14 June 2010

The M-shaped recovery

You’ve heard of the W-shaped recession.

Now think about an M-shaped recovery in the middle. Rather than two dips and then a rise, this would be a rise, followed by a dip, then another rise followed by another big dip.

Regardless of what letter the graph looks like, the latest news suggests the global economy is not ready to go surging back to the world some pundits and speculators would have you believe.

Retail sales in the United States dropped in May, down 1.2 percent from April.  if consumer spending will drive the recovery, then that isn’t good news. Automobile sales and building supply sales were down as well.

Oh yes, and gasoline sales in the U.S. dropped as well.

In some other places, this all might be just another bit of news to skip over on the way to football scores.  But when you live in a province that is increasingly  dependent on exports to the United States, including oil exports, then this isn’t welcome news.

Nor is it welcome to find out that the Chinese have developed a way of producing  a low-cost version of nickel instead of the highly refined version currently in wide use to make stainless steel.  The Chinese output, called nickel pig iron,  is profitable at current world prices for nickel of US$8.50 a pound, according to the Globe and Mail. Compare to the 2007 price of US$24 a pound.

“It does put a cap on world nickel prices. If not in practical terms, at least in psychological terms,” concedes David Constable, vice-president of investor relations at Quadra FNX Mining Ltd., a Canadian company that began as a Sudbury nickel producer but has diversified its production to focus primarily on copper.

BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s largest mining firm, has already turned bearish on nickel and sold some of its mines. The emergence of NPI was a key factor in the decision, analysts say. They expect the Chinese product’s impact to only get larger with time, as more producers enter the fray.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Vale Inco workers are still striking against the company.  Production is still going on using replacement workers.  The provincial government recently encouraged both sides to settle the dispute, and with good reason. Government revenue from mining royalties is expected to drop yet again and having the Vale Inco mine at Voisey’s Bay anywhere but at peak production doesn’t help deal with a projected billion dollar cash shortfall. Every nickel counts.

A new low-cost way of producing nickel for steel-making also doesn’t improve the financial picture for the Vale Inco smelter project at Long Harbour.  That project remains the largest capital works project in the province. The provincial government is counting on Vale Inco to help boost the economy in the province both during the construction phase of the Long Harbour project and then with subsequent production of refined nickel.