Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Copper Hunting?

LONDON (Reuters) - This summer, a Marseille-based salvage company will undertake a challenging operation to try and recover a sunken treasure off Spain's wild Atlantic coast.

However the hoard lying on the sea-floor in water more than 1 km (3,300 feet) deep is not gold doubloons or silver ingots but a stash of metal usually of more interest to plumbers than to treasure hunters -- copper.

London-listed SubSea Resources expects to lift most of the 5,500 tonne cargo from a 1970s wreck in a 5 million pound project it has code-named Celia.

While not the main driver for the project, a three-year bull market which has pushed copper prices to record highs has significantly increased its appeal, SubSea managing director Mark Gleave told Reuters.

"There was a technological window of opportunity that has allowed us to access deep-water vessels," Gleave said.

"The serendipitous element is that the commodity price cycle is booming just at the time that we are about to start delivering material, and that's great."

In late 2002, copper was languishing below $1,500 a tonne.

Like most commodities, it was out of favour as a tepid global economy struggled to grow and as investors nursed heavy losses from the bursting of the technology bubble in 2000.

But earlier this month, three-month copper contracts hit a record $8,800 a tonne, driven by a coordinated global economic expansion and by investment funds attracted to mouth-watering returns across the commodities spectrum.

The surge in copper prices -- a rise of more than 500 percent in three years -- has prompted comparisons between the current commodities boom and the tech bubble it so quickly followed, and has led to a number of interesting developments beyond SubSea's salvage efforts.


Kazakhmys , a copper mining company from Kazakhstan, floated on the London Stock Exchange in October and last month was worth close to 7 billion pounds -- significantly more than household names such as British Airways or chemicals group ICI .

In April, armed men stole 40 tonnes of copper worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from a recycling plant in France's Champagne region.

Britain has also suffered a spate of copper-related thefts, including a two-tonne Henry Moore bronze sculpture valued at around 3 million pounds and worth perhaps 5,000 pounds in scrap.

Even some copper coins are now worth more for their metal than their face value.

Such stories might unnerve investors who lost their shirts on start-up Internet companies in the late 1990s, when market capitalisations of billions and revenues of mere thousands were not unheard of.

Old hands in financial markets say that stories like the above appearing in newspapers are a signal for those in the know to sell. If you're hearing a hot investment tip from your taxi driver or your hairdresser, they say, you've probably missed it.


Recent market moves suggest that could be the case.

Signs of stress in metal markets erupted two weeks ago, sending prices for copper, gold and other metals tumbling.

Copper sank as much as 17 percent from its May 11 peak, trimming the potential value of the undersea cargo SubSea is targeting to around $40 million (21 million pounds) from $48 million at its peak.

Gold fell 12 percent and silver was down as much as 21 percent.

And while prices have fallen, costs in the commodities sector have risen strongly for many companies in recent months.

SubSea had been expecting to pay around 15,000 pounds a day for a vessel to recover the cargo in its copper project but stiff competition from the oil and gas industry for such ships forced the price up to 20,000 pounds a day.

Labour costs in extractive industries have also surged due to a shortage of skilled workers. Many workers left and were not replaced as mines closed and exploration dried up after the energy crisis-led commodities boom of the mid-1970s faded out.


So was the fall the beginning of the end for the boom in metals like copper, or a minor correction on the road higher?

Many analysts say that unlike the Internet bubble of a few years ago, the fundamental drivers of supply and demand support ongoing strength in copper, which is used extensively for construction and electrical goods.

"Until the industry begins to aggressively build new capacity, we continue to be firm believers that supply restrictions will support higher metal prices," said Jeremy Gray, an analyst at Credit Suisse in London.

"We believe that we are in the greatest commodity bull market of our generation and investors should be buying."

Demand for commodities is closely linked to global growth, and that remains strong.