Time to Get Back Into Copper

Includes: FCX
by: Ananthan Thangavel

Copper has taken a large hit as of late, falling 13% from its peak of 4.65 on February 15 to 4.05 today. We believe that despite the pullback, copper remains attractive going forward due to Chinese and emerging market expansion.

Shown below is a chart of copper futures and aggregate open interest.

(Click to enlarge)

As can be seen, open interest on copper futures has taken a dive since prices peaked, and is now at the lowest level since 2009. With Chinese tightening measures and efforts to cool real estate speculation, the mood in the copper market has become decidedly bearish. Shown below is a chart of copper in white and managed money longs in amber.

(Click to enlarge)

Futures traders sentiment has dove to almost net short levels, with the managed money long interest at only 3,745 net long contracts. This is also the lowest managed money net long position since the large pullback of summer 2010.

Also interesting is that while copper prices have pulled back, it seems that prices have not been as sensitive to managed money bailing as in the past. Shown below is a chart of producer net shorts.

(Click to enlarge)

As can be seen, producers were at their most net short in January of 2010 and again in January 2011, very close to medium term peaks in the copper market. It seems that producers are timing the market well, as they greatly reduced their net short position in the summer of 2010 when prices were at their lowest as well. The net short position currently stands at the same level it did in the summer of 2010 before copper experienced a 60% rally.

The inventories of copper on the London Metal Exchange have also been a good indicator of medium term buying opportunities in copper. Shown below is a five year chart of copper prices on bottom and copper inventories on top.

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As can be seen, peaks in the copper inventories correspond well to copper market bottoms, and present great buying opportunities. Shown below is a one year chart of inventories.

(Click to enlarge)

Inventories appear to be topping out, and if they start to turn decidedly down, the bull thesis on copper will only grow louder.


While copper bears point to tightening out of China as the primary reason for not wanting to own copper, we view it as a long-term bullish development. Governments only tighten monetary policy when growth is very good, and they never do so to such an extent that they choke growth. The point is to slightly tame inflation, which it appears they have accomplished for the time being.

Furthermore, all the recent tightening actually gives the Chinese government more room to encourage growth long-term. If there is any hiccup in growth, all the Chinese central bank has to do is decrease reserve requirements or drop interest rates, and both have quite a ways to drop with how vigilant China has been in raising them. Contrast this situation to the U.S. where the Federal Reserve has extremely limited options to promote growth, with interest rates already at zero percent and quantitative easing becoming more and more politically untenable. We believe China, as well as the rest of the emerging markets, will continue to grow and tighten monetary policy, but not to the extent where growth is compromised.

As long as we do not re-enter recession, copper should remain a coveted commodity. Construction and growth in emerging markets should keep supplies tight and prices supported.

Trade Recommendation

We recommend the purchase of copper futures at a price of 4.05 or better. Such a position entails significant risk from the possibility of copper experiencing temporary weakness on bearish headlines out of Europe and/or severe U.S. dollar strengthening, but we believe the time has come to begin building a bullish position in the metal

Alternatively, one could buy stock or calls on FCX. FCX is trading more than 20% off its peak and is trading at only 9.3x trailing 12 months earnings. We think the stock is cheap even just going off of fundamentals, but it will also experience a serious boost if copper prices begin to rebound.

Disclosure: Long copper futures

Additional disclosure: All information included herein is the opinion of the firm and should not be considered investment advice. Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.