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Analys

SEB Metals Weekly: China Covid exit is bullish for metals

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China Covid exit is bullish for metals

Softer inflation, slight macro-optimism, and China taking a rapid exit from Covid restrictions. Markets have become more optimistic. Inflation indices have eased and that has created some hopes that central banks won’t lift interest to a level that will kill the economy in 2023. Natural gas prices in Europe have fallen sharply. This has suddenly reduced energy-inflationary pressure and removed the direst downside economic risks for the region. But general market optimism is far from super-strong yet. The S&P 500 index has only gained 1.9% since our previous forecast on 1 Nov 2021, and oil prices are down nearly 10% in a reflection of concerns for global growth. China has however removed all Covid-restrictions almost overnight. It is now set to move out of its three years of Covid-19 isolation and lockdowns at record speed. Industrial metals are up 20% and the Hong Kong equity index is up 40% as a result (since 1 Nov-22). China’s sudden and rapid Covid-19 exit is plain and simply bullish for the Chinese economy to the point that mobility indices are already rebounding quickly. SEB’s general view is that inflation impulses will fade quickly. No need then for central banks across the world to kill the global economy with further extreme rate hikes. These developments have removed much of the downside price risks for metals in 2023 and we have to a large degree shifted our 2024 forecast to 2023.

Lower transparency, more geopolitics, more borders, and higher prices and exponential spikes. The first decade of this century was about emerging markets, the BRICs, the commodity price boom, the commodity investment boom, and free markets with free flow of commodities and labor with China and Russia hand in hand with western countries walking towards the future. High capex spending in the first decade led to plentiful supply and low prices for commodities from 2011 to 2020. A world of plenty, friends everywhere, free flow of everything, and no need to worry. The coming decade will likely be very different. Supply growth will struggle due to mediocre capex spending over the past 10 years. Prices will on average be significantly higher. There will be frequent exponential price spikes whenever demand hits supply barriers. Price transparency will be significantly reduced due to borders, taxes, sanctions, geopolitical alignments, and carbon intensities. Prices will be much less homogenous. Aluminium will no longer be just one price and one quality. Who made it, where was it made, where will it be consumed and what the carbon content will create a range of prices. Same for most other metals.

Copper: Struggling supply and China revival propel copper prices higher. Unrest in Peru is creating significant supply risks for copper as the country accounts for 10% of the global supply. Chile accounts for 27% of global production. Production there is disappointing with Codelco, the Chilean state-owned copper mining company, struggling to hit production targets. The Cobre Panama mine in Panama is at risk of being closed over a tax dispute between Quantum and the government. Cobre Panama is one of the biggest new mines globally over the past 10 years. The rapid exit from Covid restrictions in China is bullish for the Chinese economy and thus for copper demand and it has helped to propel prices higher along with the mentioned supply issues. The Chinese property market will continue to struggle, and it normally accounts for 20% of global copper demand while China accounted for 55% of global copper demand in 2021. While China is no longer prioritizing the housing market it is full speed ahead for solar, wind, EVs, and electrification in general. So, weakening Chinese copper demand from housing will likely be replaced by the new prioritized growth sectors. Global supply growth is likely going to be muted in the decade to come while demand growth will be somewhere between a normal 3% pa. to a strong 4% pa. to a very strong 5% pa. Copper prices will be high, and demand will hit the supply barrier repeatedly with exponential spikes as the world is working hard to accelerate the energy transition. Copper prices could easily spike to USD 15-16,000/ton nearest years.

Nickel: Tight high-quality nickel market but a surplus for a low-quality nickel. Nickel production is growing aggressively in Indonesia. The country is projected to account for 60-70% of global supply in 2030. This will become a huge and extremely concentrated geopolitical risk for the world’s consumers of nickel. Indonesia has an abundance of low-grade C2 nickel. The challenge is to convert low-quality C2 nickel to high-quality C1. We are set for a surplus of C2 nickel but the market for C1 nickel will depend strongly on the conversion capacity for C2 to C1. Low price transparency will also help to send prices flying between USD 20,000/ton and USD 30,000/ton. Strong growth in nickel production in Indonesia should initially call for prices down to USD 20,000/ton. But Indonesia is a price setter. It will account for 50% of global supply in 2023. It doesn’t make sense for Indonesia to kill the nickel price. If the nickel price drops, then Indonesia could quickly regulate supply. There should be a premium to nickel due to this. As a result, we expect the nickel price to average USD 24,000/ton in 2023. C2 to C1 conversion capacity may be strained and there should also be a monopoly premium due to the size of Indonesia. Converting C2 to C1 is however extremely carbon intensive and that could be an increasing issue in the years to come.

