Anyone expecting more from the Donald Trump rally in metals should probably consider just how much $1 trillion in government spending will actually buy.
Thatâ€™s the amount the new US president pledged to expand and rebuild American infrastructure like roads and airports over the next decade. While Trump has yet to make a formal proposal to
Congress, investors already are betting a building boom will accelerate demand for raw materials. Prices for everything from aluminum to steel have surged since the election in November. Hedge funds hold their most-bullish position ever in copper.
But it can take years for any
one project to be selected, funded and completed. And even then, Trumpâ€™s plan probably would add just 0.4 percentage point to global demand growth for steel and copper, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. estimates. For other metals like zinc or nickel, the additional buying will be â€œtoo smallâ€ to measure, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
â€œItâ€™s a drop in the ocean,â€ said Renate Cakule, a London-based principal analyst for steel at commodity consultant Wood Mackenzie. â€œIt doesnâ€™t change the global picture. It doesnâ€™t have a big impact on the world outside the USâ€
Trumpâ€™s 10-year plan is dwarfed by the $1.7 trillion spent in 2016 alone by China, the worldâ€™s biggest metals consumer. The Asian country â€” home to the worldâ€™s second-largest economy â€” accounts for 46 percent of the global demand for copper, used primarily in electrical wiring and indoor plumbing. The US ranks second in the world at 8 percent. In the steel market, 44 percent of all demand occurs in China, compared with 7 percent in the US, according to Morgan Stanley estimates.
Spending $100 billion more annually on infrastructure would boost US steel demand by about 3.5 million tons, according to Credit Suisse estimates. That increase could easily be filled from Chinaâ€™s surplus, estimated by Morgan Stanley at 72.4 million tons last year. In the case of copper, the additional spending may increase demand by 77,000 tons, according to Goldman estimates. Thatâ€™s about 4 percent of monthly global production.
Few of those additional purchases are likely to occur right away. For a guide to how long some of these projects can take, consider the $3.98 billion rebuilding of the 61-year-old Tappan Zee bridge across New Yorkâ€™s Hudson River, located more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) upstream from the Statue of Liberty. The project â€” including 110,000 tons of steel for new roadways and the bridgeâ€™s 419-foot towers â€” took a decade of planning that began in 1999. Construction started in 2013 and will be completed next year.
This year, public and private spending on infrastructure such as highways, bridges, public transit, rail, ports, waterways, airport runways and terminals probably will rise by just $3.3 billion from 2016 to $247.8 billion this year, not much more than the rate of inflation, said Alison Premo Black, the chief economist at American Road & Transportation Builders Association in Washington, D.C.
â€œYou need to double current investment levels to have an impact and address most of the needs that have been out there,â€ Black said. Also, while increased government funding on more projects would certainly expand raw-materials purchases, a big chunk of the spending will be on other things, including design, land acquisition and labor.
Still, the prospect of accelerated building in the US has helped to extend a metals rally that began in early 2016 with surprise demand growth in China. Copper posted its biggest price gain last year since 2010, and an index of six metals traded in London is off to its best start to a year since 2012. At the end of last month, hedge funds held a net-long position in New York copper futures and options contracts that was the largest since the government began tracking the data in 2006.
Among the most optimistic is the steel industry. Global prices for hot-rolled steel have surged 73 percent from a low in December 2015, including gains in the US, after a slowdown in cheap imports had eroded domestic earnings. In the past year, the value of producers has rebounded from a nine-year low in early 2016, ending the year up 46 percent. Shares of US Steel Corp. have more than quadrupled in the past 12 months.
â€œWe look forward to a better environment where there is going to be more activity,â€ said Mario Longhi, US Steelâ€™s chief executive officer. â€œItâ€™s more than just roads and bridges. Itâ€™s airports. Itâ€™s water treatment stations. Itâ€™s all the infrastructure related to energy.â€
Nucor Corp., the biggest US steelmaker, estimates the increased infrastructure spending will boost demand for the metal by 5 million tons annually, CEO John J. Ferriola said on a Jan. 31 earnings call with analysts.