metal Bulletin Research in 2001 and has been analysing the base metals markets for the past 12 years. He is responsible for the Base Metals Weekly Market Tracker, and all aspects of MBR’s research and forecasting on the base metal markets. His price forecasts frequently rank in the leader boards of MB’s Apex analyst forecast surveys.

Andrew has also been project leader on a wide range of upstream and downstream consultancy assignments covering all the base metals and has managed the publication of a number of MBR’s non-ferrous book reports.

Andrew is an exploration geologist by training, with a PhD and practical experience in Central Asia and Africa, including the Zambian Copperbelt.                                                                                                          

Market Brief

Base metals are the major industrial non-ferrous metals other than precious metals and minor. Specifically, they are aluminium, copper, lead, nickel, tin and zinc. All six are traded on the London Metal Exchange (LME), which is the principal global marketplace for base metals accounting for abot 80% of global trade. The main exchange in China is the Shanghai Futures Exchange (SHFE), where aluminium, copper, lead and zinc are traded, while copper is also traded on the New York Commodity Exchange (Comex).

Prices are governed by the interaction between supply and demand fundamentals and the flow of investment and speculative capital into and out of the market.

The base metals’ major applications are found in industries such as automotive and transport, building and construction, intrastructure, electrical and electronics, packaging, consumer goods and batteries.

Traditional markets in Europe, the USA and Japan are still important, but have been overtaken by China during the last 10 years, which now accounts for around 40% of global production and consumption of each base metal.

Types of Base Metal

1. Aluminium

A light and durable metal that is easily rolled, extruded and recycled, aluminium is produced from bauxite via an intermediate product, alumina. Four tonnes of bauxite yields approximately two tonnes of alumina, which in turn results in about one tonne of primary aluminium out of the smelter gate. Several other ingredients are needed, but energy is the main input and most of this is consumed as electricity at the smelting stage to convert alumina to metal. It is because of the significant energy needs that primary aluminium production has increasingly gravitated towards regions of low energy cost rather than to where the metal is most needed – for example Japan, a major aluminium consumer, today has negligible smelting capacity, whereas the Middle East has established itself as a major primary aluminium production centre over the past decade. With aluminium prices tending to trade around the marginal cost of production in recent years, higher cost smelters remain under pressure.

The global aluminium market has been in a supply surplus since 2007, but excess material has been stored in financing and rent deals in warehouses, effectively keeping availability tight and elevating premiums to record high levels. However, increased regulatory scrutiny of the warehouse industry in 2013 has put premiums on a downward trajectory 

2. Copper

The most conductive – both electrically and thermally – of all the commonly available metals, copper is produced from sulphide or oxide ores typically from large open cast mines. Sulphide ores are concentrated, smelted and refined into cathode, while oxide ores can be heap-leached to produce cathode via the solvent-extraction, electowinning (SX-EW) process.

Major copper mining regions are found in the south western USA and Latin America, where Chile alone accounts for about one third of global output. The largest copper mining company in the world is Chilean state-owned producer Codelco, while the largest mine in the world is Escondida, also in Chile, but operated by global resources giant BHP Billiton. In contrast to the main centre of global copper mine production, the key region for refined copper production is Asia, led by China. The region is a major importer of concentrate and scrap.

The copper market has faced a decade of structural supply shortages created by a combination of underinvestment in new mines and a propensity for unplanned disruptions, which coincided with China’s demand boom. This underpinned high prices and a wave on fresh investments in new and expanded mining capacity. However, 2012 marked a transition to what should a new era of relatively ample supply as new projects come on line at the same time as economic growth in China and the developing world stabilises.  

3. Lead

Mined principally from ores often associated with zinc and silver, lead is a dense, ductile, low strength metal that has seen its range of industrial applications decline in recent decades in the face of environmental and health concerns, and this will continue. Currently, as much as 80% of lead produced in the world finds its way into the lead-acid storage battery market, the majority of which are used in the vehicles, but also in emergency back-up power systems and other industrial applications such as remote access power systems.

The growth of China’s automotive market over the past decade into the largest in the world has been a major driver of lead demand growth, and the explosion in popularity of electric bicycles (e-bikes) has boosted usage rates further. Lead is also still used to a small degree in the glass and plastics industries, for radiation shielding and cable sheathing.

Lead has the highest recycling rate of all the base metals, with more than 60% of production in the Western World coming from recycling, primarily of spent lead-acid batteries. The ratio is closer to 40% in China, which suggests that there is great potential for growth in secondary production in this country as environmental and recycling standards catch up to those of the West.

4. Nickel

Rarely visible in its pure form in modern life, nickel’s principal applications are through its performance as a nickel-rich alloy or through the properties it bestows on other metals as an alloying addition. Nickel-bearing alloys, with their high temperature performance, are crucial to the design of modern aircraft engines and the metal is also vitally important in stainless steel production – a sector that accounts for about two-thirds of all nickel usage.

Nickel ores fall into three types: nickel-copper sulphides, laterites and silicates, with processing methods different for each type. The sulphide ores, of which Canadian, Russian and Australian deposits are best known, are concentrates and refined into high-purity metal, usually producing copper and platinum group metals en-route. Other ores, largely mined in Indonesia, New Caledonia, the Philippines, Cuba, Brazil and Colombia, have a high iron content and are a natural feed for producing ferro-nickel or nickel pig iron (NPI) for the steel industry.

New sulphide deposits are far and far between, leaving the future of the nickel industry increasingly dependent upon laterites. In recent years, the new generation of nickel laterite-based mega projects – employing pressure acid leaching or ferro-nickel smelting – have proved to be capital intensive and technologically challenging, leading to lengthy commissioning and ramp-up delays and even project suspensions. The void has been filled by a boom in NPI production in China, but the nickel market is now characterised by major oversupply. 

5. Tin

The only tin ore with economic value is cassiterite. It is found in hard-rock deposits in quartz veins or in the eroded remnants of these orebodies that have been re-concentrated in alluvial or eluvial deposits in riverbeds or offshore. Hardrock mining has gradually lost ground to more cost-effective gravel pumps and dredging operations, with Indonesia and China the main centres of modern ore production.

The tin market is arguably the fundamentally tightest of all the base metals, and this is mainly a function of the supply side, due to a lack of investment in exploration and project development in recent decades, tightening environmental regulations in China and Indonesia, unrest in the DRC and declining ore grades in Peru. Tin prices will need to remain high in order to incentivise new investments in the coming years.

On the demand side, about half of all tin produced goes into the manufacture of solder for the electronics industry. Tinplate and plastics are the next most important sectors for tin usages, but the metal also finds applications in glassmaking and fire retardants.

6. Zinc

Zinc’s greatest property lies in acting as a protector for other substrates, especially steel. Zinc-coated steels – using mainly the continuous hot-dip galvanising method on sheet or wire – now absorb just over half of all zinc produced. When alloyed with copper, a series of brasses provides for the second-largest offtake of zinc, and this has overtaken the diecast sector in volume terms.

Geologically, zinc ore mainly takes the form of sphalerite and commonly occurs with lead, silver and copper ores in polymetallic deposits. Ore is concentrated and refined and China has grown to be the largest producer in the world of mined and refined zinc. It is also the largest consumer.

The zinc market has been in structural oversupply since 2007, but the closure of a number of major mines due to reserve exhaustion during the 2012-2016 period (such as Brunswick and Perseverance in Canada, Lisheen in Ireland and Century in Australia) should see supply tighten up, though not to the extent that supply deficits become commonplace. Therefore, zinc is expected to remain lower priced than its sister metal lead, which is a fundamentally tighter market.

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