aluminum price

Beijing is caught in something of a quandary.

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On the one hand, an admirable, and increasingly important social imperative, the Chinese government’s focus on air pollution, has resulted in a crackdown on a range of polluting industries. Coal-fired power stations around Beijing and other major cities have been closed. Steel capacity has been targeted for cutbacks, although not universally.

Reports suggest rebar production used in construction has been prioritized over other product areas and that’s just one example of selective enforcement. A recent report by Reuters states new aluminum production capacity has been halted. What China fails to meet capacity cutback targets — an issue one suspects would have been “worked around” a year or two back when environmental considerations where less of an imperative?

This crackdown on output comes at the same time as the economy is performing quite well. Official data released last week showed China’s economy grew by a better-than-expected 6.9% comparing the March quarter to the same period in the previous year, Australian Financial Review reports. That is up from 6.8% in the final quarter of 2016. Industrial production was also far better than forecast, growing at 7.6% in March compared to 6.3% in first two months of the year. Read more

The London Metal Exchange aluminum price has risen steadily since this time last year and seemed at times like it may hit, if not breach, $2,000 per metric ton. Many consumers are asking how much further does it have to go? will it break that psychologically important barrier anytime soon? and if it does, how much further does it have to go?

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To understand this, we should consider what has caused price strength in recent months and that you will not be surprised to hear is easy to list, but harder to judge to what extent each factor has had an impact.

Why is Aluminum Up?

First, there are general commodity category price drivers, nearly all base metals have shown price strength over the period as industrial demand has remained positive and surplus supply markets have either tightened or gone into outright deficit. In the case of aluminum, there are several indicators suggesting the market deficit has increased over the last 12 months. Physical delivery premiums have increased not just in Asia, but in the U.S. with the Midwest premium currently trading just below ten cents per pound on the CME Group exchange, up from six cents per pound in the third quarter of last year. Japanese physical delivery premiums have been agreed at $128 per metric ton for the second quarter up from $95 per ton for the first quarter.

Source: Reuters

Meanwhile, LME inventory continues to decline with almost 400,000 mt electing to leave the system in February alone. Now it must be said that not all this metal is destined for consumption, as Andy Home in a recent Reuters article points out, the majority of metal leaving the LME system is almost certainly heading to off-market lower cost storage options. Read more

Liquid metal

The Chinese aluminum industry has been able to cut costs by essentially selling liquid metal to nearby product manufacturers. Source: Adobe Stock/Kybele.

The head of aluminum for Rio Tinto Group is making a bold prediction: prices for the metal are heading for an “extremely” volatile crossroads.

According to a recent report from Bloomberg, Alfredo Barrios cites uncertainty with the timing of China curbing production, which will further serve to keep investors on the edge of their seats.

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“That’s really where the uncertainty is at the moment,” Barrios told Bloomberg in an interview at their Toronto office. “There’s no doubt that if you look at the supply side, if you look at the environmental issues, sooner or later that will change. But when is a question mark.”

China continues its fight against pollution by ordering to reduce steel and aluminum output in more than two dozen northern cities.

Aluminum Price Impacted by Overcapacity, High Inventory

Barrios added that overcapacity and high inventory could impact aluminum price increases in the near future.

“There’s a number of factors which will dampen any price increase if it goes too far,” he told the news source. “If you look at what are the fundamental reasons behind why prices are where they are, and how different they are from a year ago, it’s sometimes very difficult to see what has made aluminum be higher at all. What’s changed so radically in the last year?”

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Our Aluminum MMI rose again in March. London Metal Exchange prices rose above $1,950 per metric ton and, given the bullish sentiment among investors, aluminum might soon reach the $2,000/mt milestone.

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Prices were buoyed by confidence that China will implement their agreed-upon cuts. The world’s largest nation-producer of the metal will force about a third of aluminum capacity in the provinces of Shandong, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi to be shut down over the winter season, which runs from the middle of November through the middle of March, putting at risk about 1.3 million mt of production.

Aluminum MMI

It would be normal to see these producers to simply ramp up production ahead of the winter season to make up for lower output during the winter months. However, that won’t be the case.

