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.
|Historic Events||Price In USD/Tonne|
|1914 - World War I||$11,648|
|1930 - Great Depression||$4,690|
|1942 - World War II||$3,514|
|1973 - Oil Crisis||$9,196|
|1997 - Asian Crisis||$2,420|
|2008 - Financial Crisis||$11,000|
|2020 - COVID-19||$4,700|
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 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.
Natural Graphite: The Material for a Green Economy
The demand for natural graphite is expected to increase by 1437% by 2030. This infographic highlights why.
Natural Graphite: The Material for a Green Economy
As the world moves towards decarbonization, electric vehicles (EVs) and clean energy technologies offer a path towards a sustainable future. However, these technologies are mineral-intensive, and the minerals they use are becoming increasingly valuable.
Graphite is one such mineral.
As the anode material and single largest component of lithium-ion batteries, graphite has a key role in the clean energy transition. But there are two types of graphite: natural and synthetic. Which one is better for the green economy?
The above infographic from Northern Graphite outlines the need for graphite and weighs the pros and cons of the two types of graphite.
The Need for Graphite
Graphite has six key properties that make it essential for EVs and other clean energy technologies.
- High electrical conductivity
- High thermal conductivity
- Relatively low cost
- High energy density
- Long cycle life
- High temperature resistance
A single EV contains 66.3kg of graphite, according to the IEA. With more EVs on the road, the world will need more graphite. In fact, among critical battery metals like cobalt, nickel, and lithium, graphite is projected to see the largest increase in demand through 2029.
Batteries can use both types of graphite as anode materials. As of 2020, synthetic graphite dominated the anode market with 58% of market share. However, this could change over the next decade. By 2030, natural graphite is expected to see a 1437% increase in anode demand, compared to a 705% increase for synthetic graphite.
Why is the demand for natural graphite rising at a faster rate?
Natural Graphite vs Synthetic Graphite
The methods of production make the key distinction between the two types of graphite. Natural graphite occurs naturally in mineral deposits and miners extract it from the ground through open-pit and underground mining. On the contrary, manufacturers make synthetic graphite by high-temperature treatment of carbon materials like petroleum coke and coal tar.
Producing graphite from mineral deposits results in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the conventional mining process. However, the heat treatment of synthetic graphite is an energy-intensive process that releases harmful emissions.
According to one study, the manufacturing of synthetic graphite produces roughly 4.9kg of CO2 per kg of graphite. That’s roughly three times the amount of CO2 emissions that come from producing 1kg of natural graphite.
Additionally, natural graphite is also cheaper to produce than synthetic graphite. According to research from the Öko-Institut in Germany, anode material made from natural graphite is priced between $4 and $8 per kg, while synthetic graphite-based anode material costs $12-$13 per kg.
The Anode Material for a Green Economy
Critical minerals like graphite are becoming increasingly important in the transition to clean energy. However, managing the environmental impact and efficiency of producing these raw materials is just as important.
With a lower environmental footprint and lower production costs, natural graphite is the anode material for a greener future. As the energy transition continues, new graphite mines could play a key role in meeting graphite’s rapidly growing demand.
Visualizing China’s Evolving Energy Mix
This infographic takes a look at what China’s energy transition plans are to make its energy mix carbon neutral by 2060.
Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts
In September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the steps his nation would take to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 via videolink before the United Nations Assembly in New York.
This infographic takes a look at what this ambitious plan for China’s energy would look like and what efforts are underway towards this goal.
China’s Ambitious Plan
A carbon-neutral China requires changing the entire economy over the next 40 years, a change the IEA compares to the ambition of the reforms that industrialized the country’s economy in the first place.
China is the world’s largest consumer of electricity, well ahead of the second place consumer, the United States. Currently, 80% of China’s energy comes from fossil fuels, but this plan envisions only 14% coming from coal, oil, and natural gas in 2060.
|Energy Source||2025||2060||% Change|
Source: Tsinghua University Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy; U.S. EIA
According to the Carbon Brief, China’s 14th five-year plan appears to enshrine Xi’s goal. This plan outlines a general and non specific list of projects for a new energy system. It includes the construction of eight large-scale clean energy centers, coastal nuclear power, electricity transmission routes, power system flexibility, oil-and-gas transportation, and storage capacity.
Progress Towards Renewables?
While the goal seems far off in the future, China is on a trajectory towards reducing the carbon emissions of its electricity grid with declining coal usage, increased nuclear, and increased solar power capacity.
According to ChinaPower, coal fueled the rise of China with the country using 144 million tonnes of oil equivalent “Mtoe” in 1965, peaking at 1,969 Mtoe in 2013. However, its share as part of the country’s total energy mix has been declining since the 1990s from ~77% to just under ~60%.
Another trend in China’s energy transition will be the greater consumption of energy as electricity. As China urbanized, its cities expanded creating greater demand for electricity in homes, businesses, and everyday life. This trend is set to continue and approach 40% of total energy consumed by 2030 up from ~5% in 1990.
Under the new plan, by 2060, China is set to have 42% of its energy coming from solar and nuclear while in 2025 it is only expected to be 6%. China has been adding nuclear and solar capacity and expects to add the equivalent of 20 new reactors by 2025 and enough solar power for 33 million homes (110GW).
Changing the energy mix away from fossil fuels, while ushering in a new economic model is no small task.
Up to the Task?
China is the world’s factory and has relatively young industrial infrastructure with fleets of coal plants, steel mills, and cement factories with plenty of life left.
However, China also is the biggest investor in low-carbon energy sources, has access to massive technological talent, and holds a strong central government to guide the transition.
The direction China takes will have the greatest impact on the health of the planet and provide guidance for other countries looking to change their energy mixes, for better or for worse.
The world is watching…even if it’s by videolink.
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