Zinc: Super-tight global market. European LME inventories are ZERO and zinc smelters there are still closed. European zinc smelters account for 16% of global zinc smelter capacity. Most of this was closed over the past year due to extremely high energy prices. European LME zinc stockpiles are now down to a stunning zero! The global zinc market is extremely tight. Reopening of European zinc smelting seems unlikely in H1-23 with a continued super-tight market as a result both in Europe and globally.

Aluminium: Price likely to be in the range of USD 2400 – 3200/ton and line with coal prices in China. Aluminium prices have historically been tightly tied to the price of coal. But coal prices have been all over the place since the start of 2021 with huge price differences between Amsterdam, Australia, and domestic Chinese coal prices which are now largely state-controlled. China banning imports of Australian coal, the Chinese energy crisis in 2021, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 are ingredients here. This sent aluminium prices flying high and low. Coal prices in China today imply a price of aluminium between USD 2400/ton and 3150/ton with the LME 3mth aluminium price nicely in between at USD 2590/ton. The global coal market should now become more orderly as China now again is accepting Australian coal. Energy costs have fallen sharply in Europe and some producers in the Netherlands have talked about possible restarts of production. China is likely to reduce its exports of primary aluminium. Energy security of supply is high on the agenda in China, and it makes no sense to emit lots of CO2 in China and indirectly export energy in the form of primary aluminium. Growth in non-China aluminium demand in the years to come will have to be covered by non-China producers which have the potential to force prices higher and away from coal as the price driver. While LME has one price for the 3mth aluminium price we’ll likely get larger and larger price differences across the world in the form of possibly extreme price premiums for example in the EU and the US.

SEB Commodities price outlook
Source: SEB Markets – Commodities. Historical data: Bloomberg 

Analys

Nat gas to EUA correlation will likely switch to negative in 2026/27 onward

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Historically positive Nat gas to EUA correlation will likely switch to negative in 2026/27 onward

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Historically there has been a strong, positive correlation between EUAs and nat gas prices. That correlation is still fully intact and possibly even stronger than ever as traders increasingly takes this correlation as a given with possible amplification through trading action.

The correlation broke down in 2022 as nat gas prices went ballistic but overall the relationship has been very strong for quite a few years.

The correlation between nat gas and EUAs should be positive as long as there is a dynamical mix of coal and gas in EU power sector and the EUA market is neither too tight nor too weak:

Nat gas price UP  => ”you go black” by using more coal => higher emissions => EUA price UP

But in the future we’ll go beyond the dynamically capacity to flex between nat gas and coal. As the EUA price moves yet higher along with a tightening carbon market the dynamical coal to gas flex will max out. The EUA price will then trade significantly above where this flex technically will occur. There will still be quite a few coal fired power plants running since they are needed for grid stability and supply amid constrained local grids.

As it looks now we still have such overall coal to gas flex in 2024 and partially in 2025, but come 2026 it could be all maxed out. At least if we look at implied pricing on the forward curves where the forward EUA price for 2026 and 2027 are trading way above technical coal to gas differentials. The current forward pricing implications matches well with what we theoretically expect to see as the EUA market gets tighter and marginal abatement moves from the power sector to the industrial sector. The EUA price should then trade up and way above the technical coal to gas differentials. That is also what we see in current forward prices for 2026 and 2027.

The correlation between nat gas and EUAs should then (2026/27 onward) switch from positive to negative. What is left of coal in the power mix will then no longer be dynamically involved versus nat gas and EUAs. The overall power price will then be ruled by EUA prices, nat gas prices and renewable penetration. There will be pockets with high cost power in the geographical points where there are no other alternatives than coal.

