This article was written by Martin Hayes. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
Every year it is an autumn ritual as the nights draw in, the temperature drops, and leaves fall off the trees. In early October, nearly everyone in the metals business makes their way to London for the annual LME Dinner Week.
But not in 2020 – the year of the global coronavirus pandemic. Like the LME open-outcry floor, which has been shuttered since March, the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane will be silent on the Tuesday evening, when it traditionally hosts what has become London’s largest black-tie event.
Likewise, there will be no rounds of parties at venues ranging from the Hard Rock Café, Ronnie Scott’s and the Ice Bar. No winding down (of a sort) at the Heartstarter on the Wednesday. Equally, and importantly, no deal-making meetings, no seminars and presentations by top-level analysts throughout the week.
Nor are there the keynote dinner speeches by personalities as diverse as metals legend Lord (Mike) Farmer, regulatory heads like Howard Davies, media types, such as Andrew Neil, or the Bishop of London.
As David Gaddes pointed out a few weeks ago, the metals sector, almost uniquely now, is a people’s business, and has been for years. And as pleasant and enjoyable as the satellite gatherings are, the key reason for LME dinner week is founded on doing important business – face to face – which has evolved over the decades.
The actual dinner morphed out of the smaller LME Golf Dinner, gradually growing to the extent that only the Grosvenor House Hotel could host the producers, consumers, brokers and bankers who were in London for annual deal-making in the days when communication was restricted to phones and telex machines, and news came via ticker-tapes and the ubiquitous Reuter Monitor with its green-on-black screen.
Back in the 1970s, when Africa was a power-house copper producer, ZCCM, particularly, but also Gecamines would set their annual premium levels – the former with great fanfare at a mid-week luncheon in London.
Similarly, other producers followed suit, while over the years many of the other events that we take for granted now were added to the week. The LME Seminar, which kicks off on Monday, started in the mid-1980s at a small hall in Fleet Street – now it is at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Conference centre in Westminster.
Often, this provides the opportunity for the industry to engage with the LME hierarchy on the issues of the day, while economists and analysts are guaranteed an audience for their forecasts and predictions.
This year – admittedly – the LME is hosting a virtual seminar with updates and panel debates, with webinars to follow throughout the week. On paper, at least, offerings that would have taken place in a normal, non-virus year.
But there is one key difference that the absence of a physical presence this week will highlight. It is that tenuous concept we call the mood, the feeling or sentiment that no Zoom call or meeting can replicate.
Conversations around coffee and drinks, outside the seminars and presentations, on the stairs and in the corridors post-dinner in Park Lane. These can all make a discernible change to the market’s psyche - sometimes by the end of the week the market is more optimistic and has changed tack about the outlook going forward, even in the dips of severe price downturns.
It may be an actual echo-chamber, but for many in the industry it is hearing, confirming, or sometimes changing, their own feelings and perceptions.
That, perhaps, will be the biggest absence from 2020’s virtual experience, and why most people will be hoping that by October 2021 LME Dinner Week will have returned to some sort of normal.