Precious metals: transitioning into a post-pandemic world

a speech by Daniela Corsini

Abstract

In 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic disrupted global supply chains and boosted demand for safe-haven assets. In 2021, the global gold market should benefit from a rebound in jewelry demand and a supportive macroeconomic environment amid expansionary monetary policies, low interest rates and a pick-up in inflation expectations.

Commodities: hit by Omicron and monetary policies

The negative impact of the Omicron variant and the threat of more restrictive monetary policies now represent the worst headwinds for commodity markets and could trigger deeper corrections in market prices in the near term. However, temporarily weaker commodity prices would clearly benefit the global economy, contributing to an acceleration in growth rates, and simplify the task of the main central banks, which could continue supporting the global recovery instead of fighting commodity-driven inflationary pressures.

The macroeconomic outlook remains weaker than earlier expected due to persistently high inflation pressures, and concerns about a quicker than earlier expected pace of tightening from the Federal Reserve. In addition, the unexpected spread of the Omicron variant forced downward revisions to estimates about global commodity demand, further delaying the recovery in some sectors, like the aviation industry, or worsening the prospects of global supply chains due to the persistent threat of logistic bottlenecks and lockdowns.

In our opinion, the negative impact of the Omicron variant and the threat of more restrictive monetary policies now represent the worst headwinds for commodity markets and could trigger deeper corrections in market prices in the near term.

However, temporarily weaker commodity prices would clearly benefit the global economy, contributing to an acceleration in growth rates, and simplify the task of the main central banks, which could continue supporting the global recovery instead of fighting commodity-driven inflationary pressures.

According to our baseline scenario, after a probable, deeper correction in early 2022, most commodities could resume a path of modest price increases. In fact, market prices of crude oil and non-ferrous metals could recover part of the lost ground as soon as central banks reassure markets and global economic growth consolidates.

In 2022, specific supply and demand fundamentals should come back as core drivers of commodity prices, prevailing over macroeconomic factors, and volatility should be mainly fuelled by news flows about supply disruptions, delays across the logistic chains and forecasts about future consumption patterns, especially in China.

In the medium- and long-term, we still forecast a bullish trend for industrial metals, while natural gas and energy prices should gradually decrease, maintaining their usual seasonal swings.

Forecasts for the commodities universe

Crude oil. Given the recent weakening in crude oil supply and demand fundamentals and concerns about a quicker pace toward restrictive monetary policies, we revised downwards our estimates for crude prices in 2022. In our opinion, a temporary correction could push Brent near an average of USD 65 in 1Q22. Then, upward pressures on crude prices could resume strength driven by more optimistic forecasts about global crude demand, thanks to a seasonal increase in fuel consumption and, hopefully, easing concerns about the development of the epidemic. Thus, we envisage a rising trend in crude prices from the 2Q22 onwards. In our baseline scenario, we now forecast that on average Brent should record a level of USD 67.5 in 2022 and USD 70 in 2023. Volatility should remain an important market feature and will often contribute to amplify intra-day market movements.

Energy. Although the extreme conditions faced by global gas and power markets ahead of the 2021/22 winter are unlikely to repeat every year, we can expect further moments of market stress and more volatility on energy prices, as the necessary and ineluctable transition toward cleaner energy sources proceeds and the penetration of renewable energies progresses.

Precious metals. In 2021, all the main precious metals have fallen in price. We maintain a negative view on both gold and silver, as we think that the headwinds of more restrictive monetary policies will continue to weaken appetite for both metals on financial markets. On the contrary, we now expect that platinum and palladium could recover part of their recent losses, as demand from the automotive sector should pick up thanks to the easing semiconductor shortage.

Industrial metals. After the unexpected spread of the Omicron variant and talks about a quicker pace of tightening from the Federal Reserve, the risk of a deeper correction in most industrial metals’ prices intensified and now we see lower prices in 1Q22. However, later in 2022 specific supply and demand fundamentals should come back as core drivers of metals’ prices, and non-ferrous metals’ prices should recover ground. In the medium- and long-term, we still forecast a bullish trend for industrial metals.

