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Surprise commodity winner could be ‘the new gold’

Nickel matte in workers cupped hands
Gillianne Tedder | Photolibrary | Getty Images

Five cents says you can't name April's best-performing commodity.

Nickel soared 15.2 percent in April, making it the month's best performer in the S&P GSCI, the widely followed commodity index. In fact, with a 32 percent gain this year, nickel is outperforming every other one of the S&P GSCI's 24 components with the exception of coffee (which has perked up more than 80 percent this year).

Why is nickel, an industrial metal used in the production of stainless steel, shining so bright?

The rise can largely be pinned to Indonesia, which has issued a ban on nickel exports in attempt to foster Indonesian industry. This is no small matter, because according to the U.S. Geological Survey, Indonesia tied the Philippines for the highest nickel mine production in 2013, providing 18 percent of the world's supply.

"If you think about Indonesia as the biggest producer, having caught up to the Philippines, it's taking a lot of nickel off the market," said Jodie Gunzberg, global head of commodities at S&P Dow Jones Indices. "In a way, it's been a battle between the Indonesian export ban and Chinese ebbing demand. But slowing Chinese demand is losing this battle. ... Chinese consumption is still enormous."

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More recently, there have been concerns about further embargoes on Russia, which is also a exporter of nickel. That's why George Gero of RBC Capital Markets doesn't see nickel sliding anytime soon.

"I think all metals have some Russian concerns, so tight markets may keep prices up, especially due to headline traders who quickly jump up and down," Gero told CNBC.com. "Nickel could see some profit-taking, but there are few willing sellers now."

Either way, the surge in nickel futures has clearly drawn attention to the often-overlooked metal.

"There is certainly more interest in nickel now," Gunzberg said. "When a commodity's price starts to increase, nothing starts to draw attention like that, because when a commodity's inventories are in a situation of either excess or shortage, it generally takes a while for the inventory situation to switch."

Lippo: 3 issues that Indonesia needs to solve
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Gunzberg goes so far as to say that nickel "is almost like the new gold of 2014," because of the way prices are getting squeezed.

"When you look at gold and the bull run that gold had as it was getting taken off the market by central banks and ETFs," there's a parallel in nickel's sudden imbalance of supply and demand.

Another similarity Gunzberg notes is that while gold has long been used as collateral for loans, in China, industrial metals have started to be used as collateral.

Gero points out that not only is there more interest in nickel due to the price surge, but it had even lead some traders to take positions in other industrial metals, such as palladium.

At this point, regardless of whether late buyers will enjoy gains or are simply getting nickeled and dimed, Gunzberg cheers any growing awareness of industrial metals.

"Nickel really does play a major role in our everyday lives. From construction, to mobile phones, to metal equipment, to food preparation equipment, this is something that's used across the board," Gunzberg said. "It's something that's highly valued because of its corrosion resistance."

It's even used in the Stanley Cup, she points out. The traveling trophy is made largely of silver, but it's a bit of added nickel gives the hockey prize its requisite strength.

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