Copper pricing

Editor's Note: A correction on this story ran in the April 2010 issue of Electrical Wholesaling

What's up with wire? That's the question Electrical Wholesaling's editors asked executives throughout the wire and cable industry. At least two of the most-common points of discussion would come as no surprise to any electrical manufacturer, distributor or independent manufacturers' rep who has ever sold a reel of wire and cable: wild fluctuations in copper pricing and industry consolidation. But at least some manufacturers were eagerly peering into the future at new market opportunities with the potential to revolutionize a proud market that's been searching for new sources of profits for years: the rebuilding of the global electrical grid and utility-scale photovoltaic installations and wind farms. This article will offer some insight into the latest thinking on how these industry trends may impact the wire and cable industry.

The recent earthquakes in Chile, the world's largest cooper producer (accounting for more than one-third of total global copper production), reinforced just how jittery the copper market can be. When the markets first opened on March 1, two days after the earthquake shut down power to several Chilean copper mines, copper pricing spiked six cents per pound. It settled down later in the day, when reports started popping up on the Web that power had been restored and that the mines didn't sustain any permanent damage. Said one wire specialist, “The earthquake in Chile really rattled everyone's cage.”

Wire companies will still be watching the situation in Chile closely. The earthquake initially was thought to have impacted approximately 20% of the country's copper capacity, which caused “a short-term panic on London copper markets,” according to a March 2 article in the Malyasian Sun that was picked up at www.kitco.com, However, a day later one London-based metals trader said in a Business Report news brief also picked up on www.kitco.com that the March 1 spike was “a knee-jerk reaction,” caused by some traders and investors taking profits.

Consolidation

While several sources contacted for this article were hesitant to peg an average price for copper as we go further into 2010, one said several months ago major wire and cable manufacturers set their 2010 budgets with $2.75 per pound as a price point. That's slightly higher than the $2.50 per pound that John Mothersole, principal, industry practices, Global Insight, and one of the nation's leading experts on metals pricing, forecast for copper back in fourth-quarter 2009. Other industry insiders were uncomfortable forecasting pricing too far out. “It's so speculative right now,” said one wire executive who requested anonymity. “It doesn't seem like the recent increase was supported by any particular type of demand.”

Another factor that may soon play a role in any copper pricing forecasts might be inflation. Alan Beaulieu, president, Institute for Trend Research, Bascawen, N.H., expects inflation to hit 6.5 percent in 2011 — and that its early harbingers will be increases in metals pricing. Whatever the price of a pound of copper, this metal has a direct impact on the bottom line of every company that sells it.

The wire and cable industry has been shaped by wave after wave of consolidation for the past 30 years, but the deals done during the past decade have been particularly notable (see sidebar on page 20). It doesn't seem all that long ago that the wire and cable industry had a handful of publicly owned wire giants and dozens of family owned wire companies with product, regional or customer specialties. Many of these family owned businesses have sold out to one of the wire giants or gone out of business. Today, privately held Southwire, Carrollton, Ga.; and the publicly held companies like General Cable Co., Highland Heights, Ky.; Coleman Cable Inc., Waukegan, Ill.; and Encore Wire Corp., McKinney, Texas; rank among the largest manufacturers, and Anixter Inc., Skokie, Ill.; Houston Wire & Cable, Houston; Omni Cable Corp., West Chester, Pa.; Priority Wire & Cable, North Little Rock, Ark.; and Industrial Electric Wire & Cable, New Berlin, Wis.; are the specialty wire distributors with more than $100 million in sales.

The smart grid

The building wire market has probably seen the most consolidation. After the Southwire acquired the building wire operations of Essex and General Cable, the largest remaining independent players in building wire include Encore Wire; Colonial Wire and Cable Co. Inc., Hauppauge, N.Y.; CME Wire and Cable Inc., a subsidiary of Conductores Monterrey, a Mexican manufacturer of wire and cable products; United Copper Industries, Denton, Texas; and Marmon Group Inc., Chicago.