China’s environmental crackdown is already affecting producers as inspection teams visit aluminum smelters on a regular basis to keep production in check. We suspect that China’s strategy to curb pollution will offer further support to prices.

Global Political Heat

While China tackles overcapacity in the form of an environmental clampdown, international pressure on China is rising. In March, global aluminum associations released a joint letter in advance of the upcoming G20 summit calling for the creation of a Global Forum to address aluminum overcapacity.

This is the first time that a global coalition of aluminum producers has called for such an effort to address Chinese overcapacity in the marketplace. In addition, earlier last month, The Aluminum Association (a trade organization that represents North American producers) filed a petition seeking anti-dumping duties on aluminum foil.

China Hongqiao in Trouble

The world’s biggest aluminum smelter was recently suspended from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange as the company is being forced to defend itself against allegations that it has inflated its profit.

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As my colleague Stuart Burns explains, part of the problem seems to be how China Hongqiao has been reporting its profits and handling internal transfer pricing. Like many of the new breed of Chinese aluminum producers, China Hongqiao has captive power production but, since 2010, the firms profit margins have diverged from most of its peers, maintaining in excess of an 8% margin even when many of its domestic competitors fell into periods of loss.

Even during periods when the coal price rose the reported cost of power produced by China Hongqiao dropped suggesting the firm was trapping profits in the smelting division while hiding losses in power generation. Likewise it has been suggested that China Hongqiao has declared transfer prices from its alumina production division roughly 20% below those of similar companies operating in the same provinces.

Ernst & Young will announce the results of the audit next month. Not just investors but the whole aluminum industry will be keen for a a peek behind-the-scenes into the sometimes murky world of Chinese aluminum producers. Proof of bad reporting would add more tensions to the global aluminum market.

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U.S. automakers’ sales figures for March came in below market expectations and gave early evidence that America’s long boom cycle for automotive sales may finally be losing steam. Automakers sold 1.56 million new cars and trucks in March, a 1.6% decline compared with the same month a year ago.

Ford Motor Company took the biggest hit among sales drops, seeing its March numbers fall more than 7% from February’s.

Industry consultant Autodata put industry Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate at 16.62 million cars, trucks and SUVs for March.

That was below the 17.3 million analysts polled by Reuters had expected, and the first time since August that the SAAR – a crucial industry metric – had fallen below 17 million.

General Motors had the best month, reporting a 2% increase in sales to just over 256,000 vehicles, with sales of its Tahoe and Suburban SUV models seeing their best sales month since 2008.

Sales at Ford Motor Co. fell the aforementioned 7+% to 236,000 vehicles, with fleet sales to rental agencies, businesses and government entities down nearly 17% on the year. Sales of Ford’s F-Series pickup trucks rose 10% but that simply could not offset the losses elsewhere. Sales at Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles fell 5% in March. Automotive sales in the U.S. risen since end of the 2008 recession and hit a record last year of 17.55 million last year. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. reported smaller losses.

The fall in new car sales is even more curious considering that consumer confidence is at its highest level since 2000. Could the level of vehicle replacement that had driven sales since 2008 finally be falling? Vehicle inventories at dealerships have risen to the highest point since 2004, according to Edmunds.com.

If auto sales have, indeed, plateaued, then prices for automotive steel and aluminum could as well, at least in the expansive U.S. market. Our Automotive MMI remained flat this month at 88.

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China’s aluminum industry is under siege. You wouldn’t think so from the booming production figures, rising prices and howls of protest from aluminum producers in the rest of the world.

Benchmark Your Current Aluminum Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

But, arguably, China’s aluminum industry is the victim of its own success.

Liquid metal

The Chinese aluminum industry has been able to cut costs by essentially selling liquid metal to nearby product manufacturers. Source: Adobe Stock/Kybele.

On the one hand, the political heat is rising as China’s production capacity has exceeded 50% of global output even as a combination of low aluminum prices and the collapse of physical delivery premiums in recent years has forced producers in the rest of the world to rationalize production, mothball plants and shelve capital investment plans that do not seek to simply slash costs.

