nickel

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This morning in metals news, August was a huge month for aluminum, zinc, and nickel; copper hit a three-year high on Thursday; and a South Korean company announced it will produce lithium-ion batteries with a greater percentage of nickel than before.

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An Anything But Dreary Month

August is typically a quiet month for many, as people take vacations before the end of the summer.

It was not a quiet month for metals, though.

In August, aluminum, zinc and nickel all posted significant price increases (10%, 12% and 15%, respectively).

Copper Hits Three-Year High

Copper kept rolling Thursday, hitting a peak not seen since 2014.

The metal thus closes a strong August  — during which its price rose 7.5% — on a record note.

From Cobalt to Nickel

As automakers look to meet growing demand for electric vehicles, some battery makers are turning to more nickel and less cobalt in the construction of lithium-ion batteries.

For South Korean company SK Innovation, that means using more nickel. The company announced Thursday that it has begun commercial production of batteries using an increased portion of nickel (as opposed to the expensive, and scarce, cobalt).

“The batteries will help extend a driving range of electric vehicles up to 500 kms, and we will also develop new batteries by 2020 that can provide a range of more than 700 kms,” Lee Jon-ha, principal researcher of the company’s battery R&D center, said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Free Download: The August 2017 MMI Report

An interesting report by Reuters explores the vagaries of supply from Indonesia and the Philippines, the world’s two largest nickel producers — and, unfortunately for the nickel price, it would seem two of the least reliable suppliers.

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Source: Reuters

By far and away the most volatile supplier has been the Philippines.

Former Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Regina Lopez’s mining crusade and resulting export ban last year had a cataclysmic effect on output from which the country has not recovered, despite her replacement in May by Roy Cimatu, Reuters reports.

The latest assessment by the International Nickel Study Group (INSG) notes the country’s nickel production fell by 15% to 101,000 metric tons in the first five months of this year. Shipments of nickel ore to China have also been flowing at a reduced pace. Chinese imports from the Philippines slid by 6% over the first half of the year, according to Reuters.

Indonesia’s supply constraint, on the other hand, was driven by a policy to achieve greater value add in-country, started by a 2014 export ban on unprocessed ore which has only recently seen a partial rollback, as progress has been made in setting up nickel pig iron plants in the country. There are now multiple nickel “smelters” producing nickel pig iron or equivalent intermediate product in Indonesia, Reuters reports, quoting INSG estimates that mined production has surged 89% to 122,000 tons in the January-May period.

Meanwhile, the market has been responding to these political proclamations and about-turns with dramatic changes in short and long positions.

Reuters quotes LME Commitment of Traders figures to support price movements and investor position taking. The 18% nickel price rally over the last month to $10,445, a five-month high, followed investors flocking back to the market driving net long positions to 32,363 lots, compared with a net short of 887 lots on May 15. The return to the market seems to have been on the back of the nickel price’s fall to a year’s low of $8,680 and the widespread belief — supported by the closure of half of Indonesia’s processing plants — that refining becomes uneconomic below a nickel price of $9,000 per metric ton.

If $9,000 is the price floor based on current technology, what is the upside, stainless consumers will be asking?

In part, that depends on the potential for constraints to supply.

Demand remains solid. Reuters states Chinese imports of Indonesian “ferronickel” (nickel pig iron) broke through the 100,000-ton barrier in May and stayed there in June, while cumulative imports in those two months were 270,000 tons (bulk weight), exceeding total imports in 2015.

Demand, therefore, remains solid, but so too does supply. Netted between them, the two countries produced 223,000 tons of nickel in the first half of this year, up from 184,000 tons in the  same  period of 2016, according to the INSG. China’s imports of nickel raw materials, ore and concentrates, were also up in the first half of this year by 4% (not counting the separate flow of Indonesian ferronickel).

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Providing Cimatu continues with his conciliatory approach to miners, the market is likely to conclude exports are going to continue. The market has a floor at $9,000 per ton, but according to Reuters it could also be capped by rising supply as both countries ease restrictions and supply remains adequate.

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This morning in metals news, some think copper’s hot 2017 could run out of steam, copper stabilized after hitting a two-year peak recently and Asian battery makers are looking to use more nickel instead of cobalt.

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Copper Outlook for Second Half of 2017

It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether or not copper can continue its robust run throughout the remainder of the calendar year.

The metal recently hit its two-year peak. Some, however, think the metal is due to fall off its current pace.

According to a report in Barron’s, there are numerous red flags indicating copper could reverse course — with a particular focus on China.

