Chart: Can't get worse for copper, so buy it

Copper wire. The commodity was trading at five-year lows Wednesday.
Muriel de Seze | Photodisc | Getty Images
Copper wire. The commodity was trading at five-year lows Wednesday.

Copper prices are slogging along at 2009 financial crisis levels—a surefire sign to some strategists that something's got to change.

As markets head into the third quarter, the strategists say that may be the timing for an about-face for copper, though there are still headwinds.

George Gero, vice president, global futures at RBC Capital Markets, expects copper to begin to move higher in the third quarter and then do much better in the fourth quarter, reaching a level of $2.75 per pound. Copper futures for July were trading Thursday at $2.62 per pound.

Copper reflects global growth more than other asset classes, and it has looked dim amid concerns about Chinese growth, the potential impact of Greece on Europe and worries about whether the U.S. hit a soft patch.

Gero said the copper market should start to respond to improvements in U.S. new home sales, as seen in May data this week, and also in car sales, expected to be strong when reported next Wednesday.

Citigroup strategists also see an improvement, starting in the third quarter.

"We continue to expect the combination of constrained mine supply, and better-than-expected Chinese appetite for copper, to prompt renewed price support end-Q3 and Q4," the Citigroup strategists wrote.

But ahead of that they project copper to remain under pressure through July and early August on softer seasonal demand and strength in the U.S. dollar.

Copper, 6-years

Source: Thomson Reuters

Gero said the trading community is poised for this turnaround. He surveyed 32 major traders and producers at the recent International Precious Metals Institute conference, and they expected an average year-end price of $2.80 per pound.

"If the stock market keeps going up, people will not be paying attention to the metals. It will stay under the radar," he said.

In the equities market Thursday, Global X Copper Miners ETF was lower after bouncing Wednesday. Southern Copper was also weaker Thursday after rising sharply Wednesday when HSBC started coverage with a buy. The S&P materials sector was flat Thursday.

"If the stock market keeps going up, people will not be paying attention to the metals. It will stay under the radar," Gero said.

Barclays strategists also say copper has a good chance for upside in the third quarter, but they also are cautious.

Here are three risks they see:

•The biggest concern is demand in the developed world, in particular Europe. Western Europe is the second-largest market for copper—about 13 percent of demand—and it is exposed to unknown risk over a possible Greek default.

•China weakness hurting demand is another top concern, since demand is not as robust as previously forecast. Strategists see potential for a strong second half but economic weakness remains a potential risk to the demand picture.

•Supply may end up being an issue since it could be stronger than expected. Barclays expects 3.5 percent growth in refined supply, and so far this year disruptions have been low. Few disruptions mean stronger growth in supply.