(Bloomberg) -- For decades, aluminum traders have largely relied on guesswork to predict how much of the metal is stashed away in ports around the world.
Only a fraction of the material used in everything from airplanes to refrigerators is held in London Metal Exchange warehouses, and there’s no easy way to track how much sits outside that network. But that’s about to change.
The bourse will start publishing data on private holdings at major ports, a move aimed at boosting transparency following criticism that LME stockpiles give an unreliable snapshot of the global market. The data is likely to start around July 10, according to a person familiar with the matter. It will cover all metals, but is particularly relevant for aluminum, where vast stocks tend to build during recessions because producers are slow to curb output.
With aluminum usage collapsing in recent months, the size of inventories will give a key insight into the depth of the industry’s demand crisis. Rising open interest on the exchange suggests physical supplies have increased lately.
“We can visibly see signals that the off-exchange stock build this year is massively dwarfing the increase on the LME,” said Oliver Nugent, a metals analyst at Citigroup Inc. “It will be interesting if we do see some genuinely large stock builds showing up in this data.”
Unlike in the oil market, where satellites scan vessels and storage tanks around the world to gauge inventories, it’s much harder to track metal stashed under private warehouse roofs. While nobody knows how much aluminum is out there, it’s probably a sizable amount.
For example, global stockpiles likely total about 14 million tons, of which 11 million tons are LME-deliverable metal, Harbor Intelligence consultant Jorge Vazquez said. That’s much more than the 1.62 million tons kept in LME depots.
As a condition of their LME license, warehouse companies will need to disclose inventory they’re storing privately in LME-listed sheds, as well as any metal that’s being held away from the exchange under storage contracts which explicitly offer a backstop for clients to deliver onto the bourse. Physical traders don’t have to report holdings, but may do so voluntarily to avoid penalties if they ever move the metal onto the LME.
An LME spokeswoman declined to comment on when the new data will be published.
Mark Hansen, chief executive of trader Concord Resources Ltd., said the new data probably won’t be a negative surprise for the market, which has seen prices rebound about 11% since hitting a four-year low in April. Even so, aluminum ranks alongside zinc as the worst-performing metal on the LME this year, with prices down 9.8% at $1,633/ton, amid ongoing concerns about the size of the supply overhang.
“Aluminum buyers have largely maintained their purchases and honored commitments,” Hansen said. “The immediate surplus won’t be as bad as initially feared a few months ago.”
Warehouse keepers in Malaysia’s Port Klang may have a better grasp than most of how weak the aluminum market still is. Despite Malaysia being a modest consumer, Port Klang has become a critical hub for the industry, with its sheds being stretched to the limit to store an expanding surplus of metal.
For example, Port Klang is typically the cheapest delivery point for aluminum that’s been shipped out of India in growing volumes since the coronavirus crisis struck, according to four people involved in trading and warehousing. LME aluminum inventories total almost 961,000 tons in Port Klang, but traders and warehouse keepers say there could be another 500,000 to 700,000 tons held there in private storage.
Because physical traders -- who’ve been absorbing much of the surplus over the past few months -- aren’t obligated to disclose inventories, the new LME data may not capture a large chunk of metal held by major trading houses. While 600,000 tons to 1 million tons may show up in the new figures, it’ll still only provide a limited snapshot of the market, according to CRU Group.
“You’d hope it gives people who feel there isn’t enough transparency in this market more confidence to trade,” said Eoin Dinsmore, a research manager at CRU. “Even so, if you’re just entering the market, you’re going to know that you’re right at the bottom of the learning curve.”
(Updates prices in 10th paragraph.)
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