Beware base metals optimism - stick to gold and silver for wealth protection
Base metals may still be vulnerable as global industry remains well below its peaks so gold and perhaps silver probably remain the best bets for wealth preservation for the moment.
Posted: Wednesday , 25 Mar 2009
CAPE TOWN -
Base metals have been having a reasonably good run of late - copper in particular - where some heartening Chinese figures have led to a degree of market optimism that could yet prove to be a misjudgment by the investment community. While indeed base metals prices may have come back too far at their nadir, the fundamentals for sustained or increasing price levels do not look so good in the short term. Longer term, maybe, the impact of closures and new project delays will likely lead to shortages developing, but this may still be some way away. However be warned, the recent Chinese upswing may be an awful lot more fragile than it appears at first sight and while that country's domestic infrastructure building programme could make matters less bad than they might be without it, the virtual collapse of Western industrial demand for metals, with no real signs yet that this phase is over, does not bode well for short term price performance.
Copper in particular looks vulnerable to a decline in the short term as long as the western industrial slump continues and there really seems to be no end in sight here. Copper stocks though may fare better than the metal as it does seem that unlike zinc, for example, the majority of major producers at least are still profitable at current price levels - and where they are not, this is where the cuts and deferrals have been taking place as companies have used the low copper price scenario as an excuse to reduce production or hold back on new developments.
Zinc and nickel both seem to be in a particularly bad way with prices at a fraction of where they were only a year or so ago, and lead hasn't done much better. It is possible though that any long term hiatus in the nickel price will sound the death knell to the ultra high design and construction cost HPAL metallurgical plants which are yet to be built, and even for some which have already been brought on stream, or which are almost there. The cost of production is just too high for them to be run economically. It is exceedingly doubtful that any banks would lend the kind of sums necessary to build a new HPAL plant in the current environment.
So where are we left. While base metals may still even outperform general equities, they don't look that promising at the moment in terms of wealth preservation. For this we probably still need to look at gold and silver. Gold has been trading in the $900-960 range for some time, but not managing to break out in either direction as various snippets of perceived positive and negative financial news keep it bouncing up and down. We would think serious downside risk is unlikely bar an end to the world's financial ills so it remains probably the best wealth protector out there. It won't necessarily soar to new heights - indeed on past patterns the early northern summer tends to see price weakness - but the continuing strength of ETF holdings and of physical metal coin and bar purchases suggests an underlying strength in the market.
Silver continues to ride on gold's coattails and its more volatile price patterns may give the trader an extra turn - here the recent trading range has been between the low and high $13s, still far far short of its heights achieved only a year ago, so the silver optimists reckon there's great potential here for both wealth preservation and physical gains. Silver should trade much more as an industrial metal than gold, so is affected by the global downturn in terms of demand, but its normal price movement correlation with gold should keep it in positive territory.
Major general stock market indices remain vulnerable to bad news on the global front and we could yet see some fairly sharp falls here over the next few months. Base metals are reliant on a substantial industrial pick-up which does not seem forthcoming yet despite all the money being pumped into the global economy. Gold and silver thrive on financial chaos and there may well be more of this ahead so it is probably the best bet to stick with bullion - or at least keep an important proportion of investment in gold and silver metal and, perhaps, stocks which provide even better leverage if prices do shoot up. Base metals will have their day, but maybe just not yet.