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Silver outlook to Q4 2021: A year for the hybrid metal

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WisdomTree

Nitesh Shah, Director, Research, WisdomTree, provides his 2021 outlook for silver, including the potential drivers of performance and the continued recovery of industrial demand.

WidsomTree

“After a slow start, silver outpaced gold and most industrial metals in 2020. Initially riding gold’s defensive coattails and then getting a tailwind from its industrial traits, silver was an outperformer, gaining 47% in 2020. That compares to gold (24%), copper (27%) and nickel (21%). Silver’s hybrid status served it well in 2020 and we expect more of the same in 2021. As we articulated in Gold outlook to Q4 2021: at the crossroads of hope and fear, we start 2021 with the hope that COVID-19 vaccines will offer a route out of the malaise that the pandemic has wreaked on the health of the human population and the economies that we operate in. However, as has been abundantly clear in December 2020, the path to the recovery is likely to have many bumps along the road. Silver, playing both a defensive and cyclical role could do very well this year.

“Silver’s hybrid status has not gone unnoticed by investors. Silver held in exchange traded products (ETPs) rose to an all-time high in 2020 (Figure 1), and more remarkably at a pace never seen before. With 275mn ounces of silver added to silver exchange traded commodities in 2020, the year marks more than double the next highest year of silver ETP gains (2009 with 137mn ounces added). There was strong buying when silver was under-priced relative to gold in the first half of 2020. However, that buying slowed in the second half of the year as silver prices caught up with gold.

Silver in exchange traded products
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. 28/04/2006 to 30/12/2020. Data based on Bloomberg spot prices.

Framework

In “Gold and silver: similar, but different”, we argued that silver’s price performance is 80% correlated with gold. In our modelling framework, gold price is therefore the main driver of silver price. However, we also find the following variables as important drivers of silver price:

  • Growth in manufacturing activity – more than 50% of silver’s use is in industrial applications (in contrast to gold where less than 10% comes from that sector). We use global manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) as a proxy for industrial demand
  • Growth in silver inventory – rising inventories signal greater availability of the metal and hence is price negative. We use futures market exchange inventory as a proxy
  • Growth in mining capital investment (capex) – the more mines invest, the more potential supply we will see in the future. Thus, we take an 18-month lag on this variable. Given that most silver comes as a by-product of mining for other metals, we look at mining capex across the top 100 miners (not just monoline silver miners).

Gold outlook Q4 2021: at the crossroads of hope and fear

In Gold outlook to Q4 2021: at the crossroads of hope and fear we laid out our forecasts under three scenarios.

  1. Consensus – based on consensus forecasts for all the macroeconomic inputs and an assumption that investor sentiment towards gold remains flat at where it is today.
  2. Continued economic uncertainty – further monetary intervention, possibly through yield curve control – limits Treasury yields and the US dollar continues to weaken, while investor sentiment towards gold strengthens.
  3. Hawkish Fed – despite having adjusted its inflation target, the Federal Reserve (Fed) behaves hawkish and Treasury yields rise substantially, the US dollar appreciates back to where it was in June 2020 and inflation remains way below target. As US dollar debasement fears recede, positioning in gold futures declines.

In our silver forecast, we focus on the ‘Continued economic uncertainty scenario’ where the gold price reaches US$2130/oz at the end of the forecast horizon.

Silver forecasts

“We believe in growth terms, silver could outpace gold, reaching US$34/oz in Q4 2021 (33.6% from today’s levels, versus 13.3% for gold. We explain the other drivers to this forecast below.

Silver forecast
Source: WisdomTree (forecasts), Bloomberg (historic data), data available as of close 30 December 2020.

Industrial demand to continue to recover

“Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Indices (PMIs) have risen strongly in the past few months and are now in the expansionary post-50 region (Figure 3). Coming from a period of tight lockdowns, it’s unsurprising that the relative recovery from spring 2020 levels for the PMIs was strong as lockdown conditions eased. Renewed lockdowns could temporarily halt the improvement, but in general many businesses – with the support of a monetary and fiscal stimulus – will continue to see improvement. As with most historic recoveries, the pace of rebound is likely to slow in in the second half of the year. However, peaking at over 55, the PMIs indicate plenty of industrial demand for silver to be expected.

Global PMI
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. Actual data: January 2009 to December 2020.

