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Mining industry insiders expect trade-war agreement to lift confidence

Industry insiders at the 121 Mining Investment Hong Kong conference believe that an agreement to end the trade disputes between China and the U.S. will lift market confidence and stimulate demand for various metals.

Ian Roper, general manager at Shanghai Metals Market, told conference delegates March 20 that the direction of the trade disputes and China's housing policy are key to lifting investor confidence in 2019.

Roper said domestic confidence regarding metals demand in 2019 has been picking up in recent weeks due to optimism over a trade deal with the U.S. after the Chinese economy slowed in the second half of 2018. He also noted that Beijing's messaging over loosening policies for the property market and infrastructure spending has strengthened since January.

The general manager believes that Chinese steel demand and prices can hold up well in the first half, supporting iron ore prices. "The steel price should stay firm until May or June because of a decent spring construction season," Roper said.

However, demand in the second half may fade as construction activity suffers from a reduction in housing volumes. "Infrastructure stimulus and broader macro loosening will cushion the downside, but it's very hard to expect growth for steel demand in the second half," Roper said.

Demand for metallurgical coal will remain tighter than iron ore with domestic restrictions on coke ovens and smaller mines spreading in 2019, he estimated.

Roper also expects strong copper demand in China in 2019, supported by accelerating grid spending.

Hong Kong investors felt the impacts of the trade conflict and the Huawei dispute the most immediately in past months when compared with other markets, according to CEF Holdings Chairman and CEO Warren Gilman, speaking on the current mood in different global regions.

Gilman said investors and miners in Canada have also been in a tough environment as capital flow has been going elsewhere in past years, adding that the reorganizations in the upper ranks of the gold sector are the only recent excitement.

He said the mining sector of the Australian market is more robust than in Canada when it comes to capital flow as Australian mining companies are performing better than North American peers.

Steel was one of the first commodities targeted by U.S. tariffs in March 2018, while battery metals including graphite have also been garnering more interest over the past year.

Battery Minerals Ltd. Managing Director David Flanagan said there could be a huge increase in graphite demand in the next 15 years, to 4.7 million tonnes per year from the current level of 180,000 tonnes.

"You can't make a lithium-ion battery without graphite," Flanagan said. "And in every lithium-ion battery, there is 10 times more graphite than lithium. This is a massive opportunity."

He urged investors to pay attention to graphite opportunities in Mozambique, the biggest seaborn graphite exporter in the world. Battery Minerals is developing the Montepuez graphite project in the country, aiming to produce 50,000 tonnes of graphite flake concentrate per year.