Copper output to spike, but surplus to remain 'very modest'

Ministro Hales Codelco

Source: Codelco

The largest of 10 growth projects around the world, Codelco's Ministro Hales will by itself add 170,000 tonnes to global copper supply in 2014

The news from the metals world's number one annual gathering – LME Week – has not been encouraging for copper miners.

For the first time since 2008, a survey of metals and mining investors polled by Macquarie, did not pick copper as their favourite metal for 2014.

In 2012, 55% of respondents said copper will be the best performing metal. This year that figure fell to 17%.

Top honours this year went to lowly lead and tin.

Reasons for copper's diminished prospects and price weakness – the metal has slid 12% year to date – are not hard to find.

The slowdown in number one consumer of the red metal China is a major factor, but most of the blame must go to growth in supply.

For the past seven years annual supply growth has been essentially static falling to as lows as 0.4% a year in 2010 to 2011.

This year growth in copper mine supply is set to jump by more than 5% and accelerate further in 2014, topping 6% and averaging over 4% through 2016.

The top 10 copper mine expansions – half of which are greenfield projects led by the massive new Mina Ministro Hales in Chile and Rio Tinto's Oyu Tolgoi – will alone contribute more than one million tonnes of new supply in 2014.

Adding to the abundant available metal has been the relatively few supply disruptions in 2013.

Total global refined production is set to increase to around 22 million in 2014 from less than 21 million tonnes this year.

The pace of new supply hitting the market could also turn out to be slower than thought as major expansion projects including Teck's Quebrada Blanca and Antofagasta's Los Pelambres are delayed and doubts about Rio Tinto's Oyu Tolgoi underground phase creep in.

Cost increases and economic recovery in developed markets mean few expect a collapse in prices.

The CEO of industry bellwether Codelco, Thomas Keller told the FT that "the surplus we are forecasting is very modest" and predicting "really marginal" oversupply of 300,000 – 400,000 tonnes.

The audience at LME week shares Keller's relative optimism.

According to the Macquarie survey the weighted average price expectation for cash copper was more than $7,300 a tonne a year from now. That's up from today's LME official price of closer to $7,100 a tonne.