By Stuart Burns
It must have been a nightmare trying to manage price risk at tinplate and solder producers these last two years.
The bull narrative for tin seemed to be set fair at the end of last year. On the back of supply tightness, prices charged to an all-time high of $33,600 per ton 3 months in April before halving to $17,000 per ton last week. Hand in hand with this perversity, stock levels have gone in the opposite direction than expected. As Reuters points out, as prices rose so too did stocks; rather than the deficit leading to high prices, the high prices led to a surplus. LME stocks, which were expected to fall, carried on rising through the first half of the year, peaking in August at 23,425 tons. According to Reuters, ITRI shows the source of these stocks were Chinese smelters selling off stocks accumulated during 2009.
It gets worse. Although prices have collapsed, physical premiums have begun to pick up in Europe as some 26+ percent of LME stocks are earmarked for physical draw-down. So where is this physical LME stock draw-down going? Probably back to China, as the Chinese appear to be in re-stocking mode now that prices have halved, but with credit tight the re-stocking will not be on par with that seen in 2009.
At the same time, state-owned Timah in Indonesia, the biggest exporter, has announced they will ban exports. This is unlikely to happen, but the news organization observes that at current prices, many smaller smelters clustered around Banga Island are losing money at current prices and, as such, have little incentive to carry on exporting, although exports won’t stop; term contracts will no doubt be honored, volumes will certainly drop.
Maybe more worrisome for tinplate and solder producers is medium-term new mine supply. Tin’s original bull narrative for supply tightness has eased in the short term, but the price collapse is likely to exacerbate the problem in the medium-term as new mine projects, expansion and refurbishment projects are put on hold. No new major supply sources exist and no major mine projects were announced, even when prices were at twice current levels; at current levels, even those smaller projects announced in recent years look less attractive. One can only hope investors look past the current price at the longer-term picture for tin and stick with their projects.