Agricultural products. Agriculture is the most supply-elastic commodity sector. Thus, the high prices recorded in 2021 should contribute to expand supplies in 2022, when possible, and could trigger widespread price declines in anticipation of the next harvest season. However, unusual weather patterns remain the most worrying threat and could fuel volatility due to deeper and less predictable impacts of climate change and global warming on the sector.

Precious metals: we favour palladium vs. gold

In 2021, all the main precious metals have fallen in price. We maintain a negative view on both gold and silver, as we think that the headwinds of more restrictive monetary policies will continue to weaken appetite for both metals on financial markets. On the contrary, we now expect that platinum and palladium could recover part of their recent losses, as demand from the automotive sector should pick up thanks to the easing semiconductor shortage. Thus, in a medium-term strategic asset allocation we would favour palladium vs. gold.

In 2021, all the main precious metals have fallen in price. Gold and silver suffered downward pressures due to a stronger U.S. dollar and announcements from the main central banks anticipating tighter monetary policies. In fact, expectations of higher rates discourage investments in gold and other non-interest-bearing assets as they increase their opportunity cost. We maintain a negative view on both metals, as we think that the headwinds of more restrictive monetary policies will continue to weaken appetite for gold on financial markets. Currently, silver isn’t strong enough to decouple from gold despite the promising fundamentals in the long term.

In the second half, platinum and palladium prices also dropped, as the global shortage of semiconductors had a deeper than expected negative impact on global vehicle production and thus on consumption of both metals. Prices probably bottomed and we now expect that platinum and palladium could recover part of their recent losses, as demand from the automotive sector should pick up thanks to the easing semiconductor shortage.

In our baseline scenario, we envisage a consolidation in global growth and a gradual easing of bottlenecks and semiconductor shortage. Monetary policies should tighten, but remain supportive of the global economic recovery as long as necessary. Thus, in a medium-term strategic asset allocation we would favour palladium vs. gold.

Gold

The latest data published by the World Gold Council (WGC) show that appetite for gold on financial markets further deteriorated during 3Q21 as monetary policies were tightening and the Fed progressed toward the planned tapering.

Considering ETFs’ holdings as a proxy for gold appetite on financial markets, at the end of September global holdings were close to 3,600 tons, as the sector had recorded outflows worth about 156 tons since January 2021, the largest decline since 2013. In 3Q21, ETFs’ gold holdings decreased by about 27 tons, thus ETFs’ contribution to gold demand turned negative during the quarter, representing a net loss worth about 2% of global demand. It is a remarkable change in market sentiment, when considering that ETFs’ flows were a positive contributor worth about 4% of global consumption in 2Q21 and covered a stunning 40% of demand in 2Q20.

Given the relevance of ETFs’ flows, in 3Q21 global gold demand contracted by 7% y/y, although all non-financial components of gold demand rose. In fact, a recovery in global economic growth boosted gold consumption in the jewellery (+33% y/y) and technology sectors (+7% y/y), while higher saving rates, concerns about inflation risks and uncertainty about epidemiological developments fuelled demand for bars and coins (+18% y/y). In the official sector, a renewed appetite in diversifying official reserves supported gold demand. In fact, central banks turned from net sellers of gold in 3Q20 to net buyers of the precious metal in 3Q21.

Given the current expectations of tighter monetary policies and still robust global growth, over the next quarters the non-financial components of gold demand may extend their recovery, and we envisage higher purchases from the jewellery, technology and official sectors. On the contrary, gold-backed ETFs could suffer from more outflows due to an increase in the opportunity cost of holding gold, amid expectations of higher yields and threats of higher benchmark interest rates.

According to our baseline model, we forecast that gold could average about USD 1,770 in 1Q22 and could decline toward a USD 1,720 average in 2022. Despite the unfavourable monetary framework, we envisage only moderate downside pressures on gold prices thanks to the important support of the ongoing recovery in the jewellery sector, which should gain support from global growth, and of the official sector, as central banks could take advantage of lower gold prices to diversify their reserves. In addition, inflation concerns could limit the volumes of ETFs’ outflows.

Given the exceptionally high level of uncertainty that clouds the macroeconomic framework due to unpredictable development in epidemiological risks, record high energy prices and persistent bottlenecks negatively affecting logistic chains and manufacturing activities, our forecasts remain subject to significant risks.

