After gaining sharply in June and July, our Stainless MMI retraced last month. Nickel’s rally cooled down in August after a pick up in Indonesian ferronickel supply rekindled previous fears of a global supply shortage.
Philippines Supply Declines
In June and July, nickel rallied as the Philippines reviewed all existing mines in order to close those that had adverse impacts on the environment.
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At least eight nickel mines have been shut down so far this year, cutting around 10% of the country’s capacity.
The Philippines is by far the largest nickel ore supplier to China since Indonesia imposed an export ban for unprocessed material back in 2014. Recent numbers are already showing this decline in production. For the first seven months, China imported 13.84 million metric tons from the Philippines, down 27% from the same period last year.
The current disruptions in the Philippines have no doubt tightened the market for nickel ore triggering a price rally this year. However, in August investors questioned whether this shortage in China’s nickel-pig iron industry will actually translate into a shortage of nickel in the global market.
Indonesian Refined Nickel Supply Picks Up
While supply of nickel ore to China is declining due to current disruptions in the Philippines, supply of refined nickel to China is rising as Indonesia ramps up production.
China’s imports of ferronickel from Indonesia came at a five-times higher-rate than the amount taken in the same month a year earlier. For the first seven months, China’s imports of ferronickel from Indonesia surged more than four-fold to 390,700 mt. Comparing apples to apples, the nickel content of the year to date of ferronickel exports equals about 4 million mt of nickel, slightly less than the 4.13 mmt loss in the Philippines so far this year.
For this reason, we hear some analysts saying that China isn’t importing less nickel, it is just changing the form in which it imports the metal. And, as prices retrace, it’s no wonder that this reminds us to what happened just two years ago when nickel prices soared to then fall precipitously.
Is This Time Different?
Back 2014, nickel prices surged as Indonesia prohibited ore exports. However, prices sold-off later on as miners in the Philippines moved into the trade. This time, it’s the other way around. Environmental restrictions are shrinking supply in the Philippines while Indonesia is making up for that loss.
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While prices fell in August, we need to be reminded that prices don’t move in a straight line and that, so far, the decline seems like normal after nickel gained over 30% in June and July. Also, there are two other factors that make us think that the decline won’t be as severe as back in 2014:
- Back in 2014, nickel prices rose independently while the rest of the industrial metal complex was falling. This time, it’s not only nickel but we also see many industrial metals rising. The bullish sentiment on base metals this year should help limit nickel’s fall.
- It’s barely been a month since the Philippines started to shut down mines and volumes may be squeezed further after the shutdowns accounting for about 15% of output. Recently, the Philippines’ mining minister said that there will absolutely be more suspensions following the eight already suspended.
For these reasons, we wouldn’t turn bearish on nickel just yet…