nickel price
steel

gui yong nian/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals news: the U.S. steel capacity utilization rate reached 71.5% last week; the Energy Information released its monthly energy review; and the nickel price continues to move upward.

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Steel capacity utilization rate hits 71.5%

The U.S. steel capacity utilization rate hit 71.5% for the week ended Nov. 21, the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) reported.

U.S. steel output for the week totaled 1.58 million net tons, up 0.1% from the previous week but down 13.2% year over year.

For the year through Nov. 21, U.S. output totaled 70.5 million net tons, down 18.6% year over year.

EIA releases monthly energy review

Aside from steel capacity utilization, the EIA released its Monthly Energy Review today, reporting total energy production of 64.46 quadrillion btu through the first eight months of the year.

Fossil fuel production totaled 50.93 quadrillion btu during the period. Meanwhile, nuclear energy production reached 5.57 quadrillion btu and renewable energy production totaled 7.96 quadrillion btu.

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steel imports

nattanan726/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals news: U.S. steel imports were down by 22.2% year over year through the first 10 months of 2020; German steelmaker Thyssenkrupp AG is seeking state aid; and the nickel price has bounced back in November after falling during the second half of October.

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U.S. steel imports down 22.2%

U.S. steel imports through the first 10 months of the year totaled 19.3 million net tons, down 22.2% year over year, the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) reported.

Steel import market share reached an estimated 17% in October, down from the year-to-date share of 18%.

By product, import permits for oil country goods in October rose 126% compared with the September final import total.

Thyssenkrupp looks to government for aid package

Bloomberg reports German steelmaker Thyssenkrupp is in talks with the German government over a potential aid package.

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nickel

leszekglasner/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals news: the nickel price has gained to start the week; Reliance Steel and Aluminum Co. recently released its Q3 results; and, finally, the U.S. imported $19 billion in energy goods from Mexico last year.

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Nickel price gains

The LME three-month nickel price gained over the first two sessions of the week.

Closing Tuesday at $15,384 per metric ton, the LME three-month nickel price gained $236 per metric ton over the previous 24 hours.

On a month-over-month basis, nickel is up 6.8%.

Reliance releases Q3 results

In its Q3 financial results, Reliance Steel and Aluminum posted pretax income of $127 million, up from $102 million in Q2 2020.

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There is a looming crisis in the nickel market.

Some would argue it’s a good problem to have. Demand is set to rise on the back of increasing uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles through this decade. More and more governments will mandate the production of electric vehicles (EVs) over internal combustion engine (ICE) autos. In parts of Europe, there will be outright bans on new ICE vehicles inside 10 years.

However, if nickel supply becomes constrained, consumers are going to pay the price.

Nickel market numbers

It should be said that today the problem barely registers as a price lever.

According to a recent McKinsey report, the stainless steel industry consumers 74% of nickel produced today, dwarfing the 5-8% going into batteries.

But the type of nickel required for battery production is what makes supply so sensitive in the future.

As the report explains, there are two types of nickel. Class 1 predominantly comes from the concentration, smelting and refining of sulfide ores. Meanwhile, Class 2 comes from ores, called saprolites and limonites, with higher iron and other (for batteries) levels of contaminants, such as copper.

So, whereas the stainless steel industry, to a large extent, can use a mix of Class 1 and Class 2, the battery industry draws its raw material from just Class 1, representing a more restricted 46% of the nickel supply market.

Worse, after the all the focus on the cobalt market — with its environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) concerns from countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo — major consumers like Tesla are keen to establish long-term supply arrangements with nickel producers in sustainable locations with more robust ESG standards.

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alumina refinery line

Norsk Hydro’s Alunorte alumina refinery. Source: Norsk Hydro

This morning in metals news: global alumina production rose 2.7% year over year in August; China’s industrial profits fell through the first eight months of the year; and nickel prices have taken a dive over the last month.

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Global alumina production rises in August

Global alumina production in August reached 11,366 metric tons, the International Aluminum Institute reported.

Production of the aluminum raw material was about flat with the previous month. However, August production rose 2.7% year over year, up from 11,079 metric tons in August 2019.

Meanwhile, China’s alumina production totaled 5,910 metric tons in August.

Chinese industrial profits down 4.4%

Although China has bounced back economically in many respects, its industrial profits fell 4.4% during the first eight months of the year, the National Bureau of Statistics of China reported.

As for metals sectors, profit from the ferrous metal smelting and processing industry decreased by 23.1%. Nonferrous metal smelting and processing industry profits fell 5.6%. Non-metallic mineral products industry profits decreased by 3.8%.

Nickel price falls

After rising consistently since late March, the nickel price took a step back in September.

The LME three-month nickel price closed Monday at $14,405 per metric ton, or down 5.52% compared with a month ago.

The price surged as high as $15,671 per metric ton as of Sept. 2, the high for 2020. As for the 2020 low, the LME three-month zinc price dipped as low as $11,142 per metric ton March 23.

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stainless steel

Maksym Yemelyanov/Adobe Stock

The Stainless Monthly Metals Index (MMI) increased by 4.4% for this month’s MMI value.

August 2020 Stainless MMI chart

Surcharges increase for a third month

While stainless demand continues to remain in line with U.S. flat-rolled producer supply, alloy surcharges are rising for the third month in a row.

