Citi Bullish on Copper Even as Trade Tensions Weigh on Metal

As the adage goes, buy the dip.

Copper's recent pullback to around $6,000 a metric ton due to trade tensions between the U.S. and China presents a buying opportunity, according to Citigroup Inc. analysts.

Copper is often known as Dr. Copper -- the metal with a Ph.D. in economics -- because of its ability to anticipate shifts in the global economy. Copper is used in industries including construction, power generation and transportation equipment, and investors use it as an indicator of the relative health of an economy.

So any investor considering buying base metals, specifically copper, must keep geopolitical risks in mind when deciding when to buy.

"The ongoing major sell-off, driven by escalating trade frictions between the U.S. and China, is setting up a longer-term buying opportunity," analysts at Citi Research, including Maximilian Layton, wrote in a July 18 note.

The latest slump follows comments by White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow, who said Chinese President Xi Jinping doesn't have any intention of following through on a potential trade deal between the U.S. and China. China's foreign ministry responded by saying Kudlow's remarks were "shocking and beyond imagination."

Currently, the two countries have each imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of products, and the Trump administration is considering additional tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

Spot copper prices on the London Metal Exchange fell 1.2% to $6,068.31 per metric ton at 3:15 p.m. New York time. The spot price rose as high as $7,323.80 on June 8 before U.S.-China trade tensions heightened.

"We find that current prices of $6,200 per metric ton are nowhere near high enough to enable the market to clear," the Citi analysts said. "We find that prices need to rise to $7,500 per metric ton in today's dollars over the long term ($8,280 per metric ton in 2023 dollars) in order to incentivize enough supply."

Citi analyst Alexander Hacking maintains a constructive view on copper miners as well, despite the recent sell-off.

"Our preferred plays are Buy rated [Grupo Mexico SAB de CV] (GMBXF) (value) and First Quantum (FQVLF) (growth & 2021 FCF yield)," Hacking wrote in a July 17 research note. "We are Neutral on Freeport-[McMoRan] (FCX) seeing long-term upside but limited catalysts given that 2019 will be a transitional year at Grasberg." Indonesia's Grasberg is the biggest gold mine in the world and the second largest copper mine.

That said, shares of all three stocks fell as the price of copper tumbled to its lowest level in about a year. Freeport slipped 7.4% to $15.83. First Quantum Minerals Ltd. stock on the Toronto Stock Exchange fell 6.9% to C$17.80, while Grupo Mexico shares on the Mexican Stock Exchange fell 2.2% to 54.32 Mexican pesos.

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