Copper as a Critical Metal

By Leia Michele Toovey- Exclusive to Copper Investing News

The world needs copper, and lots of it. Output of the red metal has already doubled in the last 16 years, however, according to Jack Lifton, founder of  Technology Metals Research, this output needs to double again; a feat that is going to be a very big challenging.

This comment was just one of many bullish statements made about the state of the copper market at the recent Critical Metals Symposium in Vancouver. When a board of panelists, including Lifton, was asked which, of all the critical metals, is the most “crucial” the answer was- copper.

The definition of a critical metal is not precise; however, simply put, a critical metal is a metal that is “vital” for the world to function in its current state. Critical metals are “dynamic” and the definition of a critical metal depends on many factors. These factors include location, the period of time, and the current economic and political environment.

Copper deserves its title of “critical metal” for a several reasons. The copper market is currently faced with a supply deficit. Currently, there is not enough of the red metal being produced to satisfy its near-term demand. As such, we are going to have to drastically increase the amount of copper being mined and refined before we will have enough supply. The second factor contributing to copper’s criticality is the subject of substitution. If we run out of copper, what can we use? The answer is, unfortunately, with today’s technology: nothing.

At the Critical Metals Symposium, all the panelists agreed that the definition of a critical metal is not concrete. When defining a critical material, it is important to consider what are you trying to do with it; what is the material needed for. In various applications, for instance, hybrid cards, producers will say that if they no longer had the availability of certain metals, such as a rare earth, they would model their technologies around the missing component. However, if you tell them they have no copper- then they would not know how to produce any vehicle, let alone a hybrid.

Yu-Dee Chang, Principal and Chief Trader at ACE Investment Strategies weighed in on the perspective that copper is the “most crucial” of the critical metals. Chang agreed that the definition as the “most critical” metal is a subjective, and dynamic one, and it is difficult to compare metals with very varied applications. In terms of the industrial metals, Chang agreed that copper should be called the “most crucial.” When asked if there was any known substitutes for copper, at this time Chang added that in terms of copper’s applications such as wiring- there are no viable substitutes.

Pricing is always an important topic when discussing critical metals. Copper rose to a record highs, this February, however, has since sustained a bit of a correction. Chang sees the recent supply situation, with a market deficit, already largely factored into copper’s current prices. When asked if prices were being controlled by sentiment, or fundamentals, Chang’s answer was, a little bit of both. “Over the short-run prices are controlled by sentiment, and over the long-term fundamentals will rule,” commented Chang. The recent volatility in prices is also a very important topic to address, in terms of a critical metal. Chang addressed the recent volatility in prices with the following observation: most of the smaller speculators are no longer playing the copper market, and instead trading is controlled by larger hedge funds, and of course end-users. The significance of this development is more volatile prices. When larger hedge funds move money into and out-of the market, prices are subjected to steeper swings.

There is no question that in North America and developed Europe power-supply is absolutely critical for the functioning of the local economies. This power is supplied by wire and copper is a necessity in manufacturing wiring. Add North America’s and Europe’s need for electricity to a developing need for power and infrastructure, like in the BRIC countries, and it is easy to see how copper is becoming more critical, around the world. Near record-high prices, price volatility, and shrinking supplies are factors that don’t work in favour for the end-users of copper, and as the BRIC countries continue to grow, there will be more incentive for the strategic stockpiling of copper.

 

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