Mining supply could expand in 2021

“Our model approach uses the capital expenditure in mines as a proxy for future silver supply. While capital expenditure has declined in the past quarter (Figure 4), given the lag that we apply to this input, the rising capital expenditure we saw before that acts as a headwind for silver prices in our model approach.

Mining capital expenditure
Source: Bloomberg, data available as of close 30 December 2020.

“We know that earlier in 2020 many mines were unable to operate at full capacity due to social distancing and therefore silver mine production has been lower than it would have otherwise been. Figure 5 shows how much these COVID-19 related losses were estimated to be by Metals Focus. Assuming we don’t see lockdowns reintroduced in 2021, we are very likely to see mine production of silver rebound.

Silver mine supply
Operating – mines that are currently operating, Construction – mine is being constructed, Feasibility – a detailed feasibility study has taken place, Pre Feasibility – a preliminary feasibility study has taken place, COVID Loss – estimated loss of production due to virus.

Silver exchange inventory rising again

“Silver inventory in Comex warehouses took a dip earlier in 2020 as sourcing metal became difficult under COVID-19 related operational hurdles (including flying metal from refiners in Europe, which became very difficult during lockdown). However, the supply of silver at the futures exchange was always plentiful and did not experience as sharp a dislocation from the over-the-counter spot bullion market as gold did. In recent months silver inventory on exchange has resumed its upward trajectory (Figure 6). We expect this trend to continue, adding some headwinds to silver price.

“We should note that there is a distinction between registered and eligible inventory. Eligible means the metal meets exchange’s requirements but has not been pledged as collateral against a futures market transaction. Registered means the metal meets requirements and has been pledged as collateral for futures market transactions. Eligible can easily be converted into registered, and that is why we look at the aggregate. However, most of the gains in recent years have come in the form of eligible rather than registered. That could simply be the choice of warehousing more in Comex warehouses rather than other warehouses. Nevertheless, the greater source of visible inventory has had a price dampening impact on silver. We expect rising inventory to continue to have this effect in the future.

Silver Comex futures exchange inventory
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. 30/01/1996 to 30/12/2020. Comex is a futures and options trading market, now owned by Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Silver is not as cheap as it was in 2020

“After spiking to a modern-era high in Q1 2020, the gold-to-silver ratio is now sitting only slightly above its historic average since 1990 (Figure 7). In this regard silver is not as ‘cheap’ as it was in Q1 2020. We still expect silver outperformance over gold this year however, and our current forecasts (under the ‘continued economic uncertainty’ scenario) would put the gold-to-silver ratio at 63 at the end of 2021, just below the historic average of 68.

Gold to silver ratio
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. 01/06/1990 to 30/12/2020. Data based on Bloomberg spot prices.

Conclusion

“Although silver faces some headwinds from potential supply increases, its correlation to gold should act as strong tailwind. Moreover, its hybrid status will allow it to benefit from a cyclical upswing, as we pass the ‘bumps in the road’ in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Silver has outperformed gold in 2020 and its historic high gold-beta may continue to see it outperform gold when gold is rising.”

Nitesh Shah, Director, Research, WisdomTree

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Metals price forecast: Lower Before Higher

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

Lower before higher

SEB - Prognoser på råvaror - Commodity

The world is slowing down along with fiscal and monetary tightening. The rapid rise in interest rates this year will work with a lag so the slowdown in the real economy is likely to continue. We expect metals prices to ease along with that. The continued deterioration in the Chinese property market is likely structural with growth shifting towards higher value sectors including green energy and EVs. Chinese credit expansion has started. Stronger demand for metals like copper, nickel and aluminium is likely to emerge in H2-23. Strong prices for metals over the coming decade due to sub-par capex spending over the past decade is likely.