The EUA price is an added cost of energy as long as we consume fossil energy. Thus both today and in future years we’ll have the following as long as we consume fossil energy:

EUA price UP => Pain for consumers of energy => lower energy consumption, faster implementation of energy efficiency and renewable energy  => lower emissions 

The whole idea with the EUA price is after all that emissions goes down when the EUA price goes up. Either due to reduced energy consumption directly, accelerated energy efficiency measures or faster switch to renewable energy etc.

Let’s say that the coal to gas flex is maxed out with an EUA price way above the technical coal to gas differentials in 2026/27 and later. If the nat gas price then goes up it will no longer be an option to ”go black” and use more coal as the distance to that is too far away price vise due to a tight carbon market and a high EUA price. We’ll then instead have that:

Nat gas higher => higher energy costs with pain for consumers => weaker nat gas / energy demand & stronger drive for energy efficiency implementation & stronger drive for more non-fossil energy => lower emissions => EUA price lower 

And if nat gas prices goes down it will give an incentive to consume more nat gas and thus emit more CO2:

Cheaper nat gas => Cheaper energy costs altogether, higher energy and nat gas consumption, less energy efficiency implementations in the broader economy => emissions either goes up or falls slower than before => EUA price UP 

Historical and current positive correlation between nat gas and EUA prices should thus not at all be taken for granted for ever and we do expect this correlation to switch to negative some time in 2026/27.

In the UK there is hardly any coal left at all in the power mix. There is thus no option to ”go black” and burn more coal if the nat gas price goes up. A higher nat gas price will instead inflict pain on consumers of energy and lead to lower energy consumption, lower nat gas consumption and lower emissions on the margin. There is still some positive correlation left between nat gas and UKAs but it is very weak and it could relate to correlations between power prices in the UK and the continent as well as some correlations between UKAs and EUAs.

Correlation of daily changes in front month EUA prices and front-year TTF nat gas prices, 250dma correlation.

Correlation of daily changes in front month EUA prices and front-year TTF nat gas prices
Source: SEB graph and calculations, Blbrg data

EUA price vs front-year TTF nat gas price since March 2023

EUA price vs front-year TTF nat gas price since March 2023
Source: SEB graph, Blbrg data

Front-month EUA price vs regression function of EUA price vs. nat gas derived from data from Apr to Nov last year.

Front-month EUA price vs regression function of EUA price vs. nat gas derived from data from Apr to Nov last year.
Source: SEB graph and calculation

The EUA price vs the UKA price. Correlations previously, but not much any more.

The EUA price vs the UKA price. Correlations previously, but not much any more.
Source: SEB graph, Blbrg data

Forward German power prices versus clean cost of coal and clean cost of gas power. Coal is totally priced out vs power and nat gas on a forward 2026/27 basis.

Forward German power prices versus clean cost of coal and clean cost of gas power. Coal is totally priced out vs power and nat gas on a forward 2026/27 basis.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

Forward price of EUAs versus technical level where dynamical coal to gas flex typically takes place. EUA price for 2026/27 is at a level where there is no longer any price dynamical interaction or flex between coal and nat gas. The EUA price should/could then start to be negatively correlated to nat gas.

Forward price of EUAs versus technical level
Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

Forward EAU price vs. BNEF base model run (look for new update will come in late April), SEB’s EUA price forecast.

Forward EAU price vs. BNEF base model run
Source: SEB graph and calculations, Blbrg data
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Analys

Fear that retaliations will escalate but hopes that they are fading in magnitude

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Brent crude spikes to USD 90.75/b before falling back as Iran plays it down. Brent crude fell sharply on Wednesday following fairly bearish US oil inventory data and yesterday it fell all the way to USD 86.09/b before a close of USD 87.11/b. Quite close to where Brent traded before the 1 April attack. This morning Brent spiked back up to USD 90.75/b (+4%) on news of Israeli retaliatory attack on Iran. Since then it has quickly fallen back to USD 88.2/b, up only 1.3% vs. ydy close.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

The fear is that we are on an escalating tit-for-tat retaliatory path. Following explosions in Iran this morning the immediate fear was that we now are on a tit-for-tat escalating retaliatory path which in the could end up in an uncontrollable war where the US unwillingly is pulled into an armed conflict with Iran. Iran has however largely diffused this fear as it has played down the whole thing thus signalling that the risk for yet another leg higher in retaliatory strikes from Iran towards Israel appears low.

