Aluminum Market is in Balance – For Now

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Various sources are reporting both a slowing in demand growth and a fall in output for primary aluminum. So far this year, that combination has been led by a faster fall in output, pushing the market into a larger deficit position as the first half progressed.

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Reuters reported the results of a poll showing a forecast for a global aluminum deficit of 550,000 metric tons this year — down from an earlier estimate of 868,240 tons — as demand growth has recently slowed.

Inventory levels support estimates of a deficit.

Primary inventories in warehouses tracked by the Shanghai Futures Exchange (ShFE) are hovering at their lowest since April 2017, according to Reuters. LME stockpiles have improved recently, but are still down 22% from the beginning of the year.

Not surprisingly, futures markets in China are showing more resilience to a generally depressed commodities sector. The ShFE’s most-traded aluminum contract is at its highest since May 29, hitting 14,285 yuan ($2,022.02) a ton last week before easing to close at 14,200 yuan a ton.

The LME, on the other hand, has continued to drift lower over the last two weeks after failing to hold above $1,800 a ton in July.

The disparity in outlook is down to the domestic production situation in China.

New smelter startups have been delayed as Beijing is taking a hard line with aluminum producers, forcing those keen to open up new capacity to close corresponding capacity at older, less efficient plants. Summer production has at best been flat and first-half production is marginally down from last year’s level.

Investors have been encouraged as Typhoon Lekima stormed over Shandong province, causing widespread flooding. Although there are no reports yet of aluminum outages as a result of the typhoon, the expectation is some smelters will suffer flooding and/or power failures, resulting in lost production.

Consumption, however, is softening, both in China and the rest of the world.

Weaker automotive production is a significant factor, as trade worries are causing just that — worries — rather than a significant downturn in non-automotive consumption so far. Expectations are for a pickup in Chinese domestic primary production this fall as the impact of the flooding wanes and those delayed startups come onstream.

Meanwhile, consumption is expected to soften further in Europe and Japan as both areas flirt with stagnation at best or, possibly, outright recession (being the only remaining mature markets open to China after tariffs essentially shut off the U.S. market).

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The prospects this year for a rise in aluminum prices remain poor. However, if demand holds up and supply continues to be constrained, it could set the scene for a gradual rise next year, particularly if a resolution to the trade war is miraculously agreed.

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