Southern Africa hosts about 90% of the world’s chromite reserves and resources and accounts for approximately 55% of global chrome ore production. Chrome ore is generally mined as a primary product although, in South Africa, around a quarter of chrome ore output now derives from the tailings of PGM operations. Five countries currently produce more than 1Mtpy of chrome ore. In addition to South Africa, these are Kazakhstan, India, Turkey, and Finland.
Over 90% of chromite consumption is attributable to metallurgical applications. Stainless steel alone represents more than two-thirds of consumption; alloy steels and superalloys are the other main metallurgical applications. Chemicals represent a small share of consumption (around 5%), with foundries (2%) and refractories (1%) accounting for the remainder. Trends in stainless steel production are, therefore, the main determinant of levels of both chrome ore and ferrochrome demand. Some 80% of ferrochrome is consumed in the production of stainless steel, where it imparts corrosion and oxidation resistance, and enhances hardenability, creep and impact resistance.
On both the demand- and supply-sides of the market, trends in China will be important for the sector over the coming decades. The trend growth rate for China’s production and consumption of stainless steel has slowed somewhat, but remains markedly higher than growth rates for overall crude steel. The country’s stainless steel scrap ratio will most likely rise considerably over the coming decades, eventually reaching the 40-60% range seen in the other main stainless-producing regions of the world. Increases in this scrap ratio are likely to have an adverse effect on the growth of primary raw material demand.
With respect to supply, key uncertainties relate to what will happen to Chinese domestic ferrochrome output versus the country’s considerable imports of ferrochrome. China lacks domestic chrome ore production but has built up a very large ferrochrome production capacity in recent years. In South Africa, will chrome ore exports continue to increase whilst ferrochrome output remains stagnant, primarily due to the price and availability of electricity? The other two major ferrochrome-producing countries, Kazakhstan and India, have increased output in recent years, will this continue?
The past two years have seen numerous price swings in the chrome ore and ferrochrome markets. Prices for chrome ore roughly quadrupled over the course of 2016, remaining extremely high in early 2017 before falling substantially in Q2 and bottoming out in Q3. Prices have recovered slightly as of early 2018, but remain at approximately half the level they were at in early 2017. Ferrochrome prices have largely moved up and down with ore prices, though the changes both up and down have been lower. Of the four major ferrochrome producing countries, only China purchases most of its ore from non-captive sources, but this establishes the close link between the movement of chrome ore and ferrochrome prices which now seems to apply worldwide.