Mar. 17, NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--Copper prices soared 3.5% Thursday on expectations of higher metal demand for Japan's impending reconstruction efforts and a weaker dollar.
The most-actively traded copper contract, for May delivery, settled up 14.65 cents, or 3.5%, at $4.3440 a pound on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The thinly traded March-delivery contract ended at $4.3360 per pound, up 3.6%, or 14.90 cents.
Copper prices have not escaped the volatility seen in equities and currencies in recent days, as the threat of a nuclear meltdown in Japan sparked panic selling among investors. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan Friday, decimating the east coast and damaging the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility.
However, trader focus is slowly shifting to the wider implications of the natural disaster, with copper identified as a likely beneficiary of the recovery effort. Japan is expected to step up its copper purchases, boosting global demand for the industrial metal. Copper is very efficient at conducting electricity and heat, and is widely used for electrical wiring in construction and as part the heating and cooling systems in air conditioners.
"This has been the dominant market psychology behind today's bounce," said Ralph Preston, analyst at Heritage West Financial.
A weaker dollar, which fell against the yen as investors watched for signs of intervention by Japanese authorities, also boosted copper.
Dollar-denominated copper futures appear cheaper to investors using foreign currencies when the dollar slips, helping demand for the contracts.
Meanwhile, stronger economic data out of the U.S. also bumped up the industrial metal.
The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits dropped off more than expected last week, pointing to continued improvement in the jobs market. Initial jobless claims fell by 16,000 to 385,000 in the week ended March 12, the Labor Department said Thursday in its weekly report. Economists had forecast claims would fall by only 9,000 in the week ending March 5.
Despite the improving sentiment Thursday, market participants still remained uneasy as the Japanese government renewed efforts to tame the damaged nuclear power plant. Authorities had used helicopters to dump water on pools of hot nuclear waste in an attempt to cool the spent fuel.
"With the situation in Japan still very unsettled, we have to suspect that these bounces are not sustainable, and will likely fade over the course of the week," MF Global analyst Edward Meir said in a note to clients. "The specter of the world's third largest economy sputtering to a halt, which it easily could do if this nuclear crisis is not contained, could prove to be very bearish for overall commodity demand."
Moreover, market watchers are looking at simmering unrest in the Middle East as another likely hurdle to copper's rally. The U.S. is seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution to back a wide range of possible military strikes against forces loyal to Col.
Moammar Gadhafi as the civilian death toll climbs in Libya.