The Stainless Steel Monthly Metals Index (MMI) held steady this month at 71.
LME nickel prices mostly ended up moving sideways as March progressed after hitting a six-month high early in the month, with the price peaking at $13,750/mt during trading.
SHFE nickel prices climbed back up to higher levels as well during the first quarter of 2019, currently at a higher year-on-year price as of April.
SHFE nickel prices showed strength on the back of the strong performance of the Caixin China General Manufacturing PMI, which hit 50.8 this March (its highest level since July 2018). The March PMI surpassed expectations and was up from 49.9 the previous month. The increase seems to come from Chinese state stimulus measures now impacting the economy, according to press reports. Additionally, other sources cite recovered export demand as the impetus behind the upbeat PMI reading.
The availability of cheaper pig nickel iron — an innovation created in China, which uses laterite nickel ores instead of pure nickel — helps mitigate nickel price increases by serving as an alternative to standard nickel as an input in stainless steel production.
In order to produce pig nickel iron, raw material, in the form of nickel laterite ore, generally must be sourced from outside of China, with Indonesia and the Philippines accounting for most nickel laterite ore production globally.
The mining of nickel laterite ore reserves out of Indonesia increased quite a bit as a result, with several notable Chinese joint ventures in operation or planning operations within Indonesia.
Recently, China’s Tsingshan Group, for example, partnered with GEM Co Ltd for the buildout of additional nickel-related production facilities in Sulawesi, a nickel mining hub in Indonesia. The recent project, which just broke ground in January, aims to develop nickel sulphate for export, slated for use in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).
An earlier 2017 joint venture between Tsingshan and ERAMET formed around the nickel deposit at Weda Bay — said to house 9.3 million tons of nickel — focuses on nickel ferroalloy production.
Domestic Stainless Steel Market
This month, the 304/304L-Coil and 316/316L-Coil NAS surcharges remained the same as last month. Surcharges sit at higher levels than in the recent past, but are still down somewhat from the recent high point in July 2018.
What This Means for Industrial Buyers
Stainless steel prices stayed flat this month overall, with some declining prices reported among Chinese and Korean basket prices.
The Allegheny Ludlum 316 and 304 stainless surcharges did not move this month, while nickel prices in the basket showed mixed movement. LME nickel prices moved up slightly.
Therefore, with prices essentially flat but somewhat high, industrial buyers may want to watch the market carefully in the coming weeks and adjust course as needed in case weaker Chinese prices offset typical seasonal price increases as we move into peak construction season.
Actual Stainless Steel Prices and Trends
This month, only a few of the prices in the stainless basket increased.
In particular, China FeCr (or Ferro Chrome) lumps increased in price by 6.2%, bucking the trend among the other Chinese prices in the basket, which otherwise declined.
Of the Chinese prices that decreased, 304 stainless coil dropped the most (by 3.5%), while the other price decreases were smaller, ranging from 0.3% to 1.2%. The Korean prices for 430 stainless steel coil and 304 stainless coil decreased as well (by less than 1%).
LME nickel and Indian primary nickel both increased in price by 0.8%.
The Allegheny Ludlum 316 and 304 stainless surcharges held flat this month.