Trade war has copper prices artificially low, Chile minister says

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The phase-one trade deal between the US and China may bring some relief to copper exporters, helping shore up the finances of Chilean state-run producer Codelco, Mining Minister Baldo Prokurica said.

Copper prices may rally to $3 a pound, from an average of about $2.72 last year, as Washington and Beijing work to resolve their trade dispute that has ushered in a “complex period” of economic uncertainty, hurting industrial demand for the metal, Prokurica said in a phone interview.

U.S.-China tensions helped trigger a slowdown in global manufacturing, fueling concerns over the outlook for copper and keeping a lid on price gains even as inventories shrank. The two countries, the world’s biggest consumers of the metal, signed what they billed as the first phase of a broader trade pact on Wednesday. Copper prices rallied in the run-up to the agreement, and are headed for a second straight weekly gain.

“We constantly sustained our thesis, which I think has been confirmed,” Prokurica said Thursday. Copper is “artificially low because of the instability caused by the trade war.”

A resolution to the trade dispute may prompt buyers including China to rebuild their stockpiles, helping fuel the rebound in prices, Prokurica said. Inventories tracked by exchanges in Shanghai, London and New York have shrank by more than a third in the past six months.

Copper for March delivery rose 0.1% to $2.85 a pound at 11:59 a.m. in New York on Friday.

Codelco, the world’s top copper producer, hands all of its profit to the Chilean government, which decides how much it will reinvest. The company has planned to spend more than $20 billion over a decade to modernize its aging mines and prevent a looming production slump.

Government funding for Codelco’s modernization has taken a backseat as President Sebastian Pinera prioritizes social projects after a wave of nationwide protests against income inequality in the country. Finance Minister Ignacio Briones has said the company “can access financing via capitalization or international markets,” touching off speculation among coper traders about whether the state-run miner would consider an initial public offering.

Prokurica ruled out an initial public offering for the mining giant Thursday.

“The privatization of Codelco isn’t part of President Pinera’s government agenda,” he said. “That’s a matter of constitutional reform, and it hasn’t been raised, not in the government’s agenda, and much less now.”

(By Maria Elena Vizcaino, with assistance from Eduardo Thomson and Steven Frank)

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