2016 finished on a quietly positive note. Through the second part of last year, we saw metal prices stage a rally (of sorts: not, I concede, what we became used to during the boom period that now lives only in the memories and bank accounts of those who were there at the time, but a rally nonetheless), which has served to give a boost to the confidence of commodity investors.
Cyclicality has had a part to play here: nothing goes in one direction for ever and things that were out of fashion come back into focus as part of the natural order of the world. But that’s not all. As I suggested would be the case at the beginning of the year, selected mining equities have indeed pointed the way, with that sector of the FTSE powering the index to its new record high. (Incidentally, I noted a couple of weeks ago that Danny Fortson, in the Sunday Times, rated Rio Tinto a definite sell on the back of its (well-publicised) problems. I’m not an analyst, so my views are strictly those of a slightly educated outsider, but I’d still put that company among the best of the bunch, given where it sits on the cost curve in the majority of its products. I certainly wouldn’t dream of giving advice, but neither would I sell Rio from my portfolio.)
So what are we really looking at? The major influence – both up and down – in recent times has been China; this time, though, I’m not sure that it is as central as we have come to expect. Certainly, we all correctly and keenly watch that economy for signs good or bad, but at the moment the signals seem a bit fuzzy. The property market remains a problem, but on the other hand the government is projecting stimulus which should aid the commodity markets. But there is still overcapacity, and where does it go? All the aluminium can’t end up in the Mexican desert; and what does the Trump ascendancy presage for trade relations between the world’s two largest economies? Looked at coldly, unfortunately I can’t see a clear signal of a consistent China once again driving the commodity freight train.
My optimism comes from a slightly different direction, and one where we have to be very cautious, as this is more commodity-selective than China’s overall appetite. As often in the past, technological development holds a key position for the market. One of the hottest topics in scientific research right now is the work being done on the storage of electricity – in other words, better, smaller and cheaper batteries. This is being driven principally – but not exclusively – by the increase in demand for electric vehicles. The beneficiaries of this demand will be lithium (obviously), cobalt and nickel – as the cathode and anode – and also copper, not directly for use in batteries, but because an electric vehicle uses something like four times the copper of a conventional one. And, of course, one should also bear in mind the increased copper usage that will come through the continuing development of charging networks.
One of many charging points for Tesla electric vehicles
For an idea of how that will roll out, look at the growth in the network of petrol stations in the first part of the 20th century. (As an aside – for those who are interested – have a look on catch-up TV for the 2016 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, where Saiful Islam, a chemistry professor from the University of Bath, is talking precisely about this issue of power generation and storage; it’s interesting stuff.)
So, I’m not a scientist, but I can see the way the world is going, and it’s towards an environment where the renewable generation of electricity and its storage will become of increasing importance. Lithium is a clear beneficiary; right now, you would bet on nickel and cobalt, but beware – battery technology may change to use other metals…. And copper, still the most effective means of power transmission, looks very secure.
I don’t expect a boom again, but a selective investment in metals could be the right way to go in 2017.
Metals – or commodities generally – are no longer the pariah class, as funds once again dip their toes into the pool, Lord Copper asserts as he looks to the year ahead with cautious optimism.