Doctor Copper and Cobalt

10/18/2017 3:19 pm EST

Focus: COMMODITIES

Frank Holmes

CEO and CIO, U.S. Global Investors, Inc.

Copper is often seen as an indicator of economic health, historically falling when overall manufacturing and construction is in contraction mode, rising in times of expansion, suggests Frank Holmes, CEO of US Global Investors and editor of Frank Talk.


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That appears to be the case today. Currently trading above $3 a pound, “Doctor Copper” is up close to 24 percent year-to-date and far outperforming its five-year average from 2012 to 2016.

Several factors are driving the price of the red metal right now. Manufacturing activity, as measured by the purchasing manager’s index (PMI), is expanding at a pace we haven’t seen in years in the U.S., eurozone and China. The U.S. expanded for the 100th straight month in September, climbing to a 13-year high of 60.8.

Speculators are also buying in response to word of copper shortages in China, despite September imports of the metal rising to its highest level since March. The world’s second-largest economy took in 1.47 million metric tons of copper ore and concentrates last month, an amount that’s 6 percent higher than the same month in 2016.

Why are we seeing so much copper entering China? One reason could be battery electric vehicles (BEVs), which require three to four times as much copper as traditional fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

China is already the world’s largest and most profitable market for BEVs, and Beijing is now reportedly working on plans to curb and eventually ban the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, according to the Financial Times.


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This would place the Asian giant in league with a number of other powerful countries similarly crafting bans on internal combustion engines within the next 25 years, including Germany, France, Norway, the United Kingdom and India.

Because of the sheer size of the Chinese market, this move is sure to delight copper bulls and investors in any metal that’s set to benefit from higher BEV production. That includes cobalt, lithium and nickel.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, BEVs will account for 54 percent of all new car sales by 2040. That year, China, Europe and the U.S. are expected to make up 60 percent of the global BEV fleet.

This could have a huge effect on copper prices over the next 10 years and more. With fewer and fewer large deposits being discovered, demand should accelerate from 185,000 metric tons today to an estimated 1.74 million tonnes in 2027, according to the International Copper Association.

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These are among the reasons why Arnoud Balhuizen, chief commercial officer of Australian mining giant BHP Billiton (BBL), called copper “the metal of the future” in an interview with Reuters last month.

“2017 is the revolution year [for electric vehicles], and copper is the metal of the future,” Balhuizen said, adding that the market is grossly underestimating the red metal’s potential as BEV adoption surges around the world.

And let’s not forget cobalt. The brittle, silver-gray metal, used to extend the life expectancy of rechargeable batteries, is up more than 81 percent so far in 2017 and 109 percent for the 12-month period.

Performance is being driven not only by growing BEV demand but also supply disruptions in the Republic of the Congo, where more than 60 percent of the world’s cobalt is mined.

“It’s a really bright future for cobalt,” Vivienne Lloyd, analyst at Macquarie Research, told the Financial Times. “There doesn’t seem to be enough of it.”

Before now, there was very little mainstream interest in cobalt as an investment, but that’s changing as rapidly as world governments are joining the chorus to move away from fossil fuels.

One sign of that change is the London Metal Exchange’s upcoming cobalt contracts, one for the physical metal and another for the chemical compound cobalt sulphate. This will allow investors to trade the underlying metal and participate in the electric vehicle “revolution,” as Balhuizen calls it.

In the meantime, investors can participate by investing in a producer with exposure to cobalt — among our favorites are Glencore (GLCNF), Freeport-McMoRan (FCX) and Norilsk Nickel (NILSY) — or a natural resources fund such as our U.S. Global Investor's Global Resources Fund (PDPFX).

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