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Base Metals

Many readers have asked us to update our comments on base metals, which we last addressed in any substantive way just over a year ago, when we sold most of our base metal plays in the July 2005 issue of the International Speculator, on the basis of an expected correction in base metals prices. We are still expecting a greater correction in base metals than we've seen so far. We were out early, we admit -- but we vastly prefer to be out early, rather than late, and can't complain about having locked in the profits we did.

What Is a Base Metal?

Base metals are called that because they oxidize, corrode and react easily. The primary ones we're concerned with are: copper, nickel, lead, zinc, aluminum, and iron. Their inherent value lies in their industrial uses, not as money, like the precious metals -- though silver is an interesting hybrid, being both an industrial metal and good for making small change as money. Compared with precious metals, base metals are plentiful in nature and therefore much cheaper, of course. The exploration question is not generally one of finding them, but one of finding enough of them concentrated in a large enough deposit to make them profitable to extract for a substantial length of time. Eventually, their fortunes are tied to the state of the world's economy -- the fundamentals of supply and demand.

Supply, Demand and Prices

As we go to press, copper prices have recovered somewhat from this summer's correction, in part because of a possible labor strike at Chile's Escondida mine. This is characteristic of all base metals; numerous factors, including political and labor unrest, and even floods, affect the supply of base metals. In addition, cranking up supply in the short term is usually impossible; the process of prospecting, exploring and developing a mine takes many years, sometimes decades. The scale of most base metal mines is huge -- they take an enormous amount of financing, require endless environmental permissions and need extensive infrastructure. These factors make it very difficult to balance supply with demand in the short term (meaning, up to a few years), creating frequent cycles of price increases when supplies tighten, followed by corrections when new supplies come online.

On the demand side, Asia, particularly China (see the chart below), has stayed in high gear, requiring prices to go up to match demand with supply. Some day soon, India will join the arena. The result has been rising prices, which has been good news for companies like Falconbridge and Teck Cominco: both have just announced near-tripling of profits.

Base metal prices during the last couple of years have risen faster than the price of precious metals, generating a lot of interest and excitement, even among mainstream investors. That's a sure sign to a contrarian of at least an intermediate high... though that doesn't mean they can't go higher before they correct. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised if they went to the sky, given price-insensitive demand and fixed supply and the involvement of hedge funds in the metals market. But any spike like that would be short lived, and for now we still see base metal prices as having gotten far ahead of themselves. In addition, we are bearish on the U.S. economy and are not sure that even China can pick up all the slack we see coming, especially with so much of their economy going into exports to the U.S. At the same time, continually high prices have prompted everyone with assets that can be put into production quickly to move in that direction, so there could be a short-lived supply glut as that inventory of near-to-production assets come online.

The Dreaded Crystal Ball

In the longest term, we believe that all commodities -- even including gold -- will drop to near zero. Barring a new Dark Ages, that's the inevitable result of advancing technology. But that's still decades off, for the most part. In the nearer long term (over the next decade or so), we're bullish on commodities, believing that we are in a super-cycle that corresponds to the 20-year bear market for commodities that started in 1980. In the medium range (3 to 5 years), we are also bullish, as anything that can be quickly dusted off will have been, and new discoveries will take longer to bring online. In the short term (zero to 12, maybe 18 months) we see a high probability of economic woes leading to a major correction. That will be our time to re-enter base metal plays aggressively.

Are we just guessing?

Not entirely. Consider the data from the futures market:

  • Copper for delivery in 27 months is US$5,590/tonne vs. the current US$7,260
  • Nickel: US$16,675 vs. current US$27,350
  • Zinc: US$2,293 vs. current US$3,125

Furthermore, as you can see from the production and consumption numbers in the table below, the higher prices have brought enough new supply online that base metals are not actually in a state of shortage at the moment. The projected surplus for silver is something we touched on in our silver issue last May and are still watching. (The figures for gold and silver consumption, provided for context, do not include investment demand, which is why gold is not in surplus as it may seem to be, nor silver, and their prices are rising.)

Demand, supply and prices (in thousand tonnes unless mentioned) 2005
  2002 2003 2004 2005
Copper production 15,269 15,234 15,823 16,446 5,310 5,621
Copper consumption 15,166 15,661 16,725 16,510 5,436 5,544
Approx. Cu price (31 July; US$/tonne) $1,510 $1,770 $2,901 $3,760 $3,760 $7,850
Zinc production 9,710 9,871 10,357 10,261 4,268 4,350
Zinc consumption 9,377 9,848 10,656 10,636 4,366 4,470
Approx. Zn price (31 July; US$/tonne) $757 $850 $1,017 $1,242 $1,242 $3,380
Lead production 6,670 6,748 6,955 7,556 3,060 3,363
Lead consumption 6,641 6,825 7,260 7,611 3,094 3,287
Approx. Pb price (31 July; US$/tonne) $429 $517 $1,015 $870 $870 $1,111
  2006 (e)
Nickel production 1,182 1,201 1,256 1,285   1,334
Nickel consumption 1,177 1,233 1,262 1,278   1,364
Approx. Ni price (31 July; US$/tonne) 6,800 9,200 14,080 14,200   $27,205
  2006 (e)
Gold production (million ounces) 108 111 107 109   114
Gold consumption 82 79 81 83   81
Approx. Gold price (31 July; US$/ounce) $305 $355 $392 $430   $635
  2006 (e)
Silver production (million ounces) 739 743 753 791   814
Silver consumption 791 788 801 806   766
Approx. Silver price (31 July; US$/ounce) $4.7 $5.1 $6.5 $7.2   $11.4
To convert tonnes into pounds, multiply by 2,204.6;
To convert US$/tonne into US$/pound, divide by 2,204.6;
Production includes mined and recycled metal.
Data sources: CPM, ICGS, Inco, ISZSG and INSG

Base Metal Company Stocks

Consequently, we are holding off on buying any new base metal company stocks, unless the company has something of such extraordinary potential that we don't want to wait, or if a company also has a lot of precious metals, which hedges our base metal bet.

We don't have anything base metal specific so how about if we go with the Shopping Season one that kind of covers everything?

Oil up, dollar down, the housing market on the brink of extinction... at least three good reasons to buy gold and silver on the current dips.

But aside from hoarding precious metals, you can profit even more from the emerging commodities bull market by investing in the little-known sector of junior exploration.

Right now is the perfect time to get into these underreported -- and often undervalued -- stocks. It's the Shopping Season, as Doug Casey likes to call it, the summer period during which the juniors spend their time digging and drilling, and very little news comes out of this corner of the stock market. Many investors confuse no news with bad news, and share prices are taking a nosedive.

Not forever, though. Once the summer is over, share prices will rise again -- bringing smart speculators a much-appreciated windfall.

Doug Casey, the author of Crisis Investing, which was #1 on the New York Times Best-Seller list for 26 weeks, and the editor and publisher of the International Speculator, one of the nation's most established and highly respected publications on gold, silver and other natural resource investments, has made himself and his subscribers millions with his in-depth research, right-on perceptions and contrarian attitude. In the article below, Doug discusses the current status of the Base Metals market.

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