Are Copper Prices in a Supercycle? A 120-Year Perspective
There are multiple factors that could fuel the price of copper to record highs, including the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. trillion-dollar stimulus package, and the ongoing energy transition.
As a result of this, some global banks are predicting a supercycle for the metal, i.e., a sustained spell of abnormally strong demand growth that producers struggle to match, sparking a rally in prices that can last decades.
To put the current trend into perspective, the above graphic uses data from the U.S. Federal Reserve and consultancy Roskill to picture copper’s previous rallies over the last 120 years.
The Rise of a Super Power: U.S. Supercycle
Industrialization and urbanization in the United States sparked the first supercycle of the 20th century. Machines replaced hand labor as the main means of manufacturing and people moved to cities in record numbers. Immigration and natural growth caused the U.S. population to rise from 40 million in 1870 to 100 million in 1916.
“What’s right about America is that although we have a mess of problems, we have great capacity – intellect and resources – to do some thing about them.” – Henry Ford II
The value of goods produced in the U.S. increased almost tenfold between 1870 and 1916. The cycle was succeeded by the Great Depression, with a sharp decline in world consumption that brought the copper price to the lowest since 1894 ($4,690 per tonne).
Pax Americana: The Post-War Copper Supercycle
During WWII, the U.S. government considered copper a critical metal to the military. In order to conserve copper supply, the use of copper in building construction was prohibited, specific products with copper were limited to 60% of its previous war usage, and the War Production Board allocated supply to specific manufacturers.
At the center of global copper markets, the London Metals Exchange fixed the price of copper at £56/tonne ($3,514 per tonne, adjusted to 2021 inflation) during the war and the government issued permits to control purchases. The official price would rise after the war due to increased demand from reconstruction and the rise of the automobile, but price controls were not lifted until 1953.
The United States, Soviet Union, Western European, and East Asian countries experienced unusual growth after World War II. The reconstruction of Europe and Japan powered the commodities market and despite the scale of material damage, industrial equipment and plants survived the war remarkably intact.
“I was very lucky, I was part of the post-war period when everything had to be redone.” – Pierre Cardin
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 further strengthened demand as countries commenced strategic stockpiling programs. In January 1951, the US government imposed a ceiling price of 24.6¢/lb on domestic copper which remained in place until the end of 1952. Price controls held U.S. domestic prices lower than world prices, creating shortages.
According to assets managing firm Winton, U.S. prices remained lower after the release of these controls, as producers sought to prevent the substitution of copper wiring with cheaper materials such as aluminum. This two-tier market – producer prices for U.S. consumers and LME prices for everyone else – was in place until 1970.
The Pax Americana spanned from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to the early 1970s, when the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system and the 1973 oil crisis caused high unemployment and high inflation in most of the Western world. Prices jumped to $9,196 per tonne in 1973.
The Four Tigers and The Rise of China: Asian Supercycles
The massive growth of East Asia nations drove the next two supercycles of the century: (1983-1994) and the 2000s commodities boom (2002-2014).
Specifically, Japan played a central role in the third supercycle of the century. The country achieved record economic growth, averaging 10% a year until the seventies. Its economy grew from one less productive than Italy to the third-largest in the world, behind only the United States and the Soviet Union. Growth was especially strong in heavy industry and in advanced technology.
The most recent cycle started in 2002 after China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and started to modernize its economy. The country entered a phase of roaring economic growth, fueled by a rollout of infrastructure and cities on an unprecedented scale. Copper price reached $9,000 per tonne in May 2006, pressured by strong Chinese demand.
Are Copper Prices in a Supercycle?
Previous copper rallies reveal a pattern of broad-based growth, industrialization, and new technologies that can help drive the demand and prices. Is the global economy entering such a phase?
As world economies emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and decarbonization is top-of-mind in many countries, copper is set to play a key role as an electrical conductor. Electric and hybrid cars use more copper than regular gasoline vehicles – 165lbs, 110lbs and 55lbs respectively. Renewables also demand more copper: A single wind farm can contain between 4 million and 15 million pounds of metal.
The copper price hit a record high in May 2021 ($10,476 a tonne) and trading house Trafigura Group, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America expect the metal to extend its recent gains. Whether it will be enough for a new supercycle is yet to be seen.
Hindsight is 20/20 but the future looks electric.