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

Weakening macro and weakening demand. The world is now in the grip of a tightening craze amid inflation panic which was the result of the stimulus boom ignited by Covid-19 panic. The US expanded its M2 monetary base by 30% of GDP during the stimulus boom. Donald Trump earlier clamped down on immigration from Mexico/Latin America. Rampant consumer spending on capital goods together with an ultra-tight labor market then led to intense inflation pressure in the US. But also, in many other countries which also stimulated too much. The US is ahead of the curve with respect to interest rate hikes. The USD has rallied, forcing many central banks around the world to lift rates to defend their currencies as well as fighting their own inflationary pressures. The Japanese central bank has refrained from doing so and has instead intervened in the yen currency market for the first time since 1998. The year 2022 will likely be the worst selloff in global government bonds since 1949 as interest rates rise rapidly from very low levels. This is taking place following a decade where the world has been gorging on ultra-cheap debt. There is clearly a risk that something will break apart somewhere in the financial system as the world gallops through this extreme roller coaster ride of stimulus and tightening. On top of this we have and energy crisis in Europe where natural gas prices for year 2023 currently is priced at 700% of normal levels. War in Ukraine, risk for the use of nuclear weapons, an enduring cool-down of the Chinese property market and continued lock-downs in China due to Covid-19 is adding plenty of uncertain elements.

Downside price risks for metals over the coming 6-9 months. The significant rise in rates around the world will work with a lag. There can be up to a 12-month lag from rates starts to rise to when they take real effect. Continued economic cool-down in the economy is thus likely. Chinese politicians seem unlikely to run yet another round of property market-based stimulus. As such there are clearly downside risks to global economic growth and industrial metals prices over the coming 6 months.

China may be a “White Swan Event” in H2-23 onward. LME’s China seminar in London on Monday 24 October this year was very interesting. The brightest spot in our view was Jinny Yang, the Chief China economist at ICBC Standard Bank. She stated that China may turn out to be a “white swan event” in H2-2023. Further that the Chinese economy now is on a decade long type of transition period. Away from property focused growth. With a shift instead to technology and innovation, telecoms and energy transition, consumer demand side economy and higher value and more advanced sectors. The property market will be a fading sector with respect to growth. Chinese politicians are fully committed to the energy transition. No slowdown in there. Credit expansion has already started. The real effect of that will emerge in H2-23. The new growth focus will be different from before. But it will still imply lots of metals like aluminium, copper, nickel, zinc, cobalt, manganese, and other special metals. There will be less copper for pipes and wiring for housing but there will be more copper for EVs, Solar power, Wind power and power networks etc.

Copper: Struggling supply from Chile, rising supply from Africa while Russian exports keeps flowing to market. The Chinese housing market normally accounts for 20% of global copper demand. So, slowing Chinese housing market is bad for copper. Russian exports keep flowing to SE Asia where it is re-exported. Good supply growth is expected from Africa in 2023. Supply from Chile is struggling with falling ore grades, political headwinds, and mining strikes. Demand is projected to boom over the coming decades while investments in new mines have been sub-par over the past decade. So strong prices in the medium to longer term. But in the short-term the negative demand forces will likely have the upper hand.

Nickel: Tight high-quality nickel market but surplus for low-quality nickel. There is currently a plentiful supply of low-grade nickel with weak stainless-steel demand and strong demand for high quality nickel for EV batteries. The result is a current USD 5-6000/ton price premium for high-quality vs. low-quality nickel. High-quality LME grade nickel now only accounts for 25% of the global nickel market. Over the coming decade there will be strong demand growth for high-quality nickel for EV batteries, but high-quality NiSO4 will take center stage. The price of high-quality nickel over the coming decade will depend on how quickly the world can ramp up low-grade to high-grade conversion capacity.

Aluminium: Russian production and exports keeps flowing at normal pace to the market through different routes. Supply from the western world set to expand by 1.3 m ton pa in 2023, the biggest expansion in a decade. Demand is projected to grow strongly over the decade to come with energy transition and EVs being strong sources of demand. Western premiums likely to stay elevated versus Asian premiums to attract metal. Increasing focus on low carbon aluminium. But weakness before strength.

SEB commodities price forecast:

SEB commodities price forecast

Chinese credit cycle vs industrial metals. Chinese credit expansion has already started.

Chinese credit cycle vs industrial metals
Source: SEB calculations, data from Blberg

This report has been compiled by SEB´s Commodity Research, a division within Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken AB (publ) (”SEB”), to provide background information only.

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Europe’s energy policy unravels a potential advantage for US energy over Europe

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WidsomTree

The clock is ticking for Europe to shield its economy amidst the current energy crisis. The cost of electricity across the European bloc is nearly 10 times the 10-year average in response to Russia cutting back natural gas supplies in retaliation to sanctions. There has been a substantial increase in the share of supply of Liquidifies Natural Gas (LNG) and alternative suppliers as a direct replacement of waning Russian gas supply.

