LONDON (Reuters) - Whisper it softly, but there are the very first signs that funds are turning more friendly to Doctor Copper.

London Metal Exchange (LME) copper has been locked into a sideways trading pattern since the middle of the year with robust internal dynamics swamped by the broader, negative macro story.

Concerns about China’s manufacturing slowdown and the Sino-U.S. trade dispute have manifest themselves in a big fund short position on the CME copper contract since June.

That big short, however, has shrunk a lot over the last couple of weeks as the prospect of some sort of trade deal becomes more credible.

London copper, meanwhile, has seen a flurry of interest in the options market with buyers looking for upside exposure next year.

This is still a tentative turnaround but it seems as if the money men are starting to look beyond the copper-negative Trump tariffs trade.

ROLLING BACK THE SHORT

Money managers held a net short position of 17,838 contracts on the CME copper market as of the most recent Commitments of Traders Report.

One month ago, that collective short position was 62,741 contracts and three months ago it was 74,597 contracts, an all-time record in terms of bear positioning.

Both parts of the positioning equation have changed dramatically over the last couple of months.

Outright shorts have been sharply reduced from the twin peaks of 118,000 contracts in August and September to a current 79,673 contracts.

Long positions have rebuilt significantly from 39,870 contracts a month ago to 61,835, the strongest reading since April this year, when LME copper was still trading near year-to-date highs above $6,400 per tonne.

To some extent, this roll-back of the big fund short is mechanical.

Much of the CME short positioning this year has been driven by systematic funds. Heavier-weight money men have been out of the market altogether due to the continuing mixed signals generated by the industrial metals complex.

Systematic funds, defined by algo trading, are highly sensitive to technical signals, which have steadily improved as LME copper has hauled itself higher from the early October low at $5,588 to last Thursday’s three-month peak of $6,011 per tonne.

Higher prices, in other words, have in themselves encouraged short-covering, but the simultaneous build in long positions attests to greater optimism about short-term direction.

UPSIDE OPTIONS

So too does recent activity in the LME options market.

There has been strong buying interest for upside calls, which confer the right to buy, for March next year.

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