What Are Base Metals?
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What Are Base Metals?

5 Min.

Commonly used in industry and manufacturing, base metals like copper and zinc are not iron-containing metals or alloys. Unlike precious metals, they are prone to tarnishing, oxidizing, or corroding over time or when exposed to the elements. Base metals are generally more abundant in nature and easier to mine, which makes them less expensive than precious metals. Commodities markets offer futures trading for several base metals, and ordinary investors can track base metals through available ETFs.

Basics

Commonly referred to as base metals, these metals exhibit rapid tarnishing, oxidation, or corrosion when exposed to air or moisture. Compared to precious metals, base metals find extensive utility across various commercial and industrial sectors, including construction and manufacturing. Lead, copper, nickel, aluminum, and zinc stand as quintessential illustrations of base metals.

Base Metals: Economic Significance

Base metals derive their name from their affordability and abundant presence compared to precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum. They are often more readily accessible in nature, making mining operations more straightforward. This inherent accessibility renders base metals considerably more cost-effective for manufacturing than their precious counterparts.

Nevertheless, base metals play an indispensable role in the global economy due to their widespread applicability. Notably, copper is often hailed as the "economist's metal" or "doctor copper," a prominent base metal.

Copper's price fluctuations offer insights into the overall economic health, particularly in the construction sector, where its use prevails. Economists frequently employ copper prices as a leading indicator of global economic growth. An upswing in copper demand and prices signifies potential economic improvement. Conversely, a decline in copper prices can be an early warning of sluggish economic activity, notably in sectors like homebuilding.

Base Metals: Pros and Cons

Base metals offer distinct advantages, primarily their affordability. They excel in various applications, particularly construction, often outperforming precious metals. Moreover, specific base metals possess unique properties unmatched by their counterparts. For instance, nickel is a vital component in stainless steel, zinc finds use in galvanizing steel for corrosion protection, and the Romans employed lead for various purposes, from pipes to cosmetics.

However, unlike precious metals, base metals suffer notable disadvantages that undermine their suitability as currency. Firstly, they lack the intrinsic value necessary for compact value storage. For instance, lead was priced at less than one U.S. dollar per pound during four of the eight years from 2013 to 2020. Carrying substantial amounts of lead for daily purchases is impractical, unlike gold and silver coins, which have historically served well as currency. Until the 1960s, many U.S. coins contained silver.

Chemical properties and susceptibility to oxidation and tarnishing further hinder base metals' durability as currency. In the United States, corroded pennies only a few decades old are commonplace due to their zinc composition, while ancient gold coins often endure. Base metal prices also exhibit higher volatility, influenced by industrial demand. A decline in industrial use can lead to plummeting base metal prices.

Pros:

  • Versatile industrial and manufacturing applications
  • Abundant and easily extractable
  • Lower market prices compared to precious metals

Cons:

  • Susceptibility to chemical degradation over time
  • Greater price volatility
  • Limited suitability as a store of value

Base Metals Futures Trading

Various global exchanges facilitate the trading of base metals through futures contracts. The central hub for international base metals trading remains the London Metal Exchange (LME). In the United States, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) also offers futures contracts for base metals.

CME's physically settled futures contracts are meticulously crafted to align with the dynamic global market requirements. These contracts provide a competitive means to effectively manage price risks throughout the entire value chain.

Producers and consumers employ futures markets to mitigate their price exposure concerning base metals. For example, copper miners may opt to sell copper futures in anticipation of a mining operation to hedge against potential price declines before market readiness. Conversely, electronics manufacturers may purchase copper futures to safeguard against price increases, given that copper and copper wiring are integral to computer and electronic device production. Through hedging, both copper producers (sellers) and consumers (buyers) shield themselves from metal price fluctuations while the futures contract remains active and effective.

Investing in Base Metals

Investing in base metals can be achieved through various avenues. The CME offers a variety of base metals contracts, including copper, aluminum, lead, and zinc, which can be utilized through the futures market. For those without access to derivatives markets, an alternative is to explore commodities exchange-traded funds (ETFs) dedicated to base metals. The Invesco DB Base Metals ETF, for instance, tracks an index of base metals and serves as a cost-effective and convenient investment option. This rule-based index comprises futures contracts for highly liquid and widely utilized base metals, namely aluminum, zinc, and copper (grade A).

Another ETF to consider is the iPath Bloomberg Industrial Metals Subindex Total Return ETN, which monitors the prices of four futures contracts related to industrial metals: copper, aluminum, nickel, and zinc. Alternatively, investors can explore ETFs like the SPDR S&P Metals & Mining ETF, encompassing companies engaged in the metals and mining sectors, or the iShares U.S. Basic Materials ETF, consisting of firms involved in basic materials production. Additionally, exchange-traded products focus on tracking a single commodity, such as the United States Copper Index Fund.

Indirectly, one can gain exposure to base metals by investing in stocks of mining companies that specialize in their production. For example, Alcoa is a prominent aluminum producer in the United States.

Conclusion

Base metals, including copper and zinc, are essential in industry and manufacturing due to their versatility. They are distinct from precious metals and are prone to corrosion and tarnishing. Base metals are more abundant and cost-effective than their precious counterparts. Investors can access base metals through futures markets, commodities ETFs like the Invesco DB Base Metals ETF, or ETFs tracking industrial metals. Additionally, investments in mining companies, such as Alcoa, offer indirect exposure to base metals. Understanding the pros and cons of base metals is crucial for effective investment decision-making in this vital sector.

Base Metals
Copper
Futures Trading
Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)
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