Although other base metals made new lows in January, aluminum prices held steady. The aluminum MMI fell only one point to 71.
What didn’t fare well in January was Alcoa‘s stock price, which fell sharply to its lowest level since March 2009.
Lower aluminum prices were the main cause driving the company’s shares down over the past months. In addition, the recent turmoil in stock markets is not helping matters. A combination of both caused Alcoa’s stock price to plunge in January.
Rising domestic premiums have helped Alcoa improve its margins. Since September, premiums in the U.S. rose from the lows of $0.06 per lb., mainly because of the production cutbacks announced by domestic producers in Q4 2015. However, we haven’t seen falling stockpiles and we’ll probably not see a major bounce-back in premiums. Indeed, over the past couple of months, MW premiums have stabilized at around $0.09 per pound.
There are a few factors preventing premiums from rising much more. First, some of the proposed cutbacks have been partially rolled back. Alcoa previously announced the closure of its Intalco smelter in Q1, but now the company will keep running until the end of Q2. Century Aluminum is running its Mount Holly smelter at half capacity despite its previous announcement of a complete shutdown.
In addition, domestic aluminum producers will find it hard to succeed in increasing their premiums while global sentiment remains negative. Despite the relative scarcity of material created by domestic producers, there is still a glut of material elsewhere in global markets. Finally, any significant increase in domestic premiums would attract more imports into the country, especially coming from China.
The main problem with the aluminum industry is that smelters in China keep running and refuse to cut production. The other problem is high inventories. Even though official London Metal Exchange inventories have been trending lower since mid-2013, unofficial stocks have actually increased. According to CRU, global aluminum inventory including unofficial stocks stands at around 15 million metric tons.
Moreover, China wants to keep stockpiling instead of cutting production. In January, top aluminum smelters in China agreed to form a joint venture to stockpile aluminum. These measures will only keep Chinese smelters producing more aluminum while material only goes into financial deals. However, the market knows what China is up to, and investors won’t buy aluminum until shutdowns happen. The stockpiling game will only keep prices low for longer, potentially making the problem even worse once that aluminum enters the supply chain.
For as long as China doesn’t change its approach, the best that aluminum producers can hope is for prices to stay at current levels.
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