Why? The surcharge increases are again due to an increase in the nickel price.

Over the past month, the LME nickel price increased over 6% to $14,433/mt as of Aug. 6.

Similarly, the Chinese nickel price increased to $16,515/mt (or CNY 113,850/mt).

Are rising surcharges causing concern? Make sure your base prices are held fixed. See how service centers negotiate with you.

Nickel price jumps over supply fears

The Mines and Geosciences Bureau reported that Philippines nickel exports declined by 28% year on year to 102,310 tons during the first half of the year.

The export decline made waves on the LME and SHFE, where the nickel price increased.

Top producers reassured the market that no further disruptions are anticipated for the remainder of the year, despite coronavirus cases having increased since the first half of the year.

Moreover, the largest exporter of high-grade nickel, SR Languyan Mining Corp, will likely deplete by the end of this year, according to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of the region. This would mean the Philippines may fail to keep up with their current exports to China, further supporting the nickel price.

Demand in China has remained high. Macquarie analyst Jim Lennon estimated Chinese mills produced 2.88 million tons of stainless steel in July, or a 4.8% year-over-year increase. High-nickel containing 300-series grades of stainless grew 17.5% year over year to 1.46 million tons in July (an all-time high).

However, Lennon still expects a nickel ore surplus of around 100,000 tons for 2020.

Some demand recovery in the U.S.

The Association For Manufacturing Technology (AMT) reported U.S. manufacturing technology orders in June increased to $346.7 million, 56% more than the previous month. June orders, however, increased just 6% from June 2019.

Orders from January to June totaled $1.69 billion in 2020, down 26% year over year.

According to the AMT, manufacturing technology encompasses metal cutting, forming and fabricating. One of the industries that saw the largest order increase was the automotive sector, which almost doubled orders from June 2019. Meanwhile, agricultural equipment manufacturers nearly quadrupled and manufacturers of HVAC and commercial refrigeration equipment more than tripled orders for manufacturing technology.

The AMT expected a similar amount of orders for the month of July as demand bounces back.

Actual metals prices and trends

The Allegheny Ludlum 316 stainless surcharge declined 1.6% month over month to $0.79/pound. The 304 surcharge rose 0.8% to $0.61/pound.

LME primary three-month nickel rose 7.5% to $13,806/mt.

Chinese 316 and 304 cold-rolled coil rose to $2,923.63/mt and $2,106.74/mt, respectively.

Chinese primary nickel rose 8.0% to $15,592.71/mt. Indian primary nickel rose 7.4% to $13.85/kilogram.

FeCr lumps increased 1.3% to $1,490.48/mt.

Make sure you are following the five best practices of sourcing stainless steel

leszekglasner/Adobe Stock

As much of the rest of the base metals were lifted this week, nickel remained subdued.

This comes despite an announcement by the Indonesian government that it would relax exports of many minerals but keep in place a ban on nickel ores.

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leszekglasner/Adobe Stock

Several apparently contradictory recent articles have reported the rise in nickel prices following supply disruptions to miners as a result of the spread of the coronavirus.

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Reuters reported that just a few weeks ago market surpluses were expected. In a recent poll of analysts, the median nickel market balance forecast for this year was a surplus of 89,000 tons, while Russian producer Norilsk Nickel last week came out with an even heftier surplus estimate of 149,000 tons.

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The Stainless Steel Monthly Metals Index (MMI) gave up five points this month, setting the value back to 70.

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LME nickel prices dropped slightly below the $13,000/mt price level in late January when industrial metals prices, generally speaking, declined as markets reacted to China’s coronavirus situation.

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We observed last month that the peak had passed in nickel prices and earlier suggestions from some quarters that nickel may hit $20,000 per ton were highly unlikely.

Any stainless consumers taking that on board and living hand to mouth will have seen surcharges come down and should have been able to trim stocks in line with falling input prices. Anyone who committed to bulk buys in Q3 will now be sitting on high-price stock as the nickel price — and with it stainless surcharges — continues to ease.

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MetalMiner’s Monthly Metal Buying Outlook offers more in-depth advice as to how to react to the nickel price falls and the current market (at least for those who are subscribers).

But the question on many buyers’ minds may be where is it all going from here?

It helps to better understand what has driven the price in recent months.

The LME nickel price has risen 54% since the start of the year, Reuters reported, driven in large part by a perceived supply shock in the form of an accelerated ban on the export of Indonesian nickel ore (a key raw material for Chinese pig iron and stainless-steel makers).

Further support for the nickel price has come in the form of a sustained outflow of refined nickel from LME warehouses, even since September inventory has continued to leave with live warrants down to just 42,000 tons from over 200,000 tons at the start of the year.

The supply-side picture sounds supportive; however, as we wrote last month, the problem is demand.

The market continues to worry about the trade war impacting Chinese manufacturing and, hence, demand, despite the Financial Times reporting this week that Chinese manufacturing expanded at the fastest pace in three years last month. The demand backdrop, though, is one of almost unending doom; reports of high stainless-steel inventory in China are not helping price sentiment.

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The risk remains to the downside, which is not what those holders of high-price stock would want to hear. However, for the time being, the nickel price seems to be following the rest of the metals sector: at best sideways and at worst toward further weakness.

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