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Copper soared this week to an all-time high, continuing a sizzling rally that’s seen prices double in the past year.
The previous copper record was set in 2011, around the peak of the commodities supercycle sparked by China’s rise to economic heavyweight status — fueled by massive amounts of raw materials. This time, investors are betting that copper’s vital role in the world’s shift to green energy will mean surging demand and even higher prices. Copper futures rose as high as $10,440 a ton in London on Friday.
What’s the big deal about copper?
Through human history, copper has played a critical role in many of civilization’s greatest advances: from early monetary systems to municipal plumbing, from the rise of trains, planes and cars to the devices and networks that underpin the information age.
The reddish brown metal is mostly unrivaled as an electrical and thermal conductor, while also being durable and easy to work with. Today, a vast array of uses in all corners of heavy industry, construction and manufacturing mean it’s a famously reliable indicator for trends in the global economy.
The copper market was one of the first to react as the Covid-19 coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, with prices slumping by more than a quarter between January and March last year. Then as China’s unprecedented steps to control the domestic spread of the virus started to yield results, copper rapidly rebounded — and it hasn’t looked back since.
But it’s not just China driving the rally. While the country accounts for half of the world’s copper consumption and has played an integral part in copper’s surge, demand there has actually softened this year. Yet prices continue to drive higher.
Why is copper surging now?
It’s partly due to evidence of recoveries in other major industrial economies, with manufacturing output surging in places like the U.S., Germany and Japan.
But investors have also been piling into copper on a bet that global efforts to cut carbon emissions are going to mean the world needs a lot more of the metal, putting a strain on supply. New mine production may be slow to arrive, as mines are hard to find and expensive to develop.
Electric vehicles contain about four times as much copper as a conventional car, and vast amounts of copper wiring will be needed in roadside chargers to keep them running. Bringing electricity from offshore wind farms to national power grids is also a copper-intensive exercise.
Governments around the world have announced ambitious infrastructure investment plans, much of which involves construction, green energy, or both.
Are things that use copper getting more expensive?
Increasingly, yes. Major manufacturers have been hiking prices for air-conditioning units and fridges…
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