Tightest supply in 18 years boosts copper ahead of industry show

Credit: CESCO

The copper industry isn’t letting tightening credit and slowing growth kill the buzz heading into one of its biggest annual gatherings.

Underpinning the quiet confidence of executives, bankers and traders drifting into the Chilean capital for Cesco Week are the lowest stockpiles of the metal in 18 years — standing at less than a week’s worth of consumption. It’s a measure that speaks to China’s reopening and supply-side stumbles and is a big reason why prices have held up better than most to the uncertainties sweeping through global markets.

“In terms of near-term outlook, I can say that demand for our production continues to be strong,” Richard Adkerson, chief executive officer of top publicly traded producer Freeport-McMoRan Inc., said in an interview.

The longer-term outlook is even more auspicious, with CRU Group, the consulting firm running the main conference in Cesco Week, predicting copper will move above $10,000 a ton from about $9,000 now.

As new deposits become pricier and tricker to develop, major producers like BHP Group and Glencore Plc are turning back to deal-making for growth. There’ll be plenty of interest in hearing the views of Jonathan Price, chief executive officer of Teck Resources Ltd., the target of a Glencore takeover bid, as well as BHP President Minerals Americas Ragnar Udd and Rio Tinto Group’s copper boss Bold Baatar.

“With miners reluctant to commit to big greenfield projects beyond what’s going on at the moment, come 2026 and 2027 you’re starting to get into deficit territory in the market,” said CRU Managing Consultant Robert Edwards.

For the industry, the outlook is a double-edged sword. High prices mean more revenue but with project constraints part of the reason for the bullishness, their ability to benefit also is constrained.

Chile is a prime example. The country’s output has stagnated as deteriorating ore quality and water restrictions offset new supply entering the market. At the same time, the government is looking for a bigger share of the windfall to fund social programs, proposing tax hikes that have seen companies hold off on investment decisions.

With greater scrutiny on environmental and social issues, permitting is also getting tougher. Cesco Week participants will get a better sense of Chile’s appetite for big projects late Monday when government ministers decide the fate of an expansion at an Anglo American Plc mine. The project, initially budgeted at $3.3 billion, was rejected by environmental regulators last year.

Supply headwinds in a nation with the biggest reserves of copper are a big deal for the global energy transition given how much of the metal is needed in everything from electric vehicles to wind turbines.

(By James Attwood)


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