“Analysts believe regulatory tightening will soon weigh on growth, cooling demand for copper and other industrial metals in the months ahead,” writes Ira Iosebasvili. 

If the Chinese economy hits a period of slower growth — as many in recent months have warned will happen — then the copper market will certainly be affected.

For Now, Copper Holds Steady

Although many analysts are predicting a course correction for the metal throughout the rest of the year, copper is holding steady.

A rally in Chinese steel and iron ore prices painted a positive positive in China, the world’s largest metals consumer, Reuters reported.

Trading in Cobalt for Nickel?

For makers of batteries in Asia, cobalt is getting a little pricey — so much so that some battery makers are turning to even more nickel.

A rise in cobalt prices has inspired battery makers in Asia to adjust their battery ingredient formula, according to a report from Reuters.

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Cobalt prices have shot up over the last year on high demand and supply disruptions, Reuters reports. In fact, Reuters reports the price of cobalt rose to six times that of nickel in July.

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This morning in metals news, copper slipped from its two-month high on the London Metal Exchange (LME), Canadian researchers have discovered a way to make metals processing greener and nickel hits its lowest price in a year.

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Copper Falls in Anticipation of Federal Reserve Interest Rate Decision

Copper fell from a two-month high on the LME — and dropped 1.1% on the Shanghai Futures Exchange — ahead of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision this week regarding raising the interest rate (which many expect it to do), Reuters reported.

The decision is scheduled to be announced Wednesday afternoon, after the conclusion of a two-day policy meeting.

An uptick in the interest rate is expected to shore up the dollar, making dollar-based commodities more expensive for holders of other currencies and leading to a dip in demand, Reuters reported.

Researchers Announce Environmentally Friendlier Way to Process Metals

A Canadian team of researchers recently announced a new method for processing metals without toxic chemicals or reagents, Science Daily reported.

The team outlined its approach in a recently published article in Science Advances. Through their method, the scientists seek to perfect a process that curbs the negative environmental impacts of processing metals, using easily recyclable compounds instead of toxic materials.

The discovery was the result of a collaboration between Jean-Philip Lumb and Tomislav Friscic at McGill University in Montreal, and Kim Baines of Western University in London, Ont.

As demand for electric vehicles grows and green initiatives become more visible, it’s not surprising to see movement toward making the entire production process going green — for example, from the processing of raw metals all the way to a final product itself (a “green” vehicle).

Nickel Falls to One-Year Low

It isn’t a good time for nickel, which fell to its lowest price in a year Tuesday in a climate of falling Chinese steel prices and a weak forecast for the Chinese economy, Reuters reported.

As the Chinese government tackles credit debts — the nation was recently downgraded by rating agency Moody’s for the first time since 1989 — many expect growth to slow in the second half of the year. That prediction has already been borne out by weak April and May Chinese economic data, according to the article.

Caroline Bain, chief commodities economist at Capital Economics in London, told Reuters that China’s efforts to rein in credit growth and curb excessive behavior on the property market is “bad news” for metals.

Free Download: The May 2017 MMI Report

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This morning in metal news, the European Union urges the United States to focus the scope of its national security probe — launched by President Donald Trump’s administration in April — into steel imports; nickel prices continue to tumble amid concern about global oversupply; and China’s attempt to tackle its debt could impact metal markets throughout the second half of 2017.

EU Officials Express Concern About US Steel Import Probe

On the heels of President Donald Trump’s first round of overseas visits, there remains uncertainty about the president’s stance on several issues, including whether or not Trump will pull the U.S. out of the 195-member Paris climate accord (the president is expected to make an announcement on that subject this afternoon). In addition, EU officials are concerned about the scope of the Trump administration’s national security probe into U.S. steel imports, Reuters reported.

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The probe would have negative effects on both U.S. steel producers and manufacturers which use steel, a written statement from the European Commission to the U.S. Department of Commerce argued. The EU is also hoping the probe will zero in on issues of national security and won’t broadly impact exporters around the world, should the Trump administration decide to adjust steel import policy.

Nickel Continues to Roll Downhill

The price of nickel continues to fall, this time to an 11-month low on Thursday, Reuters reported.

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There are certain models that economists use to explain markets or to illustrate market behaviour. Cyclical commodity markets are one such model, and the principle of swing producers is another.

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Among metals, nickel has been a wonderful example of both in recent years, and a Financial Times article written by a team from consultancy Woods Mackenzie ably illustrates how the metal’s current poor price performance is a result of both.

