LONDON (Reuters) - Copper prices are in free fall as the United States dials up the trade tension with China.
On the London Metal Exchange (LME) copper for three-month delivery touched a one-year low of $6,081 per tonne on Wednesday. The fall from last month’s high of $7,348 has turned brutal.
Slide has become rout as momentum-chasing funds pile in on the short side. LME broker Marex Spectron estimates that as of last Friday the collective speculative short had reached 18 percent of open interest, a level not seen since 2016. And it has almost certainly grown further since.
But it’s a fund of another kind that has grabbed the market’s attention.
Few outside China will have heard of Gelin Dahua Futures Co. Ltd. But the Shanghai copper market has been tracking its massive bull position since July of last year.
Last week it sold out of that position big time, coinciding with a collapse in the Shanghai copper price.
There are echoes of January 2015, when another previously unknown Chinese player, Shanghai Chaos, was linked with a copper price implosion.
History never quite repeats itself, though.
This was no bear attack such as that three years ago, but rather the last Chinese copper bull throwing in the towel.
And who exactly is Gelin Dahua anyway?
Graphic on Shanghai Copper and Gelin’s long position:
Gelin slashed its long position on the Shanghai Futures Exchange (ShFE) copper contract from 43,538 lots to 16,022 lots over the second half of last week, according to Thomson Reuters Metals Content and Insight. That’s nearly 140,000 tonnes of copper.
The most active Shanghai contract plunged from 55,450 yuan per tonne to 48,630 yuan over the same three days.
The volume impact was amplified by the awareness of who was selling because so many had been following for so long Gelin’s copper fortunes.
Gelin first placed its bull wager on copper in late July of last year. Its positioning grew in just a couple of days to almost 37,000 lots, according to Wenyu Yao, analyst at the Metals Insight team.
By October 2017, the position had grown to almost 70,000 contracts. It accounted for around 35 percent of total open interest on the front eight months of the contract and had an implied value of almost $3 billion.
The position has ebbed and waned with the price since then, although Gelin may have thrown down a partial smokescreen by rolling part of it to the very end of the Shanghai copper curve, where there are no daily disclosure reports.
What seems indisputable, however, is that this one-year copper bet was largely liquidated last week.
Gelin’s exit is part of a broader investor retreat from the copper market as trade tensions rise.
Funds’ collective long position on the CME’s copper contract has also collapsed, from 77,740 lots to 7,322 in the space of the last month.
Whatever copper’s fundamental undercurrents, investors have taken fright at a deteriorating macro outlook, not least in China.
The bulls have been routed. Including the biggest Chinese bull of them all.
But who is, or rather was, the bull?
Gelin Dahua is a member of the Shanghai Futures Exchange. Member 0121 to be precise.
Which is how it is identified in the ShFE’s daily publication of the top 20 long and short member positions across the front part of the copper futures curve.
It is a broker for the position, not the originator.
The clue as to who’s prepared to punt $3 billion on the copper market comes in the form of Gelin’s parent company.
Shanxi Securities is based in China’s traditional coal mining heartland and the word on the Shanghai street is that it’s King Coal who has taken such a keen interest in Doctor Copper over the last year.
Whether King Coal is an individual coal billionaire, a collective of coal magnates or just a cluster of Chinese super-punters who happen to be operating out of the coal province of Shanxi is not known.
“Funds” in China come in many different shapes and sizes.
Understandably, given client confidentiality, neither Gelin nor Shanxi Securities are saying anything.
When Shanghai Chaos burst into the limelight in 2015, it heralded the arrival of Chinese speculative money to the copper market mainstream.
There have always been speculators in China’s commodity exchanges. Indeed, they can often account for the bulk of the volumes, but they tend to be retail punters holding only intraday positions to avoid overnight margin calls.
Chaos’ short position in 2015 and Gelin’s more recent long position have been on a completely different scale.
Both have shown how Chinese “funds” can access investors with very deep pockets to place mega bets on the direction of the copper price.
This will almost certainly not be the last time the market has to learn the name of a new Chinese player with big ambitions for Doctor Copper.
As Chinese “fund” influence grows, Western traders will need to pay more attention to those daily Shanghai positioning reports.
The Shanghai market is already following them closely, tracking the likes of Gelin for directional clues.
These reports are unique to the Chinese markets.
Although exchanges such as the LME publish dominant position information, they do so without any identifying link to a specific broker.
The market will always try and guess who is doing what to whom, but it’s become a harder exercise in the age of electronic trading. Tell-tale order flows have been fractured to an endless procession of anonymous one-lot trades.
And there’s no neat end-of-day confirmation provided by the likes of the Shanghai Futures Exchange.
But in China broker positioning seems to be evolving into a market analysis field in its own right.
Such “transparency” is probably a massive headache for an entity such as Gelin trying to exit a position with minimal loss.
But it could equally be used as a powerful signalling tool for any entity wanting to attract momentum around its own positions.
One thing’s for sure, though.
China’s brokers may be exposed to the glare of market scrutiny but the big players investing through them will remain in the shadows.
— The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters —
Editing by Susan Fenton