Metal prices are essential to manufacturers and end-users and have long been used as a tool for monitoring economic and market conditions. But how do markets determine metal prices?
- The prices of individual metals are determined by supply and demand, as well as expectations of future supply and demand.
- Prices for mature metal markets, such as copper, are more transparent than new markets, and markets for standard base metals are more efficient.
- Prices for minor metals, electronic metals such as indium, and refractory metals like tungsten, are usually negotiated between buyers and sellers.
- Prices for platinum group metals are set by major producers, while markets for gold and silver are well-established with transparent pricing.
Metal Market Information
The prices of individual metals, like prices for any commodity, are essentially determined by supply and demand. However, to assume that information on supply and demand is readily available while being accurate and transparent would be a big mistake, regardless of the type of metal.
Current prices do not only factor in immediate supply and demand but also expectations of future supply and demand. In general, the less information available, the greater price volatility will be.
A large service industry has grown around researching, reporting and consulting on virtually every individual metal. Countless websites now report on the movement of metal prices.
Most metal research and reporting focus on large base metal markets, such as copper, nickel, zinc, and lead. But, in recent years, more attention has been given to minor metals, including rare earth elements.
Mechanisms for Pricing
Price determination mechanisms range from advanced spot and forward contracts traded online, as well as in London at the London Metal Exchange (LME). Metals pricing tools also encompass the New York Mercantile Commodity Exchange (COMEX) and basic cash exchanges between buyers and sellers.
A more mature metal market, such as that for nickel ingots, is characterized by more transparent price determination methods. These methods might be the open-outcry system of floor trading at the LME or option and forward contracts that reflect what market participants expect nickel-metal prices to be 30 to 120 days in the future.
By storing and publishing data on nickel—and other base metal—inventories, the LME also provides some degree of risk reduction for buyers and investors.
Statistics on global tellurium metal production, in contrast, are not only challenging to come by but are unreliable. One primary reason for this is that it is not in the interest of refiners—often privately held companies—to publish information on production and inventory levels.
The demand markets for tellurium—and most minor metals—are not much more predictable. They are dependent on only a few applications, such as solar energy and thermo-electronics. The total quantity of global tellurium production also limits the possibility of exchanges from managing transactions or the development of electronic trading and forward contracts. As a result, buyers and sellers of this minor metal must negotiate the physical metal's cash purchases.
Due to differences in market structures, price recognition methods, and quantities produced metal markets are often separated into five groups with distinct characteristics.
Base Metals Pricing
The global market for base metals can be considered the most developed of any group of metals. Forward contracts for deliveries of copper and tin date back to the 19th century. Now markets with trading desks around the world settle transactions, equaling trillions of dollars each year.
Forward and options contracts and electronic trading have all contributed to a more efficient market. An efficient market can more effectively determine what buyers and sellers are willing to pay for a particular metal. Consequently, the difference between bid and offer prices for standard base metals usually is much smaller than what one would see for other metals.
Downstream metal prices, such as copper wire or powder, and upstream raw materials such as copper ore and concentrate, can be bought and sold based on prices determined by the market standard.
Steel and Ferro-Alloys Pricing
Although well established, the steel market is not as mature as the market for base metals. This lack of maturity is primarily because steel is a less tradable commodity. The wide range of grades and variance in forms required by countless end-users makes it challenging to establish a market standard in the way that copper cathode, for example, is standardized.
Nevertheless, the LME began offering contracts based on nine different grades of steel billets in 2008. The New York Mercantile Commodity Exchange (COMEX) began trading hot-rolled coil futures the same year, while the Shanghai Futures Exchange began trading futures of Chinese rebar and wire in 2009.
The market for ferroalloys, such as ferromanganese and ferrosilicon, is less mature, with prices often being determined directly between buyers and sellers.
Pricing for Minor Metals
Prices for minor metals, including electronic metals such as indium, gallium and germanium, and refractory metals like tungsten and tantalum, are almost exclusively negotiated between buyers and sellers. The low number of market participants and the evolving applications for many minor metals make it difficult to develop more advanced investment and price determination tools.
The transparency provided by electronic and floor trading and established inventories, in theory, reduce price volatility and provide more accurate price realization.
In 2008, however, both cobalt and molybdenum metal contracts began trading on the LME, making them the first minor metals to have forward markets.
Platinum Group Metals Pricing
Due to the minimal number of platinum group metals (PGM) refiners and suppliers, prices for these metals are traditionally set by major producers' sales offices. Johnson Matthey, the exclusive marketing agent for Anglo Platinum (the world's largest platinum producer), sets wholesale prices for PGMs twice daily at its trading desks in the USA, Hong Kong, and London.
Some metals, such as osmium, have seen little price change in years, mostly due to limited use. In contrast, platinum prices, which have significant demand from both industry and investors, fluctuate daily.
Precious Metals Pricing
Excluding platinum, palladium, and other PGMs, we refer to gold and silver when we speak of precious metals. For thousands of years, both metals have been used as a store of wealth, and, not surprisingly, both have well-established and transparent markets.
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) has operated since 1919 and is the most common benchmark for gold's price, while gold futures are traded on COMEX and Euronext.
Various other financial and investment companies offer derivatives, options, futures, and exchange-traded funds based on the market price of gold.
Although the LBMA and COMEX also offer various forward market contracts for silver bullion, its prices are generally considered more volatile than gold prices. This is due to its slightly lower liquidity (fewer buyers and sellers) and the influence of industrial demand for silver, which has grown to account for about 90% of silver demand annually.
Metal Market Prices vs. Metal Product Prices
While economists, analysts, and journalists are generally more concerned with macro-market prices for large quantities of industrial or investment-grade metals, manufacturers and end-users require prices specific to a particular grade, form, and abundance of metal.
This means that, while economists may study the London Metal Exchange (LME) price of copper cathode, construction companies and electronics manufacturers are basing their budgets on the cost of copper wiring and copper powder.
Without question, a direct correlation exists between tradable industrial metal prices and downstream metal material prices, but the two are never the same (much like the price of flour may influence, but does not determine, the cost of bread). The farther down the value-added stream one goes, the more factors (e.g., labor, energy, and transport costs) begin to influence metal product prices.