The hope is that the retaliatory strikes will be fading in magnitude and then fizzle out. What we can hope for is that the current tit-for-tat retaliatory strikes are fading in magnitude rather than rising in magnitude. Yes, Iran may retaliate to what Israel did this morning, but the hope if it does is that it is of fading magnitude rather than escalating magnitude.

Israel is playing with ”US house money”. What is very clear is that neither the US nor Iran want to end up in an armed conflict with each other. The US concern is that it involuntary is dragged backwards into such a conflict if Israel cannot control itself. As one US official put it: ”Israel is playing with (US) house money”. One can only imagine how US diplomatic phone lines currently are running red-hot with frenetic diplomatic efforts to try to defuse the situation.

It will likely go well as neither the US nor Iran wants to end up in a military conflict with each other. The underlying position is that both the US and Iran seems to detest the though of getting involved in a direct military conflict with each other and that the US is doing its utmost to hold back Israel. This is probably going a long way to convince the market that this situation is not going to fully blow up.

The oil market is nonetheless concerned as there is too much oil supply at stake. The oil market is however still naturally concerned and uncomfortable about the whole situation as there is so much oil supply at stake if the situation actually did blow up. Reports of traders buying far out of the money call options is a witness of that.

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Analys

Fundamentals trump geopolitical tensions

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Throughout this week, the Brent Crude price has experienced a decline of USD 3 per barrel, despite ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. Price fluctuations have ranged from highs of USD 91 per barrel at the beginning of the week to lows of USD 87 per barrel as of yesterday evening.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

Following the release of yesterday’s US inventory report, Brent Crude once again demonstrated resilience against broader macroeconomic concerns, instead focusing on underlying market fundamentals.

Nevertheless, the recent drop in prices may come as somewhat surprising given the array of conflicting signals observed. Despite an increase in US inventories—a typically bearish indicator—we’ve also witnessed escalating tensions in the Middle East, coupled with the reinstatement of US sanctions on Venezuela. Furthermore, there are indications of impending sanctions on Iran in response to the recent attack on Israel.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has indicated that new sanctions targeting Iran, particularly aimed at restricting its oil exports, could be announced as early as this week. As previously highlighted, we maintain the view that Iran’s oil exports remain vulnerable even without further escalation of the conflict. It appears that Israel is exerting pressure on its ally, the US, to impose stricter sanctions on Iran, an action that is unfolding before our eyes.

Iran’s current oil production stands at close to 3.2 million barrels per day. Considering additional condensate production of about 0.8 million barrels per day and subtracting domestic demand of roughly 1.8 million barrels per day, the net export of Iranian crude and condensate is approximately 2.2 million barrels per day.

However, the uncertainty surrounding the enforcement of such sanctions casts doubt on the likelihood of a complete ending of Iranian exports. Approximately 80% of Iran’s exports are directed to independent refineries in China, suggesting that US sanctions may have limited efficacy unless China complies. The prospect of China resisting US pressure on its oil imports from Iran poses a significant challenge to US sanctions enforcement efforts.

Furthermore, any shortfall resulting from sanctions could potentially be offset by other OPEC nations with spare capacity. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for instance, can collectively produce an additional almost 3 million barrels of oil per day, although this remains a contingency measure.

In addition to developments related to Iran, the Biden administration has re-imposed restrictions on Venezuelan oil, marking the end of a six-month reprieve. This move is expected to impact flows from the South American nation.

Meanwhile, US crude inventories (excluding SPR holdings) surged by 2.7 million barrels last week (page 11 attached), reaching their highest level since June of last year. This increase coincided with a decline in measures of fuel demand (page 14 attached), underscoring a slightly weaker US market.

In summary, while geopolitical tensions persist and new rounds of sanctions are imposed, our market outlook remains intact. We maintain our forecast of an average Brent Crude price of USD 85 per barrel for the year 2024. In the short term, however, prices are expected to hover around the USD 90 per barrel mark as they navigate through geopolitical uncertainties and fundamental factors.

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