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Another recession warning: Falling copper prices

<i>Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images</i><br/>It's a bad news
Getty Images
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
It's a bad news

By Julia Horowitz, CNN Business

Some investors look to copper prices as a bellwether for the global economy. If you’re one of them, you have good reason to be worried.

What’s happening: Copper prices hit 16-month lows on Thursday as traders dumped the metal. They’ve dropped more than 11% in two weeks.

“Copper prices are just starting to account for the fact that global growth is slowing,” Daniel Ghali, director of commodity strategy at TD Securities, told me.

The metal is used in many construction materials, including electrical wires and water pipes. That means it’s often viewed as a proxy for economic activity, since demand tends to heat up when the economy is expanding and cool when it’s contracting. It’s affectionately referred to as “Dr. Copper” among traders because of its alleged talent for prognostication.

Earlier this year, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the price of copper shot up, along with other major metals. (Before the Bell readers will recall that the disarray led the London Metal Exchange to temporarily halt the trading of nickel in March.)

Russia accounts for 4% of global copper output and almost 7% of nickel output, according to S&P Global. Traders were nervous that supply could run short just as the economic recovery from the pandemic was ramping up, and they started hoarding aggressively.

Now, as recession fears take hold, prices are heading in the opposite direction.

“Once that stockpiling impulse ended, then global commodity demand started to reconnect with global growth,” Ghali said.

This just in: The first look at a closely-watched economic gauge for June affirmed that economic activity is sliding into a lower gear as high food and fuel prices bite.

The Purchasing Managers’ Index released by S&P Global on Thursday found that private sector output slowed “sharply” in the United States this month.

“Having enjoyed a mini-boom from consumers returning after the relaxation of pandemic restrictions, many services firms are now seeing households increasingly struggle with the rising cost of living, with producers of non-essential goods seeing a similar drop in orders,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Businesses have also become much more stressed about the outlook as the Federal Reserve aggressively hikes interest rates in an attempt to put a lid on price increases.

“Business confidence is now at a level which would typically herald an economic downturn, adding to the risk of recession,” Williamson said.

In Europe, growth in June dropped to a 16-month low, according to the PMI reading for the 19 countries that use the euro.

And China, which has been a crucial engine of global growth, is still struggling with the aftershocks of its Covid lockdowns and fallout from a real estate slump. The country’s economy showed some signs of improvement in May, but retail sales contracted for a third month in a row.

What happens next: Growth in China is expected to pick up later this year, and prices for copper and other base meals should rebound at that point, Darwei Kung, portfolio manager for commodities at DWS, told me. It’s just not clear when that moment will arrive.

“They are coming back, it’s just a matter of timing,” Kung said.

In the meantime, prices could drop further as anxiety about the economy persists.

“Over the medium term, copper prices do have more room to fall, especially as we stare down the barrel of a recession,” Ghali said.

Ban on Juul in the United States slams Altria stock

The US Food and Drug Administration has ordered Juul to pull its products from store shelves, and cigarette maker Altria is paying the price.

The latest: The agency said Thursday that Juul can no longer sell or distribute vaping devices and pods, stating that it lacked “sufficient evidence” that doing so would protect public health.

The announcement follows a years-long investigation into whether the brand may have helped fuel vaping’s popularity among underage users.

Juul is considering an appeal. If it pursues that option, its products could potentially stay on the market while the legal process plays out.

“We respectfully disagree with the FDA’s findings and decision and continue to believe we have provided sufficient information and data based on high-quality research to address all issues raised by the agency,” Joe Murillo, the company’s chief regulatory officer, said in a statement.

But investors are already bailing. When the Wall Street Journal first reported on Wednesday that the FDA decision was coming, shares in Altria — which owns a 35% stake in Juul — plunged more than 9%. They rebounded slightly on Thursday.

Altria invested $12.8 billion to get a piece of Juul’s business in 2018. The deal quickly went south as concerns mounted about the risks of vaping and US regulators pushed for a crackdown on e-cigarettes.

Juul was also criticized for selling vape pods with flavors such as mango, creme and cucumber that became popular with teens.

In 2019, the company ended sales of its flavored products in the United States, shortly before the FDA banned all vaping flavors except tobacco and menthol at the start of 2020. But the damage was done.

Could we see a ‘Lehman effect’ in energy markets?

Germany is alarmed that Russia is slashing its access to natural gas. So alarmed, in fact, that it’s invoking the 2008 financial crisis.

Economy minister Robert Habeck warned on Thursday that sustaining companies in the energy sector “despite the high additional costs” was essential to preventing a market meltdown.

If firms start to buckle under the pressure of soaring prices, “the entire market is in danger of collapsing at some point,” Habeck said. “So a Lehman Brothers effect in the energy system.”

Europe’s biggest economy is escalating a crisis plan to preserve supplies as Russia turns off the taps. Russia’s state gas company Gazprom slashed flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany by 60% last week, blaming the move on the West’s decision to withhold turbines because of sanctions.

In declaring a national gas “alarm” Thursday, Germany came one step closer to rationing supplies to businesses — a move that would deliver a huge blow to the manufacturing heart of its economy.

“Gas is from now on in short supply in Germany,” Habeck told reporters at a press conference in Berlin. “Even if you don’t feel it yet, we are in a gas crisis.”

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