Rise of Semis Buoys Industry

The rise of Chinese semi-finished product exports has stimulated a wave of legal challenges around the world alleging unfair trade practices and causing considerable uncertainty for Chinese manufacturers with aspirations beyond their own shores. Read more

Aluminum prices have risen around 15% since the beginning of the year.

Benchmark Your Current Aluminum Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

The metal is currently trading at a two-year high, just below $1,950 per metric ton. A slow but steady rise.

The aluminum 3003-H14 Sheet price. Source: MetalMiner Price Benchmark.

This year’s rally comes as markets tries to price in Chinese anti-pollution capacity cuts next winter. The world’s largest nation-producer of the metal will force about a third of aluminum capacity in the provinces of Shandong, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi to be shut down over the winter season, which runs from the middle of November through the middle of March, putting at risk about 1.3 million mt of production. Read more

Speaking at S&P Global Platts’ recent Steel Markets North America conference, noted trade attorney Alan Price of the Washington law firm Wiley Rein said the World Trade Organization case that the federal government filed on behalf of aluminum producers against Chinese overproduction of the light metal in January, will essentially serve as a guide for other industries looking to challenge state-subsidized companies’ overproduction for export in the People’s Republic.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

“The solutions to Chinese overcapacity are to follow the money and see who’s subsidizing it,” said Price, who has represented several U.S. industries in anti-dumping and countervailing duty legal actions against Chinese producers, as well as WTO disputes. “China has not fundamentally reformed its excess capacity. The rest of the world’s production has remained stable, but the explosion in Chinese capacity is still there.”

Alan Price

Alan Price, image courtesy of Wiley Rein

Price said the aluminum case fundamentally attacks the mechanism China uses to back up failing businesses, the availability of subsidized money in China known as “money for metal” on the municipal, state and federal level there.

“The WTO case involving aluminum, challenges, fundamentally, the Chinese subsidization system,” Price said. “It goes after the financial systems of China and how everything is financed. In aluminum you can track all the companies involved. There are around 10 and it’s a much more understandable beast, much more understandable problem than the vastness of the Chinese steel industry. This case will fundamentally decide if China will be allowed to prop up failing businesses.” Read more

If you can’t beat them, then join them? That may be the gist of UC Rusal’s latest proposal for dealing with Chinese aluminum overproduction: an OPEC-like organization for the global aluminum industry.

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In a Reuters article the world’s largest aluminiu producer outside of China was quoted by the TASS news agency at an economic conference in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi as suggesting that Industry ministers should get together and explore ways and means of creating a producers club.

Liquid metal

The Chinese aluminum industry has been able to cut costs by essentially selling liquid metal to nearby product manufacturers. Source: Adobe Stock/Kybele.

The trade minister quoted by TASS, Denis Manturov, talked of creating a single policy in the area of standards and technology but, in reality, there would be little to be gained if that was the sole purpose. More attractive to western smelters in general, and Rusal in particular, would be any mechanism that curbed China’s growing dominance of the primary aluminum market.

Rusal was, until a few years ago the world’s largest aluminum producer. In 2016 Rusal produced 3.685 million metric tons, according to Reuters, but China now produces over half the world’s aluminum with Chinese producers overtaking the Russian firm. China’s Hongqiao is now the world’s biggest aluminum producer overtaking Rusal in 2015 and again in 2016. Read more

I know it sounds a bit geeky, but we at MetalMiner love to hear about new applications for aluminum. This latest development is not exactly going to change the global demand-supply balance for aluminum but it does showcase one of the many qualities the metal possesses, one which is sometimes overshadowed by aluminum’s lightweight or easy formability.

Benchmark Your Current Aluminum Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Aluminum’s use in batteries is nothing new. Aluminum–air batteries have been a topic of research for some time and work by producing electricity from the reaction of oxygen in the air with aluminum. They have one of the highest energy densities of all batteries, but they are not widely used because of problems with high anode cost and by-product removal when using traditional electrolytes. Read more