Nickel Fundamentals Come Back to the Fore

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Supply & Demand

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As my colleague Fouad Egbaria wrote last week, the U.S. administration’s relaxation of the timescale for implementation of sanctions against Rusal has had the effect of taking the panic out of the market. As a result, prices have fallen for several days, not just for aluminum but for other metals that the market feared could face the same threat — most notably nickel, in which Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska has an interest.

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But the vagaries of Washington policy aside, the underlying fundamentals for the nickel market remain firm.

Global Nickel Production and Usage Projected to Grow This Year

Reuters reports that according to the International Nickel Study Group, world stainless steel melting production rose by 5.8% last year, while projecting that global nickel production and usage is expected to rise to 2.344 million tons (MT) in 2018.

In terms of tonnage, world nickel production is expected to grow from 2.07 MT last year to 2.22 MT this year, while usage is expected to increase from 2.19 MT in 2017 to 2.34 MT in 2018.

As a perspective on fundamentals reasserts itself, the nickel price has recovered, rising back about $14,000 per ton. Demand has remained robust among stainless producers, with production forecast to rise 4% this year to over 52 million tons, while fears remain around supply.

Philippines Industry Aims to Navigate Government Land Regulations

The Philippines was top supplier to China last year, but the government of President Rodrigo Duterte is not letting up on its efforts to curb environmental damage from the extraction industry and threats remain of nickel mining being curtailed.

Nickel Asia, the Philippines’ top nickel ore producer and operator of the only two nickel smelters in the country, is quoted by Reuters as saying it intends to ship 20 million tons of ore this year — up 17% on last year.

But the government is limiting the amount of land miners can develop at any one time in a spur to rehabilitate old workings.

The limits are highly restrictive, amounting to only 100 hectares for mines producing 9 million tons or more, or 162 hectares if the project has a processing plant on site. The biggest of Nickel Asia’s mines covers 5,000 hectares and even the smallest covers 700, so it will be interesting to see if the firm manages the expansion in output it is projecting.

Indonesian Output on the Rise

Output in Indonesia is recovering following a lifting of the 2014 ban. The country has reasserted itself as the No. 1 supplier to China in the first half of this year.

The ban was lifted partly as the country looked to make up for the loss of revenue when exports collapsed and partly as firms invest in the downstream processing the ban was intended to force through.

Further increases in output, however, are limited, and investment in new reserves has been poor, while the nickel price was lower over recent years so the ability of the market to respond to predicted increases in demand from electric car and battery makers is in question.

The Outlook

We could see a growing divergence in nickel prices with standard nickel stainless melting grades remaining firm in the short to medium term, but battery Grade A, high-purity nickel premiums rising strongly if demand materializes as expected.

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Supplies of such high-purity nickel are limited, with only major producers like BHP Billiton, Norilsk Nickel, Vale and Sumitomo able to supply.

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