Stainless Down, But Forecasts for Nickel Prices Looking Better

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The nickel market — and the stainless market on which it relies for much of the demand — is having a challenging year.

According to ISSF numbers quoted in HSBC’s quarterly report, the world’s stainless production (the largest first use of nickel) fell in the first quarter of 2012 by 2.8 percent, year on year. More surprising is the distribution of that reduction, a 22 percent decline in the Americas and a 15 percent drop in Europe.

That trend will not have reversed in the second and third quarters as Europe slips further into recession. Based on data from the Chinese research organization Antaike, reported by Bloomberg, for the first four months of 2012, China’s stainless production increased by a modest 3 percent y-o-y  compared to 25-percent growth a year ago.

HSBC advised that most recent reports suggest that Chinese and Taiwanese mills were looking to cut stainless production in June by as much as 50 percent; subsequent reports support that, with Steel Business Briefing advising that Taiwan’s Tang Eng Iron Works halved production last month.

In the face of such weak demand, the bank has trimmed its 2012 stainless steel output forecast to a 2 percent y-o-y reduction in the world ex-China (from 3 percent growth previously) and reduced their expectation of China’s growth to 3 percent from 10 percent.

The only flip side for nickel is lower nickel prices should encourage an increase in production of nickel-intensive austenitic stainless steel grades, and supporting consumption of nickel.

Drawing on data from Antaike again, the bank calculates that the ratio of austenitic steel out of total stainless steel output in China was 81 percent in April 2012, up from 76 percent in December 2011, continuing a trend we have seen as nickel prices have fallen and reversing the move to nickel-free grades as nickel prices skyrocketed in the last decade.

As if to underline the weakness of demand, even Indonesia’s “ban” on unrefined nickel ore exports in May (with a 20% export tax imposed on any material exported in the unrefined condition) has not moved the market, even though volumes have dropped by 80 percent, according to Reuters.

The country was the world’s top nickel ore producer in 2011 in front of Russia, producing an equivalent 294,000 tons of nickel, according to the International Nickel Study Group. Shipments went mainly to China, Japan and the United States, but China — which had stockpiled ahead of the tax change — has switched some supply to the Philippines.

While global stainless production has been slightly lower this year than last, and generally the global economic situation is facing considerable challenges — with the European debt crisis/widening recession, slowing growth in the US/China, and mills cutting capacity in the face of high inventories — HSBC still sees global stainless production rising next year, along with a modest rise in China counterbalancing further softening in the West.

As a result, nickel prices, in the bank’s view, do not have much further to fall. Supported by slowing mine expansions and a rising cost curve, HSBC expects nickel prices to be supported in 2013 and beyond, rising back above $20,000 per ton by 2014.

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