A copper deficit is set to inundate global markets throughout 2023 — and one analyst predicts the shortfall could potentially extend throughout the rest of the decade.
The world is currently facing a global copper shortage, fueled by increasingly challenging supply streams in South America and higher demand pressures.
Copper is a leading pulse check for economic health due to its incorporation in various uses such as electrical equipment and industrial machinery.
A copper squeeze could be an indicator that global inflationary pressures will worsen, and subsequently compel central banks to maintain their hawkish stance for longer.
“We’re already forecasting major deficits in copper to 2030,” said Wood Mackenzie’s Vice President of Metals and Mining, Robin Griffin. He attributed it largely to ongoing unrest in Peru and higher demand for copper in the energy transition industry.
“Anytime there’s political unrest it has a whole range of effects. And the obvious one … is the potential for mining sites to have to close,” he added.
Peru has been rocked by protests since former President Pedro Castillo was ousted in December in an impeachment trial. The South American nation accounts for 10% of the global copper supply.
Glencore announced Jan. 20 it was suspending operations in its Antapaccay copper mine located in Peru, after protesters looted and set fire to its premises.
Additionally, Chile — the world’s largest copper producer which accounts for 27% of global supply — recorded a year-on-year decline of 7% in November.
“Overall we believe Chile will likely produce less copper from 2023 to 2025,” Goldman Sachs wrote in a separate note dated Jan 16.
However, one market watcher cautioned against getting too caught up in the headlines.
“It’s typical to see disruptions and I don’t think we’re necessarily seeing any more than normal,” said Timna Tanners, managing director at Wolfe Research, who forecasts that 2023 should see an increase in several new mines.
Copper futures settled at $4.035 per pound on Monday, according to CME data. The metal hit a low of $3.9930, its lowest level since Jan. 10 when it traded as low as $3.9875.
The reopening of China and growth in the automotive and energy transition industry have stoked demand for the red metal, putting further strain on copper resources.
“China’s reopening has a major impact on copper’s price as this improves [its] demand outlook and will push copper prices even higher due to the supply shortage, at the back of the clean energy transition which makes mining harder,” said Tina Teng, market analyst at CMC Markets.
Beijing’s rollback of stringent zero Covid policies are expected to quicken the country’s economic recovery, as well as pent-up Chinese demand. Commodity prices have seen strong gains since December when China announced plans to lift a slew of Covid measures.
“The deficit may last till a potential global economic recession caused by the current headwinds, by 2024 to 2025,” Teng added, forecasting that by then, copper prices might double.
However, Tanners from Wolfe Research said she’s not expecting a “huge spurt” of activity and consumption of copper as China hums back to life.
“Copper consumption in particular really didn’t slow down in 2022. Factories were still running, government stimulus and infrastructure was still chugging along,” she explained.
However, she added that the broader electrification phenomenon will likely be a bigger fundamental driver for copper demand.
“You can’t see electric vehicles take off before you get the charging infrastructure, and the electrification [which is] necessary, is actually much more copper intensive.”
Copper features heavily in electricity-related technologies, and by extension energy transition proposals.
Sales of electric cars in 2021 more than doubled to bring the total number of EVs in the world around 16.5 million, according to the International Energy Agency. That means the EV-charging ecosystem will have to be ramped up.
“There’s a longer term issue around the supply of copper in the energy transition [industry], because the growth in both the automotive and transmission is going to be huge,” said Wood Mackenzie’s Griffin.