By Shihoko Goto — Exclusive to Copper Investing News
A guarantee of low US interest rates until later next year had given a boost to copper prices, but prevailing concerns about the state of the European economy coupled with uncertainties regarding Chinese appetite for the red metal is keeping prices range-bound. The Federal Reserve confirmed this week that it will keep interest rates low at least until late 2014, but investors are jittery as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said that further stimulus is unlikely given signs of steady US economic recovery. While Bernanke said at a press conference that the Fed will “remain prepared to do more” should the need arise, he noted its commitment to keeping inflation steady and stimulating growth.
In addition, the Pending Home Sales Index by the National Association of Realtors rose to 101.4, up 4.1 percent from a year ago, marking its highest level since April 2010. Gains in the euro against the dollar helped support copper demand, but Europe's outlook, together with continued worries about Chinese copper demand, are expected to keep a lid on any significant gains in copper prices. In addition, there are worries about the state of the US job market, as the latest weekly unemployment claims data was weaker than expected. Jobless claims in the week ended April 21 fell by only 1,000 to 388,000, suggesting that the US economy remains more fragile than expected by many investors. In late afternoon trade Thursday, copper surged ahead over two percent at $3.78 a pound. As for copper demand, Japanese copper cathode exports to China fell five percent in March from a year ago to 23,203 tonnes as Chinese stockpiles increased and appetite for the red metal waned. Worries about a slowdown in the Chinese economy and the resulting weakening demand for copper from the world's biggest copper consumer continue to loom large. Looking ahead, production issues at mines, ranging from operational issues to labor shortages, will likely lead to demand outstripping supply in the coming months, according to Barclays Capital. In an interview with Bloomberg, analysts Gayle Berry and Nicholas Snowdon said that stockpiles will last for 2.7 weeks by the end of the year at projected demand, down from 3.2 weeks at the end of 2011. Production disruption at Freeport-McMoRan's (NYSE: FCX) Grasberg mine in Indonesia and lower-grade copper found at Rio Tinto's (LSE: RIO) Kennecott mine in Utah were cited as factors that “are going to keep the level of disruptions elevated…[t]here are new projects hitting the market, but it's a relatively disappointing outlook” for supply. Company news On the corporate front, Australian copper giant OZ Minerals (ASX: OZL) reported first quarter output rising above analysts' expectations, up to 27,182 metric tons from 25,708 tons a year ago. For the full year, the Melbourne-based company expects copper output to reach between 100,000 tons and 110,000 tons. CEO Terry Burgess also said that OZ Minerals is looking for assets to buy worldwide, most notably in Chile and Peru. The first quarter earnings results of China's Jiangxi Copper (HKG: 0358) fell from a year ago as net income dropped to 1.43 billion yuan from 1.59 billion yuan due largely to a fall in copper prices. In Kazakhstan, Kazakhmys (LSE: KAZ) said it will be able to meet its copper output target for 2011 despite a 13 percent fall in copper cathode production from its own concentrate as a result of lower copper in concentrate output. First quarter copper cathode production fell to 64,500 metric tons from 74,100 tons a year ago due to lower volumes of copper in concentrate output. Yet Kazakhmys said that it will be able to produce between 285,000 and 295,000 tons of copper cathode from its own concentrate this year and asserted that it remains on track to meet its by-product output targets in 2012. Junior company news Calibre Mining (TSXV: CXB) said its copper and gold project in Nicaragua with B2Gold (OTCQX: BGLPF) will be a “high priority target” for the two companies. Calibre's chairman, Douglas Forster, stated that the next phase will include “detailed mapping focusing on delineating intrusive centers and alteration as well as additional trenching over areas with newly defined gold/copper soil anomalies.” Indico Resources (TSXV: IDI) closed an initial $938,250 of its private placement. The funds were raised by issuing 3.753 million common shares at a price of 25 cents a share. The net proceeds from the private placement will be used to explore Indico's Ocana project in Peru as well as for general working capital purposes.