nickel price

Numerous factors weigh heavily on the base metals and commodity complex: the Chinese copper scrap ban, the Section 232 proclamation on aluminum and steel combined with country-specific exemptions set to expire on May 1, the Section 301 investigation, and multiple strikes at copper and nickel mines to boot. After the turmoil of the first few months of 2018, MetalMiner reviews how base metals and commodities performed during Q1.

Aluminum, copper and nickel on the rise

Aluminum, copper and nickel prices started 2018 weaker than at the end of 2017. The end of 2017 showed a sharp rally for these base metals, following the bullish uptrend that began in the summer of 2017.

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The short-term downtrend sounded alarms as prices dropped significantly, not finding a floor. However, LME prices started to climb at the beginning of April, leaving the downtrend behind.

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LME nickel prices hit $13,200 per ton last Wednesday, the highest level since June 2015 before investors took profits and the price fell back a touch to $12,870 per metric ton.

Prices were led higher by the ShFE, where stock have fallen to 48,920 tons from over 90,000 tons just a year ago — and consumers are worried about a supply squeeze, Reuters reports.

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The Philippines’ ongoing environmental campaign has perpetuated the closure of four key nickel mines in the Zimbales region, according to Wilfredo Moncano, the director or the Philippine mines and geosciences bureau. Moncano said “no extraction, no new mining activities, what’s only allowed is hauling up ores for their stockpiles,” according to Reuters.

The supply squeeze story has been exacerbated by news that Sumitomo Corporation has suspended output from its mine in Madagascar following a cyclone.  Not surprisingly, investment funds are at increased net long positions on the NME and SHFE, with LME positions doubling from early November. LME nickel stocks are still substantial at 368,292 tons, but are down from levels above 470,000 tons in June 2015; however, they’re at double the levels seen in May 2013.

Although nickel prices have pulled back on profit-taking, many are still betting the price could move higher as the market is in deficit. Any supply-side disruption is seen as an opportunity to squeeze supply in the face of continued robust demand.

Nickel supply, however, has picked up.

Current short-term issues accepted, according to Fast Markets, Indonesia had awarded quotas for the export of over 20 million tons of nickel ore after its export ban was relaxed early last year. Only a small portion of this, however, has been shipped. The bulk of 2017 quotas are still to be exported.

The incentive for both miners and authorities is to resolve the current environmental stumbling blocks. Exports are expected to pick up. There should also be nickel pig iron smelters being established in Indonesia in 2018, creating more plentiful NPI availability in the market.

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Under the circumstances, the recent $13,200 price spike may, if not prove to be a peak, at least come to be in the upper range of what will remain a volatile market until supply concerns ease.

The electric vehicles (EVs) market could increase by 3,400% by 2030 compared to 2015 EVs sales, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

More powerful, reliable and cost-competitive batteries have driven EV growth. Lithium-ion batteries have effectively replaced lead batteries.

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MetalMiner analyzed the usage of base metals in EVs and their price performance this year. The EV boom has driven investor sentiment for these base metals.

Base Metals’ Role in EVs

The infographic below breaks down car parts by type of base metal. Aluminum, nickel, copper and tin serve as the four main base metal “winners” in which the market could expect demand to grow.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Business Insider data

Aluminum, Copper and Nickel

Of the exchange-traded metals, all three of these base metals commonly have high trading volumes. Copper, in particular, tends to have high trading volume as the market considers it an economic indicator (often referred to by the nickname “Dr. Copper”).

Both aluminum and copper appear in an uptrend, especially since the summer when prices started to rally.

Nickel prices have also seen high volatility due to electric battery demand. This makes sense — if investors consider a metal  “hot,” then volume and transactions may increase. Prices may change based on  this, as they did for nickel.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

And What About Tin?

Contrary to the other three base metals, tin prices do not look bullish.

Tin plays an important role in EVs, as it is used for electronic solder and batteries. However, tin prices appear both stagnant and weak.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

Tin’s price momentum has diverged from EV supply/demand fundamentals and the LME price.

EV batteries have evolved toward technologies that include more tin alloys. According to the International Tin Research Institute (ITRI), tin used for batteries increased by 95% in 2016 compared to 2010 data (14,400 tons). Tin mine output has increased in 2017 compared to last year’s data (18% in China, 26% in Indonesia and 7% in Myanmar).

However, the ITRI forecasts a 7,300-ton deficit in 2017. Tin stocks remain low, with only a slight increase in SHFE stocks.

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Current macro indicators support the bullish rally. However, tin prices still seem reluctant to react.

Have investors forgotten about tin?

Judging by the reception for aluminum, copper and nickel, perhaps 2018 will bring tin into the bull party.

Pavel Ignatov/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals news, raw steel production in the U.S. jumped last week, Century Aluminum was down 10.8% on Monday and nickel prices are aided by steel on Tuesday.

U.S. Raw Steel Production Up 9.7%

Raw steel production was up 9.7% year-over-year for the week ending Nov. 18, according to weekly data from the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI).

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Domestic raw steel production was 1,745,000 net tons while the capability utilization rate was 74.9%. Production for the week ending Nov. 18 was up 0.3% from the previous week, when production was 1,739,000 net tons and the rate of capability utilization was 74.6%.

Century Aluminum Has a Down Monday

Shares of Century Aluminum closed 10.8% lower on Monday, according to an AP report on Madison.com.

The question is, why?

“Market pundits aren’t entirely certain what to make of this development, noting that aluminum stocks may simply have been shifting away from expensive LME warehouses to cheaper warehouses and other countries,” the report states.

Nickel Prices Get a Boost

Steel-dependent nickel got a boost Tuesday, when prices in the Shanghai and London markets saw a jump, Reuters reported.

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The most-traded nickel contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange was up 1.3% at 94,710 yuan ($14,285) a ton by 0126 GMT, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, three-month LME nickel rose to $11,677 per ton.

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,” according to an article in Economic Calendar, 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, according to Economic Calendar. Read more

Last week, the Philippines’ mining industry “expressed its confidence that the Commission on Appointments (CA) will reject Gina Lopez as the Environment secretary,” according to Philstar.com, since she was unable to win the committee members over. Lopez is among “just a few of President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointees yet to be confirmed by lawmakers,” according to a Reuters article. 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, according to Reuters. 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. Read more

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.

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.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

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.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

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: