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LME volumes plunge during Chinese new year

For the London Metal Exchange, the traditional winter holiday lull in activity which affects most other financial markets comes almost a month later.

Traders say that the influence of China in copper, aluminium and nickel markets, means their operations almost grind to a halt during the Chinese new year.

The slowdown was clearly visible on Monday, with turnover in benchmark three-month copper futures falling to less than 50 cent of the daily average trading volume of the past year.

It is a further illustration of how the centre of the global commodity markets has slowly shifted east during a decade of economic growth that has transformed China into the largest importer of almost every leading commodity.

Over the past year, Chinese speculators and funds have piled into commodities, through domestic bourses such as Shanghai Futures Exchange, the Dalian Commodities Exchange and also the LME, via its electronic trading system which is open for the most of the day.

As trading volumes in China have soared, it has created opportunities for arbitrage with global markets due to the country’s strict capital controls.

Raw materials have other attractions for Chinese investors. They are seen as a way of betting on its economy and also as a hedge against a strengthening US dollar, a theme that has come to the fore since the election of Donald Trump as US president.

“With a certain amount of inevitability the markets have almost completely stalled,” said Malcolm Freeman, a director at Kingdom Futures.

One trader said the fall in volumes was partly self-reinforcing, with brokerages reluctant to take on big positions or provide liquidity in the absence of Chinese investors during what they call the “Spring Festival”.

As a result, some London-based traders were choosing to take a holiday during Chinese new year.

“Four or five years ago people never would have done that,” said the head of one metals broker.

Another factor weighing on activity, according to traders, is the lack of arbitrage opportunities with the Chinese markets shut. On top of that, the lunar new year has fallen just after the “third Wednesday” contract roll, which also typically sees lower volumes on the LME, they said.

Guy Wolf, global head of market analytics at broker Marex Spectron, said it was not unusual to see LME volumes dip below 50 per cent of normal levels on certain days during Chinese new year.

In 2015 and 2016, the slowdown was relatively mild, with volume declines of 20-25 per cent in copper. But in both those years there was intense scrutiny around the strength of the Chinese economy which stimulated demand, said Mr Wolf.

“This year, the market is much more positive on Chinese local conditions and that relatively relaxed state is indicating we may see volume declines which are double that of the past two years,” he said.

Volumes on copper traded on the LME fell to 24,130 lots on Monday. That compares with average daily trading volume of 53,555 lots last year. In aluminium, only 27,454 lots of the metal traded, compared with an average of 44,534 lots last year.

Last week, the 140-year old exchange launched the search for a new chief executive after the sudden resignation of Garry Jones. The LME, owned by Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing, has been trying to build links inside China but so far Beijing has been reluctant to open up its commodity markets and the traffic has been very much one way.

Story updated with full day trading figures.

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