As you can see in the list of acquisitions over the past decade, one of the common themes is the globalization of the wire and cable business. Comments from Gregory Kenny, president and CEO of General Cable, accompanying the company's recent fourth-quarter earnings statement clearly define the global nature of today's wire and cable business. Said Kenny in the press release, “Two areas of strength during the quarter were Venezuela and France. Our businesses in these countries have benefited from governmental investment in energy infrastructure and grid reinforcement.”

If or when the smart grid becomes a reality, it will require a massive upgrade of the U.S. electrical grid and its estimated 157,000 miles of high-voltage electric transmission lines. That's enough cable to wrap around the earth about six times, and if all of it needed to be replaced, it would make for one heck of a wire order. Wikipedia defines the smart grid as the ability to “deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology to control appliances at consumers' homes to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency.”

The smart grid may one day utilize superconductors to transmit more voltage at far less power loss, and link green power produced in remote areas such as California's Mojave Desert or the wind belt in the Midwest to the geographic areas that need more power. On a much more local scale, the smart grid would enable home owners to monitor when electricity costs are least expensive, and shift some of their energy usage to those times, such as running a dishwasher or doing a load of wash.

Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C., is aggressively moving into this arena. Last year, it announced plans to convert its entire Midwest and Carolinas electricity delivery system — which serves approximately 11 million people — into an advanced, state-of-the-art smart grid over the next several years. One of the first steps in this massive project, currently underway, is the installation of 700,000 new electric smart meters in Ohio. Some big dollars are earmarked for the smart grid.

According to information on the website of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rosslyn, Va., $3.4 billion in grant awards are part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), and will be matched by industry funding for a total public-private investment worth over $8 billion. However, federal spending on necessary updates to U.S. utility infrastructure is apparently slow in coming. General Cable's Kenny said in a press statement accompanying the corporation's fourth-quarter earning report that, “spending by electric utilities in the United States continues to be a drag on our performance as a result of ineffective government policies, delays in projects to support grid reinforcement and alternative energy generation, as well as the impact of lower electricity usage by the industrial base for the last two years.”

The sheer scale of the U.S. electrical grid would imply that most if not all of the miles of high-voltage transmission cable needed in this massive project will be sold directly from manufacturers to utilities. However, distributors and reps should still keep tabs on the involvement of their local utilities in smart grid endeavors.

Renewables

Wire and cable is a key balance of system (BOS) component in any solar or wind installation. While much of the wire and cable sold for utility-scale installations goes direct, according to several sources, smaller commercial, industrial, institutional and residential installation may very well offer distributors and reps sales opportunities. Greg Donato, executive vice president of sales operations, Omni Cable Corp., Westchester, Pa., says the aluminum wire required in wind farms is typically sold direct, but that Omni Cable recently helped supply a distributor with fiber-optic cable for the control systems used by wind turbines to monitor wind speed, blade angle and other parameters. “When it gets onto the construction side of the business, there are opportunities for distributors,” he says. “Some of those wind farms have a lot of fiber in them.”

Renewables are clearly on the radar screens of wire and cable manufacturers as a growth market opportunity. According to information on its website, General Cable annually sells $250 million in wire and cable to land-based wind farms. The company has also identified offshore wind farms as a growth market and began producing submarine cable last year. While most offshore wind farm are being built less than 10 miles offshore, in many cases future wind farms will be built from 30 miles to 100 miles offshore, dramatically increasing the amount of wire and cable they require.

Solar power presents another sales opportunity for distributors of wire and cable, and according to General Cable a typical solar installation requires four- to five-times the amount of cable as a wind farm. Some wire and cable companies are developing or marketing products specifically for solar or wind applications. For instance, Alpha Wire Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., now sells solar cables and photovoltaic wire, and according to product literature on its website, this wire and cable is “designed for the harsh environments of solar energy applications — the hot and cold of climate extremes, ozone and UV radiation, moisture, oil and direct burial.”