The worst-case scenario for gold would be a macroeconomic environment characterized by a further acceleration in global growth, thanks to fading epidemiologic concerns, easing bottlenecks and a strong commitment from central banks to intervene and prevent the economy from overheating. In fact, under this scenario investors would favour cyclical assets against safe haven assets, while higher interest rates would also discourage gold holdings. Under such worst-case scenario, gold could quickly drop toward a USD 1,450 support.

On the contrary, the best-case scenario for gold would be a macroeconomic environment characterized by a deterioration in the prospects for global growth, possibly driven by a spreading epidemic coupled with scarcely effective vaccines. Central banks would be forced to postpone a planned tightening of monetary conditions in an effort to support their economies, while bottlenecks to logistic and supply chains would persist, fuelling inflation pressures. Under such extreme scenario of stagflation, gold could retest its peaks above USD 2,000.

Silver

According to our baseline model, silver should trade close to an average price of USD 24 an ounce both in 1Q22 and in 2022. We expect that the metal could remain most of the time in a trading range between USD 21 and USD 27 an ounce.

Relative to gold, silver should maintain higher volatility, but it will not probably be strong enough to decouple from the yellow metal. Thus, silver will probably follow gold’s downward trajectory over the next years despite positive fundamentals and expectations of expanding global demand, especially in green technologies.

We expect that the gold/silver ratio could remain slightly above its long-term average over the next years, as the long-term positive correlation between silver and gold should remain significant, despite the support granted to silver by the green transition.

Platinum and palladium

Our forecasts for platinum-group metals (PGM) are strictly connected with expectations about a possible recovery in the automotive sector and thus with developments in the semiconductor crisis. In fact, according to estimates from Johnson Matthey, about 85% of palladium demand comes from autocatalysis mainly used in vehicles mounting gasoline-powered engines, while more than 30% of platinum demand comes from autocatalysis mainly used in vehicles mounting diesel-powered engines.

In 2021, PGM have gone through a boom and bust cycle. In fact, in the first half platinum and palladium overperformed other precious metals because car manufacturers quickly expanded their purchases to restock their warehouses and satisfy new vehicle orders, despite the first signs of disruptions to global supply chains due to semiconductors’ shortage.

Then, as time passed, and the global recovery consolidated, semiconductor scarcity deepened and forced car manufacturers to scale down their output plans and even halt some production facilities. As a consequence, PGM demand faded. Several car producers revised downwards their output guidance, fuelling pessimism on financial markets and raising doubts about future consumption growth for platinum and palladium in the sector.

Now, car producers are probably adequately supplied to meet their medium-term needs of PGM. Thus, so far low prices have failed to attract consumers due to still uncertain estimates about future vehicle production. In the longer term, although we still see ample room for a recovery in prices, probably the upward potential for PGM prices has been structurally lowered by the semiconductor crisis, as the current delays in PGM consumption patterns imply more time for global PGM supply to satisfy demand and more time for secondary supply to flow back in the market thanks to a pick-up in recycling activities.

Our baseline scenario now assumes an average platinum price of USD 1,025 an ounce and an average palladium price of USD 2,000 an ounce in 1Q22. We forecast that in 2022 platinum could trade near a USD 1,075 average and palladium near a USD 2,050 average.

In our opinion, palladium probably bottomed in late November, as USD 1,700 should represent a strong support for the metal. On the contrary, the USD 950 low reached in November is a weaker support for platinum, and we see the level of USD 900 as a more solid floor.

We maintain a bullish view in the long term (albeit forecast numbers have been revised downward from previous forecasts due to longer and deeper than expected disruptions along the supply chain) because we expect that the semiconductor crisis could ease in 2022, following plans to expand the global output of microchip, and both vehicle production and global demand for PGM should pick up.

Appendix

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CFA Institute

Graduated with honors in Economics, Statistics and Social Sciences at the Bocconi University in Milan. She started her professional career in 2006 at Eurizon Capital SA in Luxemburg as portfolio manager dedicated to emerging and frontier markets’ equity funds. In 2011 she became part of the Intesa Sanpaolo Research Department where she is in charge of macroeconomic research on commodity markets, covering the Energy, Industrial and Precious Metals, Agriculture sectors. Since 2010 she has been member of the CFA Institute.

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