METALS-Copper steady near two-month high, Fed meeting eyed

Tue Dec 17, 2013 12:18pm EST

* 2-day Fed meeting on policy decision starts on Tuesday

* BHP halts some operations at West Australia nickel mine

By Silvia Antonioli and Julia Fioretti

LONDON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Copper was steady near a 2-month peak on Tuesday as economic data from the United States brightened the outlook for metals demand but also raised the chances the Federal Reserve will curb its commodity-friendly stimulus programme soon.

Benchmark copper on the London Metal Exchange (LME) closed at $7,275 a tonne, down slightly from a close at $7,290 on Monday, when it hit a two-month high.

A pickup in global factory activity and a near-term shortage of refined metal has helped copper recover five percent from a three-month low of $6,910 a tonne struck last month.

"Yesterday the whole metals complex benefited from better than expected industrial output in the United States and now it's a bit of a catch-22 situation because better U.S. data means that there's more pressure on the Fed (to taper)," said VTB analyst Andrey Kryuchenkov.

"Any sort of hint or inclination (towards hawkishness) would be quite dollar bullish and could still limit the upside and limit this recent rally for copper."

A strong U.S. currency makes dollar-priced assets such as metals costlier for holders of other units.

Upbeat economic data including strong industrial output from the United States and solid manufacturing numbers in Europe boosted optimism about the state of the global economy.

The economic strength also suggested the Fed could begin winding in its stimulus programme sooner than previously expected. The programme has expanded liquidity, boosted investment and helped prices of assets such as metals.

Although a majority of economists polled by Reuters expected the taper to happen in March, the recent run of upbeat economic data has steadily shortened the odds on an announcement at this week's two-day meeting concluding on Wednesday - or in January.

"We suspect that directional money has started to gravitate to the sidelines ahead of the Fed policy statement and that conditions will remain quiet," said Ed Meir, an analyst at INTL FCStone.

TIGHT NEAR-TERM SUPPLY

Low availability of physical material for nearby delivery has also supported copper in the last few days, pushing its forward curve into a steeper backwardation - the premium paid for cash over three-month copper.

On Tuesday, the cash-to-three month spread was at $22 a tonne, not far off a 19-month high of $30 hit on Monday.

Underlining supply tightness, copper stocks in LME-monitored warehouses fell 2,625 tonnes to total 386,550 tonnes - their lowest since early February, exchange data showed.

Yet, more copper supply is expected to come on stream next year.

"The whole market knows that it will be in a small surplus next year, that supplies are actually growing ... so that will limit the upside in any case," Kryuchenkov said.

BHP Billiton said on Tuesday it would stop operations in the sub-level cave at its Perseverance mine due to safety concerns after a small earthquake at the Western Australian nickel mine in October.

The global nickel market surplus more than doubled to 147,600 tonnes in the first 10 months of 2013, the International Nickel Study Group said this month.

Nickel ended at $14,060 a tonne from $14,030 while aluminium exchanged hands at $1,797 a tonne from $1,793.50.

Zinc closed at $1,999.50 a tonne from $1,992 and lead ended at $2,173 from $2,166.

Tin closed at $22,775 from $22,800.

Tin traders are offering term pacts for the first quarter of 2014, after new rules by top exporter Indonesia made it impossible for buyers and sellers to strike their usual deals.

Three month LME copper CMCU3

Most active ShFE copper SCFcv1

Three month LME aluminium CMAL3

Most active ShFE aluminium SAFcv1

Three month LME zinc CMZN3

Most active ShFE zinc SZNcv1

Three month LME lead CMPB3

Most active ShFE lead SPBcv1

Three month LME nickel CMNI3

Three month LME tin CMSN3