USA Wire & Cable Inc., Austin, Texas, also sells cable designed specifically for the photovoltaics (PV) market. The company recently started marketing connectors for PV installations as well. In a press release announcing a partnership with Amphenol to market that company's HF line of connectors, Hugh Robertson, vice president of sales, USA Wire & Cable, said that marketing agreement would make USA Wire & Cable the largest stocking distributor of H4 Connectors in North America for electrical and solar PV projects.

In addition to opportunities in wind and solar installations, renewed interest in nuclear power may create demand for wire and cable, too. According to presentation materials on General Cable's website, “A nuclear renaissance is expected to begin in 2011 and continue through 2025.” According to its estimates, each new nuclear plant requires $8 million in wire and cable.

Outside of the dismal business conditions in this market segment, it might be tempting to think that it's business as usual, with the same concerns about pricing and consolidation. However, the new opportunities outlined here in the upgrade of the U.S. electrical grid, the smart grid and wind, solar and other renewables may soon offer the wire business a new era of growth.

KEY Acquisitions in Wire World: 2001-2010

While the wire and cable industry has always seen more than its share of M&A activity, the past 10 years has been a bit wilder than other decades. Here are some of the largest acquisitions of wire and cable manufacturers during this time period.

2001

  • Southwire buys General Cable Corp.'s building wire assets.
  • Coleman Cable buys partial assets of Spectrum Wire Corp.
2004

  • Superior Essex acquires Belden's North American outside plant (OSP) communications wire and cable business.
  • Southwire acquires Alflex Corp. and its line of metal-clad cable and flexible conduit products.
2005

  • Essex acquires Nexans' North American magnet wire inventory and certain U.S. customers; the company acquires Nexans' remaining magnet wire facilities in Canada and China in 2007.
  • Southwire acquires DeCorp Inc., Hendersonville, Tenn., for its Flatwire technology.
  • General Cable Corp. announced plans to buy the high-voltage cable business of Safran SA, Montereau, France.
2006

  • Southwire finalized its acquisition of the building wire assets of Essex Electrical Products, including Essex's plant in Florence, Ala.
2007

  • General Cable acquired the global wire and cable business of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. which operates as Phelps Dodge International Corp. (PDIC) for approximately $735 million. PDIC was acquired by Freeport as part of the acquisition of Phelps Dodge Corporation in March 2007.
  • Coleman Cable Inc. buys Copperfield LLC, Bremen, Ind.
2008

  • LS Cable, Seoul, South Korea, acquires Superior Essex Inc., for approximately $900 million.
  • In a move to bolster its business in the OEM market, Southwire acquires CableTech Global, a subsidiary of GenTek Inc., based in Mineral Wells, Texas.
2009

  • Southwire acquires Maxis, Phoenix, Ariz., a developer of tools and equipment for the management of wire and cable.
  • General Cable buys Gepco International Inc., Des Plaines, Ill., to increase its stake in the broadcasting and entertainment markets.
  • Platinum Equity, Los Angeles, purchases a controlling interest in the Atlanta-based Alcan Cable division of Rio Tinto. Alcan Cable, a division of the Alcan Engineered Products business, is a manufacturer of aluminum cable products.
2010

  • Southwire acquires AIW from Leviton and completes its acquisition of Ford Wire, Roseland, Fla.
  • To boost its business in sub-Saharan Africa, General Cable recently acquired a substantial portion of the wire and cable assets of Phoenix Power Cables, Durban, South Africa, a manufacturer of low- and medium-voltage electrical power cables as well as overhead energy transmission and distribution cables.
  • General Cable also acquired Beru SAS, a wholly-owned subsidiary of BorgWarner France SAS, located in La Ferte Mace, France, a manufacturer of ignition wire harnesses.