nickel price

The ongoing turmoil over Donald Trump has increased investors’ worries over political stability in the U.S. In addition, investors worry that under these political turbulences, the Trump administration will struggle to implement pro-growth initiatives.

The dollar is one asset that was affected by the news, falling to a 6-month low. Investors have been selling dollars and buying euros as political risks rise in the U.S. and, following the French elections, fall in Europe.

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Usually, a falling dollar would give a boost to industrial metal prices, but that wasn’t the case here. Precious metals like gold did benefit from a falling dollar, but it didn’t prevent base metals from declining. This is because investors are now focused on what looks like a slow down in China.

Investors were disappointed when China’s Caixin Manufacturing PMI came at 50.3 in April, the lowest reading since September 2016. In addition, as Beijing talks about curbing credit, investors have come to realize that lower funding for the construction of infrastructure projects will hurt demand for industrial metals.

Just about two weeks ago we noticed that commodity markets were getting in trouble. As time goes on, that weakness is spreading out into industrial metals. Some specific metals are holding their value better than others due to their specific supply narrative, but overall we would expect them to move in tandem, as they always do. Here are some charts suggesting that the bull cycle in industrial metals could be ending:

Nickel falls to a 10-month low. Source: MetalMiner analysis of fastmarkets.com data

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Our Stainless MMI lost 3 points in March, essentially losing what it gained in February.

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Industrial metals continued their rally during the first quarter but nickel didn’t fare as well. Prices are still significantly higher than they were one year ago, but investors are now finding little reason to be any more bullish than bearish due to a complex supply narrative.

The Philippines

On March 13, The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to stop all mining in the country. Despite the potential for more closures, investors doubted that Duterte would enforce such strict regulations. Duterte still supports Department of the Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez. The Philippines’ mining industry hoped for the Commission on Appointments (CA) to reject Lopez as the Environment secretary in March.

However, lawmakers opted to postpone a decision to confirm or reject Lopez as the head of that department. Further confirmation hearings are expected to take place in May.

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Most base metals will finish the first quarter up, but nickel is one of those exceptions to the rule.

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The metal has traded up and down to finish the first quarter close to flat. Nickel prices are significantly higher than they were one year ago and traders are now finding little reason to be any more bullish than bearish due to a mix of news that helps both positions.

Nickel prices finish Q1 close to flat. Source: Fastmarkets.com.

Philippines Threatens to Stop All Mining

On March 13, The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to stop all mining in the country while reiterating his support for Department of the Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez. Philippine lawmakers recently opted to postpone a decision to confirm or reject the ardent environmentalist as the head of the department. Further confirmation hearings are expected to take place in May. The country’s miners hope Duterte won’t reappoint Lopez and instead find someone more moderate.

Indonesia to Restart Exports

Despite additional closures last month and the potential for more, nickel prices fell this month. It could be that traders doubt that Duterte will enforce such strict regulations, but it also has to do with fears that the resumption of exports from Indonesia will compensate for any supply shortfall in The Philippines.

It’s still uncertain how much nickel ore Indonesia may export. While the country has relaxed its ban, and now allows smelters to export surplus ore with less than 1.7% nickel, shipments have yet to restart.

Suspended Mines to Ship Out Stockpiled Nickel Ore

On Friday, Lopez allowed eight suspended nickel ore miners to ship out stockpiles of mined ore. Prices fell following the announcement. However, this doesn’t remove the long-term issues that the supply chain is facing due to closures of operations.

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Indeed, the government hasn’t really tonnes down its campaign. Allowing these mines to sell their inventory of nickel ore has the purpose of limiting the potential build up of silt in nearby waters.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Nickel is in need of new fundamental price drivers one way or the other. With all of this uncertainty, industrial buyers might want to wait for new clues before making purchasing decisions.

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Following two consecutive hearings last week, the Philippines’ mining industry expressed its confidence that the Commission on Appointments (CA) will reject Gina Lopez as the Environment secretary, emphasizing that she was unable to persuade the members of the committee. Lopez is among just a few of President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointees yet to be confirmed by lawmakers. Nickel prices fell 10% as bears believe there will be a rejection.

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Nickel’s bull market started when Duterte became president of the Philippines in June. Prices gained throughout the year as Lopez led an environmental crackdown on the Philippine mining industry.

Developments in the nickel industry. Source: Raul De Frutos/MetalMiner analysis of LME data.

The Philippines is the top nickel ore exporter and Lopez’s approval would probably sustain worries over supply disruptions that could lift global prices this year. On the other hand, a rejection would give miners a key win in the battle against environmentalists, adding pressure to nickel prices.

