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In 2010 I was sent by Bloomberg News to the Atacama Desert to deliver blow-by-blow news of a workers strike at the giant Collahuasi copper mine.

Each morning, I would leave my comfortable hotel room in Iquique complete with swimming pool and ocean views, and visit hundreds of workers who were camped in a state school and using the site to orchestrate protests in the Chilean desert town.

Bloomberg paid my expensive hotel bill back in 2010 because every pension fund, hedge fund and daytime investor in the globe had high stakes riding on commodities, copper equities or ETFs tracking the price of the LME or Comex. Chinese traders were using copper metal as collateral for loans. Any sign that the strike was going to end would send copper prices into a tailspin. The miners, emboldened by their apparent grip on the global copper market, downed tools for 32 days, ensuring I got a lengthy stay in the desert, and a ton of Radisson reward points.

LME prices rose from a monthly average of $3.76 a pound in October 2010, when the Collahuasi strike started, to an average of $4.48 a pound in February 2011, the highest on record. Buying copper on the strike announcement would have resulted in a 20% ROI. You would have quadrupled your money if you saw the start of the commodities super-cycle in your crystal ball in 2003.

The market this year seems a long way off the red-hot streak of 2011. Prices have slumped year to date. For sure, there have been declines in all asset classes as the world stares aghast at the prospect of a trade tariff war. But official warehouse inventories have climbed from 543,786 metric tons to 755,847 tons in the first quarter. Prices have historically shown a close correlation with official warehouse numbers, regardless of the fact that copper can be hoarded in unofficial locations. Add to the fact that the market is in contango — the term used for an adequately supplied market when copper is more expensive for future delivery than spot prices reflecting the cost of storage. So, should you be selling those copper-backed equities? Some signs say yes. But not so fast.

When looking at the underlying fundamentals, not much has changed in the copper market. Before Bloomberg, I worked at the London-based mining consultancy CRU, the industry go-to independent research house. CRU consistently forecasted less bullish prices for copper during the commodities super-cycle, calling the market environment that led to the slump of the last 5 years. CRU, last week, gave a new forecast, and it is incredibly bullish.

The copper market will move out of a three-year surplus in 2018 to a deficit market starting next year, spurred by a lack of investment in new mine capacity. A slew of labor negotiations up for negotiation this year at Chilean mines might bring that deficit scenario forward. As such, CRU predicts prices will hover in the $3/lb-$3.25/lb range for now, before climbing higher.

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MARKET SUMMARY

INDICES

Name Last Change
DOW 25058.10 0.03%
S&P 500 2753.17 0.75%
NASDAQ 7820.20 0.07%
TSX 16435.46 0.65%
TSX-V 712.33 0.00%

Resource Commodities

Name Last Change
Gold 1231.96 0.70%
Silver 15.52 1.35%
Copper 2.75 0.060
Platinum 828.51 0.000
Oil 70.46 1.42%
Natural Gas 2.76 0.44%
Uranium 23.83 0.88%
Zinc 1.16 0.00%

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