Cyclical commodity markets are invariably caused by violent swings in supply and demand. In times of rising prices, miners invest in new mines. As they take time to come to fruition, they often unhelpfully come in at the end of a commodity bull run, flooding the market with oversupply just as demand falls. Prices then collapse.

In the case of nickel, as the article reported, five years of surpluses meant nickel prices have more than halved between 2011 and 2015. Having just invested in new capacity, the miners tend to be slow to adjust. But in the end, mine closures ensue, and in the case of nickel, this resulted in the loss of about 6% of global mine supply. Supply, however, has remained more than adequate with many countries competing for market share. Read more

Our Stainless MMI took another dip in April, amid a broad sell-off in industrial metals. In addition, at the beginning of May, the Philippine parliament rejected Regina Lopez’s bid to be appointedas environmental minister. In a matter of weeks, nickel’s story has shifted from a clear supply shortfall to a rather complex narrative, ruining nickel bulls’ party.

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Nickel prices on the LME fell by 5% in the next two days after the news.

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Nickel prices reached a 10-month low this week due in part to concern over demand from China, a top consumer of the metal.

According to a report from Reuters, these concerns were supported by Chinese trade data, indicating falling imports on the alloying material used to make stainless steel.

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Nickel traded on the London Metal Exchange ended Wednesday at $9,225 per metric ton, its lowest mark since June of last year.

John Meyer, SP Angel analyst, told the news source he anticipates nickel to be supported by concern over supplies of ore from the Philippines, which recently announced the ordered closure of more than half its mines in order to protect water sources.

“There is still a lot of stock for the market to burn,” Meyer told Reuters.

Nickel Trailing Other Industrial Metals

Our own Raul de Frutos wrote earlier this month of the downward pressure seen on nickel prices during Q1, which is in stark contrast to other industrial metals that have rallied during that same time.

Wrote de Frutos: “Nickel prices are struggling to make headway this year. Nickel’s supply narrative is rather complex and it’s exposed to significant changes depending on what policy makers in Indonesia and The Philippines do next. On the other hand, stainless buyers should continue to monitor their price risk exposure. Investors’ sentiment on industrial metals remains bullish and that could still trigger unexpected prices swings on the upside.”

How will nickel and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth copper price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:

A lighted underground tunnel in a nickel mine.

Nickel prices remained steady last week due to a lack of new fundamentals that would drive the commodity either up or down.

According to a recent report from the Economic Calendar, nickel traded on the London Metal Exchange at $10,210 to $10,115 a metric ton with support at $9,860/mt and resistance at $10,735/mt.

Want a short- and medium-term buying outlook for aluminum, copper, tin, lead, zinc, nickel and several forms of steel? Subscribe to our monthly buying outlook reports!

Leia Toovey, writing for the Economic Calendar, said “Nickel futures experienced upside earlier in the month when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to stop all mining in the world’s biggest exporter of nickel. This comes after the Philippines suspended mining activities at numerous nickel mines found to be in violation of environmental regulations.”

Nickel Prices Break Even in Q1

Our own Raul de Frutos recently wrote extensively on the current state of the nickel market, and found that while most industrial metals will finish Q1 2017 on the upside, nickel is one exception.

de Frutos wrote: “The metal has traded up and down to finish the first quarter close to flat. Nickel prices are significantly higher than they were one year ago and traders are now finding little reason to be any more bullish than bearish due to a mix of news that helps both positions.”

He concluded that nickel is in dire need of new fundamental price drivers, positive or negative.

“With all of this uncertainty, industrial buyers might want to wait for new clues before making purchasing decisions,” he wrote.

How will nickel and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth copper price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:

Last week, the Philippines’ mining industry “expressed its confidence that the Commission on Appointments (CA) will reject Gina Lopez as the Environment secretary,” according to Philstar.com, since she was unable to win the committee members over. Lopez is among “just a few of President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointees yet to be confirmed by lawmakers,” according to a Reuters article. Nickel prices fell 10% as bears believe there will be a rejection.

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Nickel’s bull market started when Duterte became president of the Philippines in June. Prices gained throughout the year as Lopez led an environmental crackdown on the Philippine mining industry.

Developments in the nickel industry. Source: Raul De Frutos/MetalMiner analysis of LME data.

“The Philippines is the top nickel ore exporter and Lopez’s approval would probably sustain worries over supply disruptions that could lift global prices” this year, according to Reuters. On the other hand, a rejection would give miners a key win in the battle against environmentalists, adding pressure to nickel prices.

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President Duterte continues to throw support to Lopez, but at the same time he is hoping for a happy compromise between environmentalists and the mining industry, amid rising concerns over job and revenue losses. Read more