Lead’s Boom

By Glenn Dyer | More Articles by Glenn Dyer

After spending more than a year being the ugly duckling of the commodity markets, in apparent disfavour from speculators and others, lead is having its time at the top of the heap.

The price of the metal, still considered to be highly toxic and dangerous to humans, is now at record levels, having more than doubled in the past year.

This rapid run up to these record levels has been slow in coming; other metals have already been there.

The boom in Asian car production and ownership is the driver of this performance.

Lead's partner, zinc, had already the big run up to world record levels of more than $US4,6000 a tonne, and has now eased.

Copper ran last year (hitting an all time high of $US4.04/lb) and had a short, sharp sprint this year.

Nickel soared to levels unimaginable even six months ago (above $US 54,000 a tonne; now down around $US36, 000 or so a tonne.

Gold chuffed up to a 30 year high last year of around $US730 an ounce, but is now just over $US650 an ounce.

Aluminium was hot, also running to new highs, but lead was unwanted, until the world woke up to the Asian car boom and the shutting down of a mine in Western Australia which supplied three per cent of world output.

In fact 2007 has been lead's year; it has taken off as nickel has cooled.

Lead prices have soared in a world market stuck with a supply deficit for four years straight and a fifth year forecast.

A combination of surging global demand and glitches in the supply chain have driven prices above $US2,800 a tonne and heading towards $US2,900.

It actually topped $US2,900 a tonne on Thursday on the London Metal Exchange before easing to close at $US2,850.

In May of 2006 it was selling for around $US1,100 a tonne.

It's now mostly restricted to a group of narrow uses: 70 per cent of the world's consumption of the metal each year is absorbed by the car industry, with the rest used in pigment, ammunition and other minor products.

And of these end uses, it's the car industry, especially in China and India, which is pushing the price of lead higher.

The spot price of the metal has risen by 40 per cent in the past couple of months and the cynics in the commodities markets make a very simple point.

There's hardly any lead consumed in bicycles, but there is in cars, and car ownership and production is growing faster than bicycle ownership across Asia.

But just as zinc, aluminium, copper and other metals have had supply constraints, on top of surging demand, so too has lead.

The sharp rise in prices would not have been possible without an existing shortage of the metal being exacerbated by the shutdown in March of Ivernia's Magellan mine and its three per cent of the world supply, in Western Australia.

The mine looks like being closed for the rest of 2007 while the cause of lead pollution at the port of Esperance is sorted out and cleaned up.

With Magellan closed, London reports say world production will fall more than 50,000 tonnes short of consumption in 2007. Recycling can only meet some of that. Car batteries have much longer lives than they did a decade ago.

Chinese smelters may cut production because they can't get enough concentrates and the more insightful analysts say the situation in lead has similarities to the explosive bubble in nickel prices in the first five months of this year.

Nickel prices soared to more than $US54,000 a tonne for spot metal and they only started falling after US and Asian refineries started cutting production and stainless steel producers cut the amount of nickel they use to produce stainless steel, or dropped it completely.

That set off fears of a rise in stocks of unsold, expensive stainless steel and nickel metal, so the processors and producers cut output to try and bring the market back into some semblance of balance.

That might be tougher with the surging demand from the car industries in China and India, but watch for stories about cuts in the amount of lead consumed in batteries and reductions in output by smelters.

About Glenn Dyer

Glenn Dyer has been a finance journalist and TV producer for more than 40 years. He has worked at Maxwell Newton Publications, Queensland Newspapers, AAP, The Australian Financial Review, The Nine Network and Crikey.

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