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Copper, aluminium, zinc and tin all hit record price highs in March. Lead was the only LME base metal to miss out on the super-bull party. After the March melt-up, however, industrial metals are now in meltdown. The LME Index has just experienced its sharpest quarterly fall since the global financial crisis. (File pic: LME metal trading London.)

LONDON: Industrial metals have gone from boom to bust in the space of only three months.

In March the London Metal Exchange (LME) suspended its nickel contract after the price spiked to more than $100,000 per tonne. Three-month nickel CMNI3 is now trading around $22,500, pretty much back where it was before the descent into chaos.

Copper, aluminium, zinc and tin all hit record price highs in March. Lead was the only LME base metal to miss out on the super-bull party.

After the March melt-up, however, industrial metals are now in meltdown. The LME Index has just experienced its sharpest quarterly fall since the global financial crisis.

The pivot in sentiment from super-bullish to super-bearish has been the Feb. 24 launch of what Russia calls its "special operation" in Ukraine.

Fears of sanctions against Russian metal helped drive prices to those record highs in March. But flows of Russian aluminium, copper and nickel have so far been largely unaffected.

Rather, traders are now focused on the recessionary impact of high energy prices as the Russian invasion grinds on.

BEARS COME OUT TO PLAY

Investor positioning across the industrial metals has flipped from long to short over the last few weeks, with systematic funds responding to chart breakdowns and downside price momentum by increasing bear bets.

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Money managers were net long of the CME copper contract to the tune of 42,000 contracts at the start of April. The net short now stands at 25,402 contracts, the most bearish positioning since April 2020.

The last few remaining bulls are throwing in the towel. Funds' outright long positions have shrunk to a two-year low of 33,926 contracts.

This is symptomatic of the broader investor landscape in metals, with heavier-weight funds trimming passive long exposure and systematic trend-following funds selling into price weakness.

LME broker Marex estimates there are now significant speculative short positions across the whole complex in the London market, several of them close to multi-year highs in terms of size.

CHINA TO THE RESCUE?

It's not hard to understand investors' bear rationale.

High energy prices are fuelling inflation and central banks are responding by tightening policy.

They are also starting to chill manufacturing activity.

The latest string of purchasing managers indices captured stalled growth in Asia, the United States and Europe.

China is the potential bright spot in the global economy, with manufacturing activity expanding in June for the first time since February as the country gradually emerges from rolling lockdowns over the first half of the year.

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