Plummeting Metals End Markets' Rally

Russian stock markets' 11-day rally came to an abrupt end Thursday amid signs that the tide might be turning for metals stocks, which have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in the past year during a period of record prices.

Investors rushed to lock in profits, selling big energy and metal names, as the benchmark RTS Index just failed to clear the 2,500 marker, the next level of technical resistance, analysts said.

During the rally, the markets experienced "quite an impressive streak of consecutive growth," said Yaroslav Lissovolik, co-head of equity research at Deutsche Bank. "Accordingly, it was only to be expected that at levels [that] are close to 2,500, the RTS would correct somewhat."

Oil stocks led the rally, boosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's strong statements on lowering taxes on the industry amid the backdrop of global oil prices reaching a record peak of over $135 per barrel in New York on Thursday.

Putin is to hold a key meeting with his presidium, or inner Cabinet, on Monday to discuss further cuts in oil taxes, which could provide a trigger for a further oil stocks rally, as investors turn back to the sector. The industry has lagged the markets for close to two years in the face of a burdensome tax regime.

Steel stocks were battered, however, by reports Thursday that the government is considering higher export duties on steel to compensate for lost revenues from lower oil taxes, a move that would put downward pressure on domestic metal prices. Producers have enjoyed a surge in steel prices, pushing up costs in industries that use the metal in their production.

The losers, analysts said, would be companies such as Severstal, Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works, or MMK, and NLMK, which exports a significant part of its production.

"This is an issue which is very much at the heart of the market debate and whether there is going to be an increase in metal sector taxation or whether the government will try to grapple with the problems of high steel prices by some sort of controls or other methods," Lissovolik said.

Investors suggested that metals and mining stocks, which have been among the best performing Russian equities this year, could see their star on the wane, as the mood swings in favor of energy stocks.

"The metals and mining sector has already risen very sharply, and there is a lot of profit to lock in," said Sergei Grigoryan, head of portfolio management at Unicredit's Pioneer Investments, which has 210.5 billion euros ($330 billion) under management. "In the face of this uncertainty over taxes, investors should not keep strong [positions] in this sector. I think it would be logical at least to go market neutral."

Since the start of year, Raspadskaya Coal has risen 44.6 percent, while coal and steel firm Mechel is up 64.8 percent. NLMK and Evraz are up 15.5 percent and 38 percent, respectively. But investors shed the stocks, pushing Evraz down 14.5 percent in London on the week, Raspadskaya Coal down by 8.7 percent and NLMK down by 11.9 percent.

Steel producers MMK and Severstal also suffered further on the back of disappointing first-quarter earnings, dropping 13.7 percent and 10.2 percent, respectively.

It was a bad week, too, for base metal producers, such as Norilsk Nickel and Chelyabinsk Zinc. Nickel hit a two-year trading low Thursday, while lead, zinc and copper all plunged too, as a firming dollar took effect and concerns over the economic outlook in the United States and China fueled nervousness.

"First of all, there is quite a significant speculative component [to the decline in base metals]," said Vladimir Zhukov, a metals analyst at Lehman Brothers. "Secondly, the whole decline was sparked by the strengthening in the U.S. dollar."

Polyus Gold seesawed on both Russian exchanges, ratcheting up huge gains early in the week only to drop like a stone Thursday. Analysts said entities close to estranged shareholders Mikhail Prokhorov and Vladimir Potanin were likely buying the stock ahead of the deadline for shareholders seeking to participate in the company's June 26 annual shareholders meeting. The two former business partners have been seeking to divide their jointly held assets for more than a year.

Meanwhile, Polymetal, the country's largest silver producer, was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise turgid week for metals. Polymetal rose during the week after a saying that Suleiman Kerimov was in talks to sell his stake. The potential buyers are thought to be Alexander Nesis, Alexander Mamut and Czech investor Petr Kellner's PPF Group, Vedomosti reported Friday.

The RTS and MICEX indexes both closed down 1.74 percent on the week, to 2,435.20 points and 1,909.67 points, respectively.