Two Firms Amass Much of World’s Copper Supply

Updated April 11, 2013, 10:06 p.m. ET

Two Firms Amass Much of World’s Copper Supply

Commodities Traders Pay to Divert Shipments From Other Warehouses; Manufacturers Worry About Access


Two major commodities-trading firms have amassed much of the world’s copper supplies in their warehouses, partly by paying to divert shipments away from other storage hubs, traders and analysts say.

Red Alert: Some trading firms have stashed the world’s copper supply in warehouses in New Orleans, Antwerp and Johor. The moves have sparked worries about the possibility of delayed deliveries and higher costs for industrial consumers.

This concentration of copper supplies has sparked concerns among industrial consumers of the metal. Some manufacturers and builders say they are worried that those stockpiles of copper—which is used in goods including automobiles, circuit boards and plumbing fixtures—could prove tough to procure if demand were to pick up sharply or output from mines were disrupted.


The London Metal Exchange, the world’s main venue for trading of industrial metals, certifies a global network of warehouses that store metal that can be delivered against the exchange’s futures contracts. The wait time to receive aluminum and zinc at warehouses at some locations has surged in recent years as those metals have piled up. Now, there are worries that the trend is spilling over into the copper market.

“The current situation, where LME warehouse owners are paying huge incentives to attract copper, and then have those units subject to long load-out queues, is effectively making that copper unavailable for immediate delivery to serve industrial consumers,” a spokesman for Southwire Co., the largest U.S. copper-wire maker, said in an emailed statement.

Copper prices have fallen since February amid expectations of a supply glut, but buyers say they are starting to pay hefty fees to get metal when they need it—on top of the actual price of copper—because so much is being diverted into warehouses.

The fees have blunted some of the benefit industrial consumers have seen from falling copper costs.

The amount of copper in LME warehouses has surged 84% since the start of the year to 590,175 metric tons, a 10-year high. The increase, more than 270,000 tons, is almost double expectations for the 153,000 ton surplus of copper that experts predict will emerge this year, evidence of warehousers’ success in attracting metal from the open market into their sheds.

Much of the excess supplies are stacking up in warehouses owned by GlencoreGLEN.LN -1.62% International PLC and Trafigura Beheer BV, according to traders in London, New York and Singapore who trade with the companies or their customers.

Glencore declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for Trafigura declined to comment on the company’s role in the warehousing system, but said most of this year’s increase in copper stockpiles is due to slowing demand from China and rising mine production.

The physical trading of raw materials is generally unregulated and there is nothing illegal about stockpiling metals.

Benchmark copper prices on the London Metal Exchange rose 0.5% on Thursday to $7,609 a metric ton.

Traders and analysts say they noticed the shift when copper began piling up in unusual places. The increase is coming at ports that historically haven’t been a destination for the metal. Sixty percent of the increase in stockpiles this year has occurred at Antwerp, Belgium, and Johor, Malaysia, according to LME data. Warehouses in these locations, many of which are owned and operated by the two trading firms, held little copper until this year.


Trafigura is the largest warehouse owner in Antwerp, while Glencore owns the most facilities in Johor, and in New Orleans, which has also seen a sharp increase in copper stockpiles, according LME data.

The LME doesn’t make public the amount of metal held in individual warehouses, but traders and analysts say the accumulation is occurring in warehouses owned by Trafigura and Glencore.

The companies don’t always buy the copper outright but do charge for its storage and assess fees for its movement.

Because of the logistics of moving the metal, the wait for copper out of Antwerp is as long as 25 weeks. In New Orleans, it is 18 weeks, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of LME data. Johor’s wait is six weeks.

Fees to get copper delivered in the U.S. are at $132 a ton, a six-month high, according to pricing-information service Platts. The fees in Europe are the highest in four months—at $85 a ton. The fee is paid by anyone who wants copper available for immediate delivery on the so-called spot market.

Glencore’s warehousing arm, Pacorini Metals Group, for months has been trying to attract even more copper to its Johor facilities, according to traders. Earlier this year, Pacorini started to offer suppliers, including South American miners, as much as $120 a ton above the LME’s benchmark copper price to direct shipments to its warehouses there, according to London-based traders. That is at least $20 a ton more than metal distributors in China have paid recently, and more than $100 above the prevailing rate elsewhere in Asia, according to traders in New York and London.

Warehouses offering cash payments for metal isn’t unprecedented, traders and analysts say, but outbidding other buyers by such a wide margin is rare.

“It is already affecting the market,” said Liu Jiang, a purchasing manager at a copper cable maker, adding that spot premiums for copper in Shanghai have climbed by about 40% in the last two weeks. “The lockup in those three warehouses is reducing copper supply available to the market, and because it’s a peak season for copper cable production in China, we’re definitely going to be affected.”

Some analysts say the situation in the copper market is starting to mirror that of aluminum, another key industrial metal. Buyers looking to procure aluminum from LME warehouses in cities such as Detroit and Vlissingen, the Netherlands, often have to wait more than a year. U.S. consumers this year paid record premiums of $260 a ton to get aluminum more quickly, even though production has outpaced demand every year since 2005.

Banks and trading firms operating the warehouses in Detroit and Vlissingen, market watchers say, outbid industrial consumers of aluminum for the metal. So much aluminum was stashed in these cities that when demand recovered, a bottleneck lifted prices and lengthened wait times for the metal, analysts and traders say.

“There are disturbing similarities emerging between the aluminum and copper markets,” Daniel Brebner, a commodities analyst at Deutsche BankDBK.XE +0.08%wrote in a March 26 report.

Some consumers are worried that if demand picks up and those supplies are suddenly needed, they will see longer waits to secure copper and higher prices. Analysts with Barclays BARC.LN +1.89% expect the growth in copper demand to accelerate as the year goes on, and rise 3.3% from 2012 levels.

“This is the old warehouse play,” Mark Woehnker, president of AmRod Corp., said of the concentration of copper stockpiles in some regions. “It’s a very disconcerting development.” The Newark, N.J., company melts sheets of copper and forms them into rods, which are sold to wiring and cable companies.

In comments at a copper conference in Chile, LME Chief Executive Martin Abbott said the warehousing issues were the result of market conditions beyond the exchange’s control. The LME declined to comment further.

The LME has taken steps to address bottlenecks in the system. Last year, it doubled the minimum amount of metal warehouses were required to deliver each day. This month, it began requiring warehouses to deliver more than one type of metal each day, a rule addressing a practice where firms put metals that are more in demand in line behind large supplies of another commodity.

“It will take more time than people expect” to get copper, said Leon Westgate, an analyst with Standard Bank. “A lot of what you see [in warehouses] is not immediately available.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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