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China's fight against smog makes palladium 2018's best metal

The metal, used in pollution-control devices in cars, has jumped almost 9 per cent this year in New York

New York

PALLADIUM prices are shattering record highs, and investors are betting that tight supplies mean that the bull run is just getting started.

The metal, used in pollution-control devices in cars, has jumped almost 9 per cent this year in New York, the best performance among major metals. Demand is roaring thanks to China, which is on a mission to reduce smog emissions. Tougher pollution standards mean carmakers are using more of the commodity in catalytic converters.

Global palladium production is falling short of the robust demand, and market forecasters including Citigroup Inc are projecting further price gains ahead. Hedge funds are also wagering on an extended rally, holding the biggest positive bet on the metal since early March.

"The market has a very positive fundamental outlook," said Maxwell Gold, director of investment strategy at Aberdeen Standard Investments, which oversees US$730 billion. "We've been dealing with supply deficits going on eight years, and that's expected to continue. Supply's certainly been an issue on the mining front as well as the draw-down of existing stockpiles."

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Palladium is a thinly traded market. Much like sister-metal platinum, its production is extremely concentrated, with Russia and South Africa collectively producing about three-quarters of the world's mined supplies.

Almost 70 per cent of palladium demand comes from the car industry, according to researcher CPM Group. Car sales have stayed relatively strong in most places, helping to insulate prices from the hand-wringing over global growth that has dragged down many industrial commodities.

Supplies are so constrained that users have turned to exchange-trade products to borrow the material that they need. This has pushed palladium holdings in exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to the lowest since 2009 as manufacturers seek supplies above ground, said Mr Gold.

Hedge funds are adding to their bullish outlook. In the week ended Nov 13, money managers increased their net-long position, the difference between bets on a price increase and wagers on a decline, for a second straight week to 12,837 futures and options, according to data from the Commodity Futures and Trading Commission published last Friday. That is the most since March 6.

Palladium futures in New York jumped 5.2 per cent in the week ended Friday to US$1,154.60 an ounce.

But one threat to demand is substitution. Historically, palladium has usually been cheaper than platinum, and therefore was used as a popular alternative since the two metals share many of the same chemical properties. But the recent rally has reversed the price relationship, and now palladium suffers the threat of substitution from platinum.

Still, manufacturers need 18 to 24 months for such changes to take place, so that probably will not be an issue in the immediate future, said Suki Cooper, a precious metal analyst with Standard Chartered Bank in New York.

In terms of substitution, "many manufacturers have indicated that it's not something that can be switched easily or quickly, even though it is economically possible", she said. "The longer-term outlook remains positive and price risks are skewed to the upside." BLOOMBERG

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