Mining has reasons for optimism and they’re not all Donald Trump

It isn’t Donald Trump alone who’s making the mining industry great again – though he’s surely lent a hand.

His victory in the presidential election after pledging an infrastructure splurge pushed copper prices up 11 percent last week, the best performance in more than five years. Mining shares reached the highest in almost two years.

The gains, continuing this week, are a huge turnaround from the start of 2016. Commodity prices sank to near a seven-year low in January, with the some of the largest miners fighting for survival under the weight of their debt.

“After a four- or five-year bear market, we’ve been clobbered over the head so many times we don’t believe in optimism,” said Jeremy Wrathall, Investec global natural resources chief. “That is changing, it’s definitely changing.”

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Where some see fizz, others see froth.

Copper’s gain “appears premature,” driven by speculation by investors in China, and will fall back by the end of the year, Citigroup analysts including David Wilson said in a note. The euphoria after Trump’s win is “inexplicable” and is set to peter out, according to Commerzbank.

Copper’s lead in the industrial metals surge is partly down to it being the most-traded and easiest to buy and sell, as well as its role as a proxy for speculation on faster economic growth.

While Trump has promised to build roads, bridges and airports, the U.S. is a relatively small metals consumer. A 10 percent surge in its copper demand would be equivalent to just a 1.5 percent gain in consumption in China, the world’s No. 1 user of commodities, UBS Group AG estimates.

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Yet, with the Chinese economy also showing signs of recovery from economic weakness last year that drove commodity prices lower, mining companies may see Trump as the icing on an already expanding cake.

“Soon we may see China and the U.S. engaging in national infrastructure build programs at the same time,” said Tom Price, a Morgan Stanley commodities analyst in London. “They will be competing for the same commodities: steel raw materials, zinc and copper. We’ve never seen that before.”

Chinese policymakers have arrested weaker growth by spending on buildings, machinery and other fixed assets in recent months, and industrial output gains have stabilized above 6 percent from a year before, reports showed Monday.

Add to that, miners have surprised equity investors with their ability to improve their financial condition by selling assets, and cutting dividends and debt. The top four diversified miners have reduced borrowings in the past year by a combined $6.9 billion, or 8.5 percent, according to Investec.

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That may reach $15.2 billion by year-end, with Glencore Plc set to lower its debt by 38 percent and Anglo American by 26 percent, the bank says.

Shares in Glencore, the biggest commodity trader, added 17 percent last week and have more than tripled in 2016. BHP Billiton, the largest mining company, is up 74 percent this year and Anglo American almost four-fold.

“Even the most hard-bitten people are turning round and saying, ‘We didn’t see this coming, but there is good reason for it happening,'” Wrathall said.