Copper comeback under threat

AS executives from the global copper industry descend on Santiago for the annual CRU World Copper Conference, which starts today, they’re sure to be less gloomy than in recent years.
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Tom Azzopardi

It is the 17th World Copper Conference, regarded as the world's premier event for the metal which attracts more than 500 delegates. It runs until April 11.
Copper prices have gained around 36% over the past 18 months turning mines that were once loss-making into profit generators.
But the threat of a prolonged trade war between China and the US, the two biggest markets for the red metal, will hang over the gathering like a raincloud at one of Chile's famous asados (barbecue).
The future for the red metal should be bright.
A dearth of investment during the downturn means the industry is facing several years with few major mines coming onstream, tightening supply.
In fact, production will rise most in Chile this year but only because its mines performed so poorly last year, largely due to the prolonged strike at Escondida, says Jorge Cantallopts, head of research at the Chilean Copper Commission (Cochilco).
How to raise production while keeping costs in check will be addressed at the conference by top executives from Anglo American, Codelco, Freeport McMoRan, Rio Tinto and others.
Meanwhile, led by China, demand is rising slowing but steadily, leaving the market facing looming deficits by early next decade. Further ahead, the move to electric vehicles, just beginning, looks set to supercharge demand over the coming decade.
In fact, given the uncertainty about which battery technologies will predominate in the future, copper may be a better bet on the electrification of transport over the other ‘energy metals' such as cobalt and lithium, which have attracted so much press attention in recent years, says Joe Mazumdar, co-editor of Exploration Insights.
A special panel, featuring experts from BMO, CRU and Nissan, will look at what impact the EV revolution will have on copper production and demand.
"One sign of the concern about future copper supplies is the growing proportion of exploration expenditures that the world's leading mining companies are dedicating to high-risk greenfield exploration rather than just optimizing reserves at existing mines," says Mazumdar.