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Metals Can Leap Over the Oil Slick

Clara Ferreira Marques

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After 2008, metals and oil rebounded together from the depths of the financial crisis, as China’s consumption of raw materials took off. This time, their recoveries may look quite different.

Crude faces a lengthy convalescence from the catastrophic lows of April, when U.S. oil plunged into negative territory. Industrial metal prices have fallen far less, and look healthier: Closures to control the spread of coronavirus in countries like Peru have squeezed production, just as China is gearing up. Add in Beijing’s infrastructure plans, expected to be outlined at the National People’s Congress meeting starting Friday, plus the prospect of green stimulus and more mineral-intensive clean energy, and the outlook looks rosier still.

Copper is indicative of these divergent paths. Out of other metals, Bloomberg Intelligence reckons it has moved most closely with oil over 160 years — a coefficient of 0.96 over that time. The link is beginning to weaken, and the current crisis will only make that more pronounced.

Why so?

Oil has certainly made an impressive comeback over the past few weeks: Many producers are still losing money, but West Texas Intermediate is back above $30, and there was no repeat of April’s crash when the contract rolled over this week. Brent crude is up almost 90% after last month dropping below $20. That’s because the supply glut has shrunk, thanks to the end of Russia’s price war with Saudi Arabia and significant involuntary shutdowns among U.S. producers, easing concerns about global storage capacity. That’s helpful, even if improving prices could bring back some shale activity.

Metals have also taken a hit to output from coronavirus lockdowns in Latin America and elsewhere. In late April, BMO analysts estimated these affected 23% of global capacity for copper, 15% for nickel and 24% for zinc. Projects like Anglo American Plc’s Quellaveco in Peru, where workers downed tools, could see delays. That’s helped copper to rise back toward a modest $5,500 per metric ton.

Supply reductions aren’t enough to make a difference without better demand, though, and that’s where the divergence becomes clearer. 

China tells part of the story. Construction activity and manufacturing are on the mend, drawing down metal inventories. It’s true that oil consumption is reviving, too: China’s taxis, buses and cars have been back at normal levels since early April, and traffic congestion has returned. But while that’s good news for gasoline and local refiners, it’s hardly salvation for global oil. Recoveries elsewhere are progressing more slowly and most of the world’s aircraft are still grounded. Simply put, China’s recovery matters more for metals, with the country accounting for roughly half of global consumption. By comparison, it makes up less than 14% of oil demand.

Now consider the cautious nature of Beijing’s economic reboot, which is a signal for other countries, and the bumps along the post-pandemic road to recovery. These make the picture darker for oil. Factories might keep producing washing machines, but more of us will stay away from leisure travel and work from home if incidents like the reappearance of the virus in China’s northeast repeat themselves. It’s not even clear that an aversion to the risks of public transport will get us back in our cars again, as my colleague David Fickling has pointed out. Demand for personal protective equipment like masks is hardly enough to offset a drop in gasoline and even jet fuel, which past experience suggests will take years to recover.

The NPC is expected to include a revived version of past efforts to develop the country’s western hinterland, alongside other stimulus efforts. No one anticipates a boost akin to what was seen in 2008. Even a similar amount would probably have a weaker multiplier effect — yet the boost will matter for copper, zinc and more. And that’s before the wider green fiscal push, in and outside China, that favors mined materials needed for batteries, grids and energy storage. The solar industry in Asia-Pacific alone is expected to use around 378,000 tons of copper by 2027, almost double 2018 levels.

Mark Lewis, global head of sustainability research at BNP Paribas Asset Management, splits the long-term pressures in three: the world’s push toward reducing carbon emissions, cheap renewable energy and air pollution, highlighted by the clear blue skies of recent weeks. Add in the behavioral changes brought by the pandemic and the future of oil is more uncertain than ever, he argues. With even Royal Dutch Shell Plc arguing that peak oil demand will come sooner than expected, it’s hard to disagree.

There may not be a uniform global green stimulus, and some ambitions will remain just that. Yet a World Bank report last week gives an indication of the potential growth story: It says the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius will require production of graphite, lithium, and cobalt to ramp up by more than 450% by 2050, compared with 2018, in order to meet energy storage requirements. Aluminum and copper, used across technologies, will also be in demand. And that’s excluding infrastructure like transmission lines.

In the future we’ll still need oil. We just might need metals more.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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