The metal’s rebound from four-year lows in March mirrors the rally in that other gravity-defying asset class, the FANG-powered U.S. stock market. Copper’s rally has exceeded expectations, given that the most pessimistic forecasts for pandemic-related supply disruptions haven’t been borne out. Peru’s production fell in August from a month earlier, hit by worker shortages, but output in Chile, the world’s top exporter, increased. BHP Group-operated Escondida, the Chilean copper mine that’s the world’s largest, avoided a strike last week, even if workers at Lundin Mining Corp.’s far smaller Candelaria downed tools in the country.
China’s industrial production gained momentum to rise a forecast-beating 6.9% in September from a year earlier; excavator demand has jumped, along with car sales. Fiscal stimulus, an imminent five-year plan that will boost clean energy investments, and an expansionary monetary policy are all supporting the recovery. Meanwhile, an appreciating yuan has increased consumers’ purchasing power.
Indeed, China’s dynamics have been enough to put copper back on a rising path after a short-lived drop earlier this month, when U.S. President Donald Trump was diagnosed with coronavirus. That’s partly because inventories are still close to historic lows, making the price more likely to swing on supply hiccups, like Lundin’s disruption. But it also hints at a market watching the macroeconomic signals rather than output specifics, and expecting China, which has already imported more copper than it did in 2019, to keep on spending its way through post-pandemic convalescence.
The five-year plan is set to include ample sums for electrification, clean energy and electric cars, which use four times as much of the metal as a standard vehicle. They are already forecast to make up the bulk of copper growth over the next decade or so, along with charging infrastructure. Then there are the aggressive decarbonization ambitions. All of that, and hopes of a spending spike in the fourth quarter from the likes of State Grid Corp. of China, explains the persistent net long positions among money managers in CME copper, up again, according to the latest Commitments of Traders Report. There are fewer bears out there, too, compared to much of early 2020 and 2019.
Still, supply is unlikely to be the immediate cause if the rally does stumble. The reality is that even at lower prices, miners have been eyeing up deals for some time, given the metal’s gleaming green-economy prospects. Unfortunately, theory is easier than practice. Anyone needing a reminder could do worse than consider BHP’s Olympic Dam copper operation in Australia, where ambitions and scale have shrunk again this week. It’s a far cry from a vision that once included the world’s largest open pit.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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