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Copper to see modest demand growth in 2020, but risks loom: analyst

Highlights

US consumption expected to grow 0.5% in 2020

Chinese economy called biggest risk to demand

Damage from Chilean protests may disrupt flow

Miami — Copper demand will grow modestly in 2020, at roughly the same pace as in 2019, but both the demand and supply sides are fraught with risks, a copper market analyst said Thursday.

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"The base case is one of optimism, but to some extent, we should prepare for the worst," said Charlie Durant, analyst with CRU, speaking at the American Copper Council conference in Miami.

Related story: Push underway to loosen China's copper scrap ban: Home

Regarding copper demand, Durant said the recent global economic downturn has hit the base-metals appetite generally, but there is also good news. He said copper demand is closely correlated with industrial production, which he said is expected to bounce back in 2020.

GROWTH FORECASTS

Durant said CRU forecasts 2020 refined copper consumption in the US to grow 0.5% to 1.64 million mt, Canada by 0.1% to 202,000 mt and Mexico by 1.2% to 447,000 mt. Globally, copper demand is seen growing 1.4%, Durant said, with world copper demand excluding China growing by 0.9%.

He stressed, however, that consumption will remain the key demand growth driver in China, where he said 1.8% consumption growth is still possible for next year.

With China representing 50% of global copper consumption, Durant said, "We need to think about a market that we're all connected to," particularly on issues like how much material stays in China.

"China must factor into all of our thinking," he said.

In fact, Durant told S&P Global Platts that China will represent the biggest risk to overall copper demand next year, in terms of the country's economy slowing.

Another key demand risk, Durant told the conference, is that the US faces a 30-40% chance of sliding into recession in 2020.

Also, while the emerging use of electric vehicles looks promising for copper demand in the long term, Durant said CRU is predicting no meaningful demand impact until the mid-2020s and noted substitution with other materials is still possible. He said the EV market will eventually represent a 3 million mt market for copper.

MINING GAINS EXPECTED

On copper's supply side, Durant said 2020 is the year mine supply begins to bounce back from a supply drop-off this year of 0.8%. But again, risks loom large, he said. Durant said CRU forecasts global mine-supply growth in 2020 matching demand growth at about 1.4%.

In the near term, the protests in Chile -- which supplies about 30% of the world's copper -- is a major supply risk, Durant said, along with the turmoil in Peru. He said Chilean mines are likely to survive the protests, but the flow of material could be disrupted through damage to infrastructure such as roads and ports. The US gets about 60% of its refined copper from Chile, Durant noted.

Another supply risk for copper is uncertain political climates in copper-rich African countries, he added.

Longer term, more and more copper supply will be driven by new mining projects, where costs and logistics can pose big barriers to fresh supply, Durant said. For example, it will take until 2023 for the new Chuquicamata mine to ramp up to output of 100,000 mt/year, and 2025 to reach 140,000 mt/year, Durant said. Also, going forward, China will be a huge net importer of copper concentrates, posing more supply implications, he said.

Finally, the embattled copper price also faces big risks next year, Durant said. For example, a major price risk is a strong US dollar, which has been benefiting lately from the trade uncertainty with China, Durant said. But the biggest near-term price risk, Durant told Platts, is the expected tepid demand.

"The biggest risk is macro," he said.

COPPER PREMIUMS UNFAZED

Durant said the copper market appears to be tightening, but there is not yet a reaction in copper premiums.

"The copper deficit continues to be pushed out into the future," he said.

CRU is forecasting an average copper price in 2020 at $5,900/mt, he said.

"Speculators are still bearish copper," he said. On a per pound basis, he added, "$3.25/lb is still attainable in the mid term."

On the price upside, supply disruptions could boost prices, he said. Durant said price recovery would be crucial to the copper market as miners will increasingly struggle to operate with growing overhead costs.

"Some will close their mines at current prices," Durant said.

But as copper prices still haven't fallen below the 90th percentile on a cash cost basis, further mine closures are unlikely for the time being, he said.

Economic analyst John Gross, president of JE Gross & Company, who also spoke at ACC, forecast India as having the biggest GDP growth in 2020, China second at 5.8%, the US with 2.1%, and Italy and Japan at 0.5%. He said copper prices should be higher based on low stocks but said factors like trade uncertainly are holding them back.

-- Laura Gilcrest, laura.gilcrest@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Bill Montgomery, newsdesk@spglobal.com