Global aluminum market in surplus, paced by rising Chinese production

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aluminum ingot stacked for export
Olegs/Adobe Stock

As the World Bureau of Metal Statistics (WBMS) will tell you, the global aluminum market reached a surplus of 1,603 kt in the January to September 2020 period.

That tripled the surplus of 480 kt recorded for the whole of 2019.

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Global aluminum market sees rising production

Production continued to rise in China. In addition, production made a strong comeback in North America, where it rose 4.3% year over year, according to Capital Economics, largely due to the recovery of Alcoa’s Becancour smelter in Canada.

Chinese output grew 3.8% to nearly 31 million tons in the January to October period. Even so, demand still outstripped supply. The country imported some 766 kt of primary metal, according to Reuters.

Despite Chinese demand — or maybe because of it — an estimated 3.2-million-ton global surplus will build this year, according to CRU estimates. Some 2.9 million tons of that tonnage will occur outside of China.

Aluminum stocks and demand

Yet if ever there was an example of how exchange stocks are no indication of demand, LME inventory levels actually fell this year (down by 53 kt so far).

Surplus production has a way of disappearing off the radar in the aluminum market. The stock and finance trade soaks up excess production and profitably stores it away on the back of a strong LME forward price curve.

The portion that is visible via the LME’s off-warrant reporting structure doubled from 730 kt in February to 1.56 million tons by September. That figured has continued to climb since.

Our previous “maybe because of it” line is because Chinese demand has driven the market this year.

Investors on the SHFE are driving up prices to unprecedented premiums over the LME. As such, it is fueling not just those strong imports but the repositioning of 100,000 tons of metal out to conveniently positioned LME warehouses in Southeast Asia. In short, it’s making metal just a short boat ride from the booming Chinese market.

Output is down in the Middle East and Europe. In addition, North American production has achieved all the catch-up it is likely to make.

As such, further growth in supply will have to come from China.

Not that the world needs more aluminum.

But with the finance trade so readily absorbing excess production, prices are likely to stay elevated at current levels into next year.

It would take a flattening of the positive forward curve on the LME or a severe shock to Chinese consumption to upset aluminum’s joy ride.

Neither of those outcomes appears likely anytime soon.

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