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Cooking The Books 1: Dreaming of a super cycle

On 19 November the Times published a special supplement on “Minerals and Mining”. One optimistic article “Boom time for world-wide mining” raised the prospect that world mining was entering a “super cycle” and that “we are now in the early stage of a prolonged upward shift in prices, fuelled by the industrialisation of China and India”.

Industrialisation involves not just the building of new factories but also the uprooting of people from the countryside and their move to urban industrial centres to work. One expert spoke of “the movement of anything from around 10 million to 20 million people per year into an urban setting” in China, so increasing the demand for new houses, roads, administrative buildings and the other features of an urban infrastructure.

Copper is used extensively in the construction industry, for electric wiring and the like. Recent years have seen a boom in the price of copper and the other base metals, zinc (used for galvanising steel and batteries) and nickel (also used in steelmaking), attributed largely to the increased pace of industrialisation in China since 2003. The optimists believe that their “super cycle” will be the third in the last 150 years, “the previous two occurring around the end of the 19th century as the US became a major economic power and the second being the post war expansion of the Japanese and European economies after 1945”.

Three days later, the headlines of the Times business section read: “Fears of recession in US spook commodity markets” and “The wheels are coming off the supercycle”:

A metals analyst, Nick Moore gave his opinion:

“’The supercycle has a flat tyre,’ Mr Moore said, referring to a theory promoted by some analysts and mining groups which suggested that extraordinary demand from China and India would sustain continued long-term growth and prevent the traditional boom and bust cycle of the mining industry. ‘China is not the tooth fairy that can absorb all the ore’”.

Of course since, as on all markets, speculators operate on the commodities market, too much store should not be set on short-term changes there. But the state of the US economy is relevant since China is not industrializing on its own: the motor is exports. If, due to a recession in the US, these fall off so will China’s demand for copper and zinc and the mining industry will suffer from “overcapacity”. Hence the comment of the Times Business Editor, James Harding, that “in the longer term, there is concern that the industry has retained its tendency towards oversupply, adding production capacity and removing the squeeze that props up prices”.

In other words, the classic scenario under capitalism. When the market for some product is expanding, all the firms supplying it assume that this will continue and invest in new productive capacity; when all this comes on stream it is found that supply exceeds demand and boom turns to bust and slump. The mining industry has traditionally been prone to this because of the longer time needed to explore for, find and extract minerals than to build a factory. The last time the world mining industry went through a slump was in the 1990s:

“At that time, with lower demand and lower prices, and in the midst of technological change, metals were, as Tulpulé [chief economist at Rio Tinto] puts it ‘passé’. This of course led to a lack of investment in plant, a fall off in exploration, and a declining growth on the supply side” (Times, 19 November).

As long as capitalism lasts, this zigzagging between boom and slump will always be the course of economic activity.