There have been slim pickings in the mining sector in recent years, but there is more than a spark of life in the zinc market.
With prices up 60% this year from a six-year low in January as supply constraints loom in both concentrates and refined metal.
Amid talk of reopening shuttered facilities and making new investments the rust-resistant metal closed at $2,318 per ton on Sept. 1. Along with nickel, it is bucking an otherwise sluggish trend in base metals as speculators ride a wave that has roared past gold and silver to make zinc the year’s outstanding metal.
Most observers believe that climbing zinc prices reflect a decision last October by Switzerland’s Glencore, the world’s largest nickel miner by volume, to cut zinc production by 500,000 tons a year — about a third of its production — to put a floor under prices. Glencore has a 5% share of the global zinc market, analysts said. The cuts were made largely at its Australian mines and in Ireland.
Zinc fell from $4,500 per ton in 2006 to just over $1,000 during the global financial crisis, and has struggled to rebound beyond $1,700 since then.
Zinc prices could go higher following the announcement in August of several mine closures by China, the world’s largest zinc producer. Beijing ordered the shutdown of all lead and zinc mines in parts of Hunan province, the center of Chinese production, until next June because of safety and environmental concerns. Bans on lead production are being extended to at least seven other provinces.
Analysts at Citi Group, an investment bank, said that the affected production “was thought to amount to around 150,000-200,000 tons of annual refined zinc supply, forcing some local smelters in Hunan to outsource ore.” But they added that large-scale production cuts promised last November have yet to appear.
Observers said the latest move could counter the entry into the market of small, high-cost Chinese zinc mines that are only put into production when prices rise. Global output of mined zinc slumped by almost 7% in the first half of this year, according to the International Lead and Zinc Study Group.
Australia is the world’s second largest zinc producer, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, at 1.58 million tons last year. Its output will fall this year because of the Glencore cuts, analysts said. Peru is third with 1.37 million tons. Asian producers include fifth-ranked India with 830,000 tons and eighth-ranked Kazakhstan with 330,000 tons.