Figure 1: Natural gas flows in the European market, first half 2022 versus first half 2021

Karta hur importen av naturgas till Europa har förändrats
Source: Bruegel, WisdomTree as of 6 September 2022. Please note: Arrows width indicates size of 2022 flow.

European leaders are racing to come up with a plan on energy intervention in the power markets. One of the measures being touted is imposing an energy windfall tax on oil and gas profits to help households and businesses survive this upcoming winter season. The plan is to re-channel these unexpected profits from the energy sector to help domestic consumers and companies pay these high bills. The windfall tax on the oil and gas companies should be treated as a “solidarity contribution,” according to European Commission (EC) President, Ursula von der Leyen.

Imposing a windfall tax on those profiting from the war

A windfall tax would impose a levy on the revenues generated by non-gas producing companies when market prices exceed €200 per megawatt hour (Mwh) and redistribute excess revenues to vulnerable companies and households. There has been greater consensus among other European Union (EU) countries on the windfall tax compared to other parts of the European Commission’s 5-point plan. This includes – setting a price cap on Russian gas, a mandatory reduction in peak electricity demand, funding for ailing utility companies, a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies and changes to collateral requirements for electricity companies. The EC’s plan will need to meet the approval of the bloc before being enforced. The most controversial issue remains the Russian price cap – aimed at penalising Russia for weaponising energy.

Coordinated energy policy needed despite different energy mix across EU bloc

There are major differences between member states based on those that rely on coal, nuclear or renewable power owing to which imposing a one energy policy will be challenging. Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia, known to import large amounts of Russian gas are against the price cap on Russian gas. On the other hand, a number of  EU countries including France, Italy, and Poland, support a cap, but argue it should apply to all imported forms of the fuel, including LNG. Germany is undecided but fears the disagreements on the price caps risk spoiling EU unity. Spain, a big generator of wind and solar power was quick to draw criticism of the proposed €200/Mwh as it does not correspond to the real costs and fails to support electrification and the deployment of renewables.

In the US, various Senators including Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, have proposed legislation that would double the tax rate of large oil and gas companies excess profits. However, given the current political climate it seems increasingly unlikely that these proposals would gain any traction in Congress.

Europe’s energy policy likely to put a strain on capex in the near term

Since the oil price plunge from 2014 to 2016 alongside climate change awareness and Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) mandates, the energy sector saw a sharp decline in capital expenditure (capex). Since then, capex in the global energy sector has failed to attain the levels last seen at the peak in 2014. While capex trends in Europe’s energy sector had begun to outpace that of the US, driven mainly by a rise in the share of spending on clean energy, we believe the impending energy crisis and energy policy including the national windfall levies in Europe are likely to disincentivise capex in Europe compared to the US over the medium term. High prices are encouraging several countries to step up fossil fuel investment, as they seek to secure and diversify their sources of supply.

Source: Bloomberg, WisdomTree as of 31 August 2022.

The divergent energy policies and prevalent supply situations in the US and Europe opens up a potential opportunity in the energy sector. The energy sector has been the unique bright spot in global equity markets in 2022 posting the strongest earnings results in H1 2022. Despite its strong price performance, the US energy sector trades at a price to earnings (P/E) ratio of 8x and has a dividend yield of 3%. In September 2008, the energy sector had a 12.5% weight in the S&P 500 and was the fourth largest sector by market capitalisation in the world’s largest economy and equity market. Fast forward to today, the energy sector accounts for only 4% of the S&P 500 Index. While the future trajectory is greener, the world has come to terms with the fact that we will require oil and gas in the interim in order to fulfil our energy requirements. Investment is increasing in all parts of the energy sector, but the main boost in recent years has come from the power sector – mainly in renewables and grids – and from increased spending on end-use efficiency. As Europe plans to reduce its reliance on Russian energy supply, it will become more reliant on US LNG imports. This should fuel further investment in the US energy sector in the interim.

Aneeka Gupta, Director, Macroeconomic Research, WisdomTree

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Agricultural commodities could offer a hedge against inflation

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WidsomTree

Agricultural commodity prices have been buoyed higher by rising grain and oilseed prices. At a time, when global equities have sold off by nearly 13.88% amidst soaring inflation and tightening liquidity conditions, agricultural commodities are up 26.8%. There are a plethora of supply side issues emanating from the war that are likely to continue to drive prices higher – the rise of protectionism, higher fertiliser costs, changing biofuel mandates and adverse weather conditions to name a few. The Russia-Ukraine war has had ripple effects from disrupting supply chains to raising fertiliser costs.