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President Duterte continues to throw support to Lopez, but at the same time he is hoping for a happy compromise between environmentalists and the mining industry, amid rising concerns over job and revenue losses.

Indonesia

Meanwhile, prices are also feeling downward pressure on reports that Indonesia’s partial lift of the export ban announced in January may result in higher volumes of ore hitting the market. Last week, Hong Kong-listed China Hanking Holdings announced its intention to restart a low-grade nickel mine it closed in 2014, in the wake of Indonesia’s export ban. The restart is at a relatively small scale, though. The exact shape of Indonesia’s new export regime is unclear.

Oil Prices Fall

Oil falls below $50 a barrel. Source: MetalMiner analysis of @stockcharts.com data.

Adding weakness to nickel prices is also the recent decline in oil prices. Prices last week fell 9% after after the Energy Information Administration said inventories of U.S. crude stocks climbed by 8.2 million barrels, far more than analysts expected, as refinery oil purchases declined. Weakness in oil prices is not only bearish for nickel but for the rest of industrial metals which for the most part also declined in price last week.

What This Means For Metal Buyers
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Our stainless MMI gained in February as nickel prices rebounded. Prices had fallen in December and January as Indonesia relaxed its ban on exports of nickel ore. But nickel bulls ran over the bears last month as the Philippines ordered more mine shutdowns. As we expected, the shutdowns in the Philippines are a great driver of prices.

Stainless MMI

On February 2, the Philippines ordered the closure of 21 mines, and seven others could be suspended. The nickel mines recently ordered to shut down account for about 50% of the country’s annual output. As a result, investors sent nickel back to $11,000 per metric ton by the end of February.

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Stainless buyers will need to monitor nickel’s supply. These two major producer nations’ actions will continue to move the gauge on price direction this year. Meanwhile, the demand side of the equation will likely limit any significant downside in nickel prices this year.

The Caixin Manufacturing PMI in China beat market expectations in February, rising to 51.7 from 51 in January. It marked the eighth straight month of growth, driven by faster rises in output and new orders. In addition, stock markets in China hit new highs, signaling that investors’ sentiment on China’s economy remains strong. This is usually a bullish sign for industrial metal prices, including nickel. This relationship has been really strong since China became the world’s top producer and consumer of commodities. In the U.S., the closely watched ISM manufacturing index hit 57.7 in February, marking the highest level since August 2014.

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Also in February, the Department of Commerce placed final, affirmative anti-dumping and countervailing duties on imports of stainless steel sheet and strip from China. Domestic flat-rolled mills are benefiting from these actions, with lead times of eight weeks.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Industrial metals continue to rise on robust demand and shrinking supply. The supply/demand fundamentals of the nickel industry look more complex than those of other base metals. However, higher import duties in stainless markets and the ongoing bullish sentiment on industrial metals will at least, prevent nickel prices from significant downside moves.

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A lighted underground tunnel in a nickel mine

Nickel prices increased early in February with hedge funds and speculators hurrying to close bets against the metal with the Philippines moving ahead with regulations on its mining industry.

According to a recent report from the Financial Times, nickel’s climb was directly attributed to the closure of 21 mines along with the suspension of another six pits, including the nation’s largest gold mine.

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The Philippines is the world’s most significant source of unprocessed nickel ore, along with being a major supplier to China, the news source stated. A renewed emphasis on environmentalism led to Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte appointing a like-minded resource minister to investigate the nation’s mining industry.

“My issue here is not about mining, my issue here is about social justice,” Regina Lopez, natural resources secretary, said during a recent briefing. “Why is mining more important than people’s lives?”

Nickel Price Outlook for 2017

Lopez pointed at the mine closures, which account for nearly half of the nation’s nickel output.

“We are very pleased to see the Philippines taking this action while allowing proper mining companies which adhere to better environmental practice to continue,” analysts at SP Angel told the Financial Times, adding the whole nickel supply chain was an “environmental disaster”.

“The huge growth of ore exports into China for the production of nickel pig iron disrupted the nickel industry in recent years while causing massive environmental disruption in the mining areas and at the nickel pig-iron furnaces.”

How will nickel and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth copper price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds:

 

A Washington, D.C. federal judge refused Monday to halt construction and drilling on the recently approved, eight-mile final stage of the Dakota Access pipeline, rejecting the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s plea for a temporary restraining order to ostensibly protect a religiously and culturally significant lake.

