China’s Slowdown Could Mean Big Trouble For Base Metals

Industrial commodities stand on a deflationary cliff edge

Photo by Екатерина Александрова from Pexels

Written September 19, 2019

China’s quasi-capitalist system, where the communist party still retains a degree of control over the economy, leaves the true state of affairs subject to a certain amount of suspicion.  Is the economic data accurate or is it just what they want us to see?

Which is why many investors rely heavily on proxies for Chinese activity to more accurately determine the state of play in their economy.  Base metals widely used in construction and manufacturing, such as copper, steel and iron ore have well-deserved reputations as gauges of economic trends.  They are also all freely traded on financial exchanges, where price discovery and transparency allow them to be used as a check against official statistics put out by the state.

With the exception of oil and gas, China is the world’s largest consumer of most commodities.  According to data compiled by The Visual Capitalist’s Jeff Desjardins, China imports half or more of the world’s production of nickel, copper, and steel (as well as cement and coal), so any changes in behavior in China will have a meaningful impact on prices of those commodities. See https://bit.ly/2KPz9nZ.

Chinese growth has been steadily declining for the past year and a half.  The latest GDP reading for the second quarter of 2019 at 6.2% was the weakest result in twenty-seven years.  For experienced China watchers, 6% has long been considered something of a line in the sand as a minimum level of growth required to keep a sufficient number of people employed and to avoid any dissent against the government from taking root.  Two events this past week suggest that point may soon be at hand.

Underscoring the urgency of the situation, Chinese premier Li Keqiang admitted that it is becoming “very difficult” for China to maintain that crucial 6% growth rate. See https://reut.rs/2lTmjvV.  He must have been tipped off because just 24 hours later it was revealed that in August China’s industrial output fell to a rate of only 4.4%, its weakest showing in 17 years.  And that was before the latest round of trade tariffs were imposed. See https://bit.ly/2lVzL2g.

Not surprisingly, this slowing in growth is weighing on prices in the base metals sector as well as across the commodities complex in general.  One look at a chart of either copper or the broader CRB index shows that like the Chinese economy, commodities are approaching cliff edges of their own (see below).

Legendary trader Raoul Pal calls the current price pattern of the CRB index the most dangerous chart in the world, worrying that a break lower would be a sign of complete deflationary breakdown. China might be the center of this storm but it will have global implications for consumers and policymakers alike. A dire prediction for sure. As forward-looking indicators of this possibility, investors ignore the action in the base metal sector at their peril.

Copper
CRB Core Commodities Index

Bonds and Commodities are the Unwanted Guests at the Equity Party

Bond yields and commodity prices see a much different outcome than stocks.

June 10, 2019

Have you noticed that issues the Fed cares about are conditional and dependent on whether the stock market is going up or down? When the market is rising things like trade wars and weak price trends, while worthy of mention, are still considered “transitory” events. More annoying than scary. On the other hand, when the market is falling these same factors are considered full-blown threats to the economy.

Market action in the month of May and the Fed’s response is a good example of the latter. Even though the S&P had dropped nearly 8% from all-time highs, it was still up 9% on the year when Fed chairman Powell hit the panic button on June 4 saying the Fed was ready to act “as appropriate” to counter growing protectionist threats to the economy. See https://cnb.cx/2WaWNi5. Wink, wink. That’s all the markets needed to hear to launch six straight days of vertical ascent. Forget about why the Fed might be considering rate cuts: collapsing inflation expectations, potentially impaired corporate earnings or deteriorating credit, the fact that they are is all that matters. The playbook for equities remains the same as it has for the past decade: the bad news is (still) good news. As renown economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”. So true.

But several reliable macroeconomic benchmarks don’t seem to be playing along. While stocks rip higher, bond yields and prices for copper and oil have barely budged off their lows. It appears that the economic outlook projected by the fixed income and commodity sectors is quite a bit less optimistic than what is expected in the equity space. The conflicting message between these two worlds might be temporary and meaningless or it could be something worth paying attention to.

At some point, the marginal utility of repeated deployments of the Fed put will begin to decline. I have no idea if that time is near but subtle market divergences like these will be the first sign that the game may be over. Therefore I will be paying attention.

Two diverging outcomes: the S&P and 10yr Yields

The Doctor is Calling

May 22, 2019

Copper is often referred to as the metal with a Ph.D. Because of its broad range of industrial uses, Dr. Copper has a well-deserved reputation as a predictive indicator for global macroeconomic trends.

Today’s break of nearly 1.5% is noteworthy but not exactly surprising as the trade war with China expands (see Huawei), impacting supply chains and hurting demand through higher costs. A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China revealed that a third of U.S. companies operating in China have either delayed or canceled investment decisions, and 41% of respondents were considering relocating (or had already relocated) manufacturing operations. See https://bit.ly/2YAac54 . This is huge.

What is surprising, however, is the ability of the equity markets to shrug off a major disruption in global economic activity and the potentially negative impact on corporate earnings. Volatility remains low, reflecting a belief that the Fed can control the outcome of the business cycle. Maybe they can, but as we approach the tenth anniversary of the current expansion that bet becomes less attractive.

If 2018 taught us anything, the credit and equity sectors can depart from weakening macro trends for only so long. Though copper began breaking down in June of last year the S&P essentially ignored it until October, but the adjustment was quick and ugly (see chart below.) A similar divergent scenario appears to be unfolding, this time made worse by intensifying trade-related pressures and leaving stocks increasingly vulnerable. The Doctor’s prognosis for the markets is not good.