By Stuart Burns
Zinc producers, along with investors, have been hoping for a supply crunch to materialize after repeated warnings of mine closures and predictions of ore shortages, but supply has remained stubbornly robust.
As recently as October, the International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG) was predicting a zinc deficit for this year of 366,000 tons, a figure that has been more than halved to 151,000 tons this month, and is in itself still higher than a recent Reuters poll predicting a 143,000-ton deficit for the year. Overall, about a million tons of supply will eventually be taken out, Robin Bhar of Societe Generale predicts, but one unknown is how much mothballed production could come back on-stream.
New Mining Coming Online
At $2,200 per metric ton, most miners are operating profitably, a 10% rise (we have seen this much already over the last two months) would probably seal the case for restarts, in addition to several smaller projects already in the pipeline.
Some point to the falling London Metal Exchange inventory as a sign of deficit but to what extent this is metal coming off-warrant to be moved into lower rent non-LME storage is not clear. Zinc has suffered from the same distortion as aluminum in recent years, with the stock and finance trade soaking up a percentage of production and inflating the impression of apparent demand.
The current LME forward curve does not support that trade at present, but that doesn't negate the fact that a significant percentage is still locked up in those deals.
For now, there is ample ore supply, Reuters reports, as evidenced by the treatment charges that have risen to $245 a mt, a 10% gain, from last year. To clear up a misconception, treatment charges rise with supplies as mining groups compete to find smelters to process their material.
Everyone Gets a Surplus
This year, the Chinese domestic zinc market is expected to be in surplus as domestic output and imports rise, while demand for the metal weakens. A slowing manufacturing sector and tightening environmental standards could also trim zinc demand, sapping expectations of a rise in demand.
Against such a backdrop, the rally in prices seen in recent weeks could be said to be overly bullish; fueled as it is by falling inventory and expectations of a looming supply crunch, the current market realities don't support a near-term supply shortfall, but markets are said to trade on expectation so maybe investors' optimism about higher prices is right, just ill-timed.