Rising protectionism buoys agricultural commodities higher

The war-related disruptions have also given rise to protectionism. To cite a few examples in 2022– India, the world’s third largest wheat producer, announced it would restrict wheat exports to manage domestic supplies of the grain, which led to a sharp rise in wheat prices. Indonesia also announced an export ban on palm oil on April 28, but the ban was lifted on May 19 after hundreds of farmers rallied to protest the move. In a tight oil-seeds markets, the initial announcement led soybean oil, an alternative to palm oil, sharply higher.

Source: WisdomTree as of 7 June 2022

Higher biofuel blending mandates to bolster demand for corn and soybean oil

Changes in the biofuel blending mandates are also poised to increase demand for agricultural commodities. The US is home to the world’s largest biofuel market. The Biden administration is ordering refiners to boost the use of biofuels such as corn-based ethanol. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is requiring refiners to mix 20.63 billion gallons of renewable fuels into gasoline and diesel this year, marking a 9.5% increase over last year’s target. This will put pressure on refiners to blend more biofuel into their gasoline production this year, resulting in a net positive impact on the biofuels industry. Grains such as corn stand to benefit owing to their high starch content and relatively easy conversion to ethanol. Amidst waning stockpiles of diesel, Brazil is also considering increasing the biodiesel blend to 15% from 10% (i.e. the amount of soybean oil blended into trucking fuel). This has the potential to bolster demand for soybeans at a time when soybeans are already in short supply due to droughts in South America and US plantings trail last year’s pace.

Rising fertiliser costs are weakening demand, in turn lowering yields

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused disruptions in fertiliser production and material price increases, which has put farmer margins and agricultural yields at risk elsewhere, driving the prices of most agricultural commodities higher. Russia and Ukraine account for a significant share of the global fertiliser trade. Russia produces 9% of global nitrogen fertiliser, 10% of global phosphate fertiliser, and 20% of global potash fertiliser. It exports more than two thirds of its production of each product. Belarus produces an additional 17% of global potash and exports most of it.

Owing to its high soil quality, Argentina tends to use less fertilisers, but Brazil (the world’s largest importer of fertilisers) of which 85% of its needs are imported, is likely to feel the impact more. Russia alone accounts for 25% of Brazil’s total fertiliser imports. Farmers can also plant more soybeans, which require less fertilisers than corn. The US and global corn balance are set to continue to tighten, which suggests that the current high price environment is set to linger. The high prices and low availability of fertilisers is making farmers reduce usage and is also resulting in lower fertiliser prices similar to the trend witnessed back in 2008.

Ammonia prices
Source: Bloomberg, WisdomTree as of 27 May 2022.

Speculative positioning garnering momentum among agricultural commodities 

According to data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), net speculative positioning in agricultural commodities has risen considerably since the covid pandemic. Tighter supply coupled with stockpiling by national governments concerned about food security has led to a rise in agricultural commodity prices. Not only has net speculative positioning on agricultural commodities risen versus its own history but also in comparison to other commodity subsectors, as illustrated in the chart below:

Speculative positions
Source: WisdomTree, CFTC, Bloomberg as of 25 May 2022.

Adverse weather conditions impact agricultural commodities

El Niño and La Niña are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific—the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or “ENSO” for short. The pattern shifts back and forth irregularly every two to seven years, and each phase triggers predictable disruptions of temperature, precipitation. The current La Niña has been around since October 2021. It has been responsible for the South American droughts, milder weather in Southern parts of US and heavy rainfalls across the Pacific Northwest. There is a 51% chance La Niña could continue into the December to February period, with those odds down from last month’s forecast of 58% according to the US climate prediction centre. The waters across the equatorial Pacific Ocean are expected to stay cool or be close to normal between June and September, which means the influence on weather patterns won’t be enough to disrupt tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic.  

Conclusion

Agricultural commodities have posted a strong performance in 2022. Yet there remain plenty of factors that could drive the performance of this commodity subsector even higher. Agricultural commodities are unique owing to their high dependence on weather conditions that make them volatile but also offer diversification benefits.

Aneeka Gupta, Director, Macroeconomic Research, WisdomTree

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