March 16, 2020 / 11:26 AM / 18 days ago

METALS-Copper falls to 40-month low on fears for economy, demand

* Lead, tin prices hit weakest since June, Feb 2016

* Nickel price touches nine-month low

* Metals fare better than other markets on China hopes (Updates with closing prices)

By Eric Onstad

LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - Copper prices slid on Monday to the lowest since November 2016 on worries that lockdowns in Europe and the United States to tackle the coronavirus would further erode metals demand.

But the falls in industrial metals of around 1-4% were more measured than in equities and oil markets, which saw plunges of 10% or more.

Around half of metals demand comes from China, where new virus cases have fallen sharply and the government is expected to roll out major stimulus spending.

“Despite the very, very negative numbers for China over the weekend in terms of industrial production and fixed asset investment, I would still say that the general view is that China should recover from here,” analyst Carsten Menke at Julius Baer in Zurich said.

Industrial output in China, the world’s biggest copper user, contracted at the sharpest pace in 30 years in the first two months of the year, data showed on Monday.

A China-based metals analyst said: “Diving data in February is what everybody has anticipated, but my worry is March. People think things are going back to normal after utilisation rates recover, but they ignore the permanent loss of the supply chain.”

Three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange (LME) fell 3.1% to $5,290.50 a tonne in final open-outcry trading, the weakest since November 2016.

Copper, often used as a gauge of global economic health, has shed 17% since touching an eight-month high of $6,343 in mid-January.

The Federal Reserve cut U.S. interest rates to near zero on Sunday and pledged to expand its balance sheet by at least $700 billion in the coming weeks, but this did little to calm investor panic over the deepening economic hit from the virus.

“Of course, there is the impact on metals markets based on what’s happening outside of China at the moment, not to speak of the overall spread of risk aversion. The other half of global (metals) demand is outside of China,” Menke said.

The biggest risk was that China would suffer a second wave of infection after restrictions were lifted, he added.

“That’s something we don’t know and that’s the big, big wild card.”

Worries of an aluminium surplus were fuelled by data showing China’s production of the metal rose by 2.4% to 5.85 million tonnes in January-February from a year earlier.

The net speculative short position of aluminium on the LME has grown to a year-to-date high of 30% of open interest, close to last year’s peak of 32%, broker Marex Spectron said in a note.

LME aluminium dipped 0.3% to close at $1,675 a tonne.

Among other prices, LME zinc dropped 2.2% to end at$1,942 a tonne, while nickel lost 3.1% to $11,935 after touching $11,670, the lowest since June last year.

Lead shed 1% to $1,725 after hitting $1,682.50, the lowest since June 2016, and tin eased 4.1% to $15,300, the weakest since February 2016.

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($1 = 7.0034 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen in Singapore; Editng by Mark Potter and Barbara Lewis

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