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A similar challenge was rejected by another federal judge last year.

Philippines Environment Czar Cancels 75 Mining Contracts

The Philippines’  Environment Ministry, under the direction of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez, on Tuesday ordered the cancellation of 75 mining contracts, stepping up a campaign to stop extraction of resources in sensitive areas after earlier shutting more than half of the country’s operating mines, Reuters reported. The contracts are all in watershed zones, with many in the exploration stage.

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They cover projects not yet in production and the latest action by Lopez suggests she will not allow them to be developed further. The move turns up the heat in her battle with the mining sector after she ordered the closure of 23 of the country’s 41 mines earlier this month on environmental grounds.

Nickel was said to be in a supply deficit last year of 209,000 metric tons, according to Bloomberg, and is projected to remain in deficit this year to the tune of 188,000 mt.

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The Philippines has just ordered the closure of 21 mines and the suspension of another six. The island chain is a source of around half of the country’s nickel output. After Indonesia’s 2014 export ban, the Philippines became the world’s largest exporter of nickel ore and the primary supplier to China’s massive nickel-pig iron industry, raw material for the alloying of stainless steel.

Stagnant Prices

Yet, while there has been an uptick in prices, nickel’s performance can hardly be said to have been stellar. Since the middle of the summer the London Metal Exchange‘s LMEX index of six key base metals is up almost 18% yet nickel has risen by only 1.2%.

Deficit or not, the market does not seem to be in short supply yet. Between Indonesia and the Philippines the two countries produced about 700,000 metric tons of nickel a year in 2014 and 2015, with about 170,000 mt of that coming from Indonesia due to the export ban.

Chinese buyers simply switched to the Philippines as supplies dried up from Indonesia and drew down on extensive stocks they had amassed in advance of the export ban. Just as the Philippines’ new firebrand environment and natural resources secretary, Regina Lopez, moved to close environmentally damaging open pit mines, Indonesia is increasing exports again. Investors have their eye on a probable surplus towards the end of the decade as both countries return to some level of consistent supply. This graph illustrates the rise of the Philippines and since the export ban the relative decline of Indonesian shipments.

Nickel production

Nickel from major producers in the last nine years. Source: U.S. Geological Survey.

Of course, it’s not clear at this stage how quickly mining companies will be able to implement stricter environmental conditions that are likely to be applied by the new administration of Philippines President Roderigo Duterte, but it would seem that the action is not unjustified with comments in the Financial Times describing the Philippines’ nickel supply chain as an environmental disaster. Read more

On Thursday, the Philippines ordered the closure of 21 mines, and seven others could be suspended. The country previously suspended nickel mines last year. The nickel mines recently ordered to shut down account for about 50% of the country’s annual output.

Nickel Prices Rebound

Nickel Rebounds on news of the Philippines’ shutdowns. Source: MetalMiner analysis of fastmarkets.com data.

Nickel rose sharply on the news. Over the last few weeks, nickel prices were struggling to make headway as investors feared that the easing of the Indonesian export ban would bring more ore supply into global markets.

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Now we have two factors, Indonesia’s easing of its export ban and the Philippines’ shutdowns, that could drive prices in opposite directions. However, as we explained recently, the mining shutdowns in the Philippines are likely to be a greater driver of prices.

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nickel-ore-mine

mulderphoto / Adobe Stock

It’s been all quiet on the nickel front recently as the metal is essentially even as the Chinese Lunar New Year Holiday approaches.

According to a recent report from the Economic Calendar, nickel prices ended Tuesday slightly higher due to a lower U.S. dollar, which offset the slight decline nickel saw on Monday this week.

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Wrote Leia Toovey for Economic Calendar: “Chinese businesses and markets will close on Jan. 27 and factories will remain closed for at least a week. With business activity at a standstill, demand for base metals from its top consumer will remain muted while there will also be fewer speculators placing their bets. With Chinese buyers absent, nickel is likely to garner the majority of its price momentum from the US dollar.”

Nickel Miners to Boost Exports?

Our own Stuart Burns recently wrote that Indonesian nickel miners might soon be allowed to export up to 5.2 million tons fo low-grade nickel ore a year. Burns wrote:

“The intent seems now to be to allow nickel miners to export providing they dedicate at least 30% of their smelter capacity to processing low-grade ore, defined as below 1.7% nickel. They can then export any excess capacity they have. That said, this move means that up to 70% of Indonesia’s nickel production capacity could potentially be put on the market, which would be equivalent to around 14% of global capacity.”

How will nickel and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth copper price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds: