(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters)
By Andy Home
LONDON, March 14 (Reuters) - Feast or famine?
Right now the refined copper market is going through one of its confused phases, displaying simultaneous symptoms of both supply surplus and supply deficit.
In Shanghai, metal is piling up in warehouses registered with the Shanghai Futures Exchange (SHFE).
SHFE copper stocks surged by 45,032 tonnes last week to 350,138 tonnes, a record high. They have almost doubled since the start of the year.
On the London market the trend is running in the opposite direction.
Stocks registered with the London Metal Exchange (LME) have fallen by 61,625 tonnes so far this year. At a current 174,175 tonnes they are the lowest they've been since February 2015.
Available tonnage, meaning that which is not earmarked for physical load-out, is the lowest it's been since September 2014 at 121,425 tonnes.
Unsurprisingly, LME spreads are tight and tightening further. Equally unsurprisingly, the Shanghai copper curve is in benign contango.
Confusing isn't it?
All of which makes the latest set of forecasts from the International Copper Study Group (ICSG) particularly timely.
And as far as the ICSG is concerned, refined copper is in neither feast nor famine. Rather, supply and usage are expected to be broadly balanced both this year and next.
A BALANCED MARKET?
The ICSG is now forecasting a global refined copper deficit of 56,000 tonnes this year and a surplus of 20,000 tonnes in 2017.
This year's anticipated deficit has been marked down from the 127,000-tonne supply shortfall seen at the group's last meeting in October 2015.
Either way, over a two-year period, the outcome is the same, a market in which supply and usage are pretty much matched.
Moreover, in the context of a 23 million tonne market, these balance assessments are very small and well within the margin of statistical error.
And there is plenty of margin for error.
Pinpointing a supply-usage balance in an industrial commodity as diversified in its usage as copper is a statistically fraught exercise at the best of the times.
Throw in the current overarching macroeconomic uncertainties, particularly those originating in China, the world's biggest copper user, and statistical certainty becomes ever more elusive.
But the key takeaway here is the evolution of the ICSG's underlying forecasts for supply and usage over the course of the group's last three meetings, as shown in the graphic below.
Graphic on ICSG's 2016 copper market projections:
USAGE CUT, PRODUCTION CUT
Of course, it may seem counterintuitive that copper could be in anything over than massive surplus.
And it's true that the ICSG has slashed its usage forecasts in light of the slowdown in China and manufacturing weakness elsewhere.
It (Other OTC: ITGL - news) is now expecting global apparent usage to grow by just 0.5 percent this year. That mirrors a similarly weak expectation for apparent usage growth in China itself. Emphasis on the word "apparent", a calculation which uses only published information and not, say, changed in unreported stocks.
It's still a really significant downgrade from the growth rate of 3.1 percent forecast this time last year and from the 3.0 percent figure that came out of the Group's last meeting in October.
But offsetting this downgrade on the usage side of the ledger has been an equally sharp downgrade of expectations on the supply side.
World mined production is now expected to grow by just 1.5 percent in 2016, compared with projections of 5.1 percent and 4.2 percent in April and October 2015 respectively.
The growth rate is expected to pick up to 2.3 percent next year but it will still be lower than the 3.5 percent rate recorded in 2015.
The most interesting part of this supply forecast is the divergent trends between the main components.
So, while production of mine concentrate is expected to grow by a brisk 4 percent this year, supply of metal from mines in the form of leached cathode, is forecast to slide by 8 percent.
That's largely a function of voluntary capacity closures by Glencore (Xetra: A1JAGV - news) at its central African operations and by Freeport McMoRan at operations in both the U.S (Other OTC: UBGXF - news) . and Chile.
That reduced stream of cathode from mines feeds into the ICSG's reduced refined metal supply growth forecast of 0.5 percent, down from 2.3 percent last October.
So too does an anticipated 1 percent drop in secondary production as scrap availability drops in the face of lower copper prices.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
Of course the ICSG's latest forecasts are themselves a snapshot in time but equally importantly they can only provide a snapshot of the refined part of the copper supply chain.
It may well be, as many other analysts suggest, that there is a big surplus of copper concentrates awaiting processing into metal. And it may also be that stocks of finished or semi-finished products are increasing too.
But it's the bit in the middle that is most important for price since it's the availability of copper cathode that defines trading on both the LME and the SHFE.
And maybe there's not going to be as much around as everyone thought.
And if that's true, the current divergent stocks trends in Shanghai and London are unsustainable.
Indeed, some sort of reaction already seems to be happening on the LME market with spreads appreciably tightening.
The benchmark cash-to-three-months spread ended last week valued at $16.50 per tonne backwardation and the cash premium has grown to $23.15 over the course of Monday morning.
This may be down to the usual elevated cash-date activity on what is the main March prompt date, but the tightness is unlikely to evaporate while stocks are so low.
And, given the ICSG forecast of no massive metal surplus this year, they are going to remain low until the LME cash premium rises sufficiently to divert units away from their current China-bound trajectory.
(Editing by David Evans)