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(Bloomberg) -- Two years ago, the world’s largest zinc miner needed to cut production to turn around a bloated market. Now, supply is the tightest in years and Glencore Plc wants to get bigger.
Glencore curtailed zinc output at mines in Australia and Kazakhstan to solve a supply overhang and lift prices off six-year lows. The company succeeded -- the zinc market is in deficit, prices are at a decade high and inventories are getting scarce.
Late Tuesday, the mining giant took its wager further by announcing plans to increase its stake in Latin America’s largest zinc miner, Volcan Cia. Minera SAA. The company reached an agreement to acquire 27 percent of Volcan’s Class A voting shares for $531 million and may increase its stake even further via a public tender.
“This is a clear vote of confidence in the zinc market from Glencore,” Paul Gait, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. in London. “It’s about control and discipline, about knowing when to take tons off the market and when to bring them back on. There’s no point having control if you’re going to be all floppy and useless with it.”
Throughout the market, there is plenty of evidence of Glencore’s discipline. The shutdowns removed 3.5 percent of global mine production, and there’s no sign the company is itching to bring it back soon.
Glencore will likely bring supply back to the market in small increments, starting in 2018, according to Vivienne Lloyd, an analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. in London. The miner will aim to make the “softest impact possible” on the tighter market it has helped to create, she said.
Zinc prices have soared more than 90 percent to $3,283 a metric ton since the production cuts were announced in October 2015, and China’s crackdown on pollution and mine safety also fueled the advance. Last month, spot zinc traded at the biggest premium to futures in 10 years, a condition called backwardation that’s a red flag for demand overshooting supply.
The supply pinch has been exacerbated by a dominant holder of physical LME inventories and spot contracts. The trader controlled a position equal to 90 percent of the freely available zinc in London Metal Exchange warehouses on Sept. 25. On the same day, the LME’s Tom contract closed $14 above one expiring a day later, the biggest premium in 15 months.
The Tom-next spread, the gap between a contract expiring tomorrow and the next day, has since eased as rules designed to prevent squeezes came into effect.
When there’s a dominant position, the LME requires the company to cheaply loan out the metal, a way to bring supply back to the market. The exchange doesn’t disclose the identity of the dominant trader.
There are also signs of chronic supply constraints. Backwardations are seen through to the end of 2021 on the LME forward price curve, a sign of long-term shortage after years of mine closures and buoyant demand.
“It’s nice to see a fundamental story playing out in this way,” said Vivienne Lloyd, an analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. in London. “The fact there are backwardations right along the curve is the strongest signal that the market is tight.”
The physical market also points to scarcity. Shipping zinc to buyers in China has become more profitable as prices rallied on the Shanghai Futures Exchange -- beating gains seen in London -- and customers have accepted higher premiums covering the cost of physical delivery.
In August, the arbitrage between Shanghai and London reached the highest in at least seven years, and Chinese zinc imports have risen in parallel as sellers chased higher profits.
A drop in Shanghai inventories also shows demand is exceeding supply in the world’s largest consumer market for zinc. LME stockpiles have also steadily declined, taking inventories on major global exchanges to the lowest since 2008.
About 85 percent of LME stockpiles are in New Orleans, exacerbating the squeeze on overseas buyers, according to Michael Widmer, metals strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Despite the highest prices in years, miners are struggling to boost output, particularly in China, which historically was able to quickly adjust supply. Chinese production has been dented by tougher regulation, strengthening Glencore’s role as the swing producer, Widmer said.
Global output has fallen short of three-year averages in six out of the seven months through to August, according to data from the World Bureau of Metal Statistics.
“Glencore’s aim was to create price support by clearing out surplus inventories,” said Macquarie’s Lloyd. “The point wasn’t to see how quickly they could get zinc to $3,000. It was to clean up the market.”
Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg LP, is a senior independent non-executive director at Glencore.
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