I mentioned about two weeks ago, ‘Doctor Copper’ was looking quite sickly. Things have deteriorated since.
In the past, copper was an excellent indicator of industrial usage, and hence economic activity but over the past 4-5 years, China has really come to dominate this market, so I believe the level of purchases by the Chinese are now becoming as important as ‘general economic growth’ to the movements in copper.
When China sneezes, copper catches the cold if you will. Along those lines, China’s stock market (another indicator) has been acting amongst the worst in the world, and excluding summer 2010’s swoon, is at its lowest levels since the spring 2009 lows!
- Copper prices have plunged 23% this month—a decline of 20% or more is commonly considered a bear market. The declines have far exceeded the slide in the stock market, where the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index has lost 5.6%.
- The fall in copper is seen as particularly significant because the metal is used in everything from Apple Inc.’s iPads to indoor plumbing and electrical wires, making it a good leading indicator for the global economy, and the stock market. Some investors are such believers in its ability to forecast economic conditions that they refer to it as “Dr. Copper.”
- Some also see it as bad news for investors hoping stocks will soon find a foothold, rather than begin a new leg down. “You’re seeing copper’s declines outpace equities’, which is telling me that equities are too buoyant at this point in the recovery,” said Adam Klopfenstein, a strategist with MF Global.
- Copper has been a good predictor of stock performance before, notably, in the peak of the financial crisis. The metal slumped well ahead of other markets heading into 2009, and the correlation between copper and stocks now looks eerily similar to back then, according to Katie Stockton, chief market technician at MKM Partners.
- In December 2008, copper slumped, reaching a bottom late in the month. Stocks didn’t follow until March 2009. “There was a really decisive bottom that was put in copper in late 2008. The S&P was starting to put its bottom in during that time, but it had further to fall,” said Ms. Stockton. “You want to see copper stabilize before we can expect the stock market to do the same.”
- Traders seeking to explain copper’s sudden slump point to obvious influences such as signs China’s economy is slowing—potentially sapping a huge source of demand for products that use copper. As well, a general contraction globally would hurt copper in particular.
- But other factors are likely at play. For a start, copper has been on a powerful bull run since finding its nadir in 2008. Prices had tripled through February of this year, and they hovered near those highs until the recent rout. As copper began to decline, hedge funds and other speculators bailed out. Data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission show that, in late August, speculative investors had more bets copper would fall than rise for the first time since September 2009.
- Many are also looking at China, which accounted for 40% of world refined copper consumption last year. Copper imports in China this year were down 26% from year-ago levels, China’s General Administration of Customs said last week.
- That follows HSBC’s preliminary gauge of Chinese manufacturing, which showed shrinking industrial activity for a third consecutive month in September. Additionally, copper prices in China are falling toward the world benchmark set in London. The difference between the two is the smallest since May, indicating China’s appetite is waning.
Trader Mark is the author of Fund My Mutual Fund.