Nickel Can’t Seem to Shake Off its Surplus, Yet Norilsk Nickel Remains Optimistic

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Nickel has perplexed and confounded investors for the last year or more.

Prices had been expected to rise on the back of an anticipated shortfall in ore supply, only for the expect opposite to happen. Yet Norilsk Nickel, in its latest 2015 Strategy update, reported in a Platts blog that China’s inventories of nickel ore are down significantly, with only around two months of consumption left.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

Norilsk also believes China’s dependence on imported refined nickel is set to rise. It estimates that total nickel demand in China in 2015 will be made up of 42% imported refined nickel, 47% imported feed, and around 11% of domestic feed.

Imports Rising

In 2014, by comparison, total nickel demand in China consisted of 28% imported refined nickel, 61% imported feed, and 11% domestic feed. In its 2014 full-year results, the company forecast a 20,000 metric ton global deficit this year down from a 93,000 mt surplus in 2014. While a number of analysts are also forecasting a revised deficit between 20,000-45,000 mt this year, you have to say previous predictions have failed to materialize so why would this time be any different?

Maybe the issue here is that Norilisk is a producer and they are going to be bullish by nature, and indeed not all agree with Norilisk’s estimate of the current situation. The World Bureau of Metal Statistics reported just this week that the nickel market was in surplus From January to March 2015 with production exceeding apparent demand by 32.9 kilotons, less of a surplus than was running in 2014 but still significant.

Nor did they see it trailing off, in March nickel smelter/refinery production was 147.8 kt and consumption was 137.1 kt suggesting the surplus is continuing and may run through Q2.

The long-awaited dearth of ore supply resulting from the Indonesian export ban last year has failed to materialize. Chinese buyers have switched to a blend of Indonesian and Filipino ores for making nickel pig iron and an increase in refined nickel imports to meet demand.

Demand: Still Down

Demand is down, anyway. The Chinese economy is growing more slowly and stainless production (the source of two-thirds of nickel demand) is, at best, lackluster. In addition we are now coming towards the quieter summer period when demand falls and so it is unlikely the demand side is going to force a change in the downward trend in prices. Demand has stabilized in Europe after previous years’ weakness, but distributors are said to be well stocked and a restocking cycle is unlikely when most are anticipating further weakness in the nickel price.

As prices have fallen, stocks have risen, most obviously on the London Metal Exchange. Part of this rise can be attributed to finance stocks moving out of China and into supposedly safer LME Asian warehouses, but even so some 446,000 mt of LME stocks are going to take some working through and those speculators that have headed for the exits are not likely to pile back in again until they see a sustained downward trend in stocks.

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