The price of copper has risen – how long will the bull market last?

The price of copper has leapt to almost a two-year high, but demand for the metal continues to outstrip supply. How long will the market remain bullish?

Copper granules at a scrap facility.
(Image credit: Bloomberg Creative)

We are entering the “copper age”, says Étienne Goetz in Les Echos. The price of copper has jumped by 18% this year to trade close to two-year highs of roughly $9,910 per tonne on the London Metal Exchange

Business intelligence company CRU Group estimates that $150bn in investment in new supply will be required between 2025 and 2032 to meet growing global copper demand. Yet higher interest rates and environmental opposition to mining projects are making investors reluctant to stump up the cash. 

Copper “exploration budgets have fallen since the early 2010s”, says the Financial Times. Going from discovery to production can take more than ten years, increasing the risk that projects are derailed by politics or changing market conditions. Prices might need to rise by 20% to incentivise interest in new mines.

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Could the price of copper could rise further?

Miner BHP’s recent bid for London miner Anglo American reflects growing interest in copper. Yet it is telling that commodity giants would rather bid for existing operations than open brand new mines. 

“Shifting assets from one owner to another” does nothing to address the looming copper crunch. Copper is vital for everything from electrical switches to solar panels and electric vehicle components. 

The looming copper crunch investors eye up EM bonds says Sohrab Darabshaw in Metal Miner. In 2022, global copper production was about 22,000 kilotonnes, compared with demand of 26,000 kilotonnes (recycling bridges the gap). In the long term, demand may hit 33,000 kilotonnes, leading to a yearly deficit of roughly 6,000 kilotonnes by 2030. 

By one estimate, that could eventually push prices as high as $15,000 per tonne. Analysts at Citi forecast a 1,000 kilotonne supply deficit over the next three years, says Megha Mandavia in The Wall Street Journal

China buys about half the world’s copper supply. Booming electric vehicle and solar panel production has seen the country’s copper demand rise by 18% year on year over the past five months. It remains to be seen whether this frenetic rate of production can be maintained, while demand from the domestic property market remains “flat on its back”. 

The copper outlook is auspicious, but the metal “still isn’t a one-way bet”. It takes “three times as much copper to generate the same amount of electricity on a solar farm as in a gas-fired power station”, says Tom Stevenson in The Telegraph. For offshore wind, it is “nearly eight times”. 

Tomorrow’s growth sectors have “an insatiable appetite” for the metal. A long period of weak prices saw capital expenditure on new copper mines drop by more than 40% between 2012 and 2020. These are classic preconditions for a commodity price supercycle – prices “do nothing for years”, companies fail to invest, then a “credible demand-growth story” emerges and prices rocket.

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