Prices for cobalt hit their highest level in ten years in 2018, reaching over US$40/lb in April. A tight market, set against a bullish outlook for demand for cobalt in lithium-ion batteries, and concerns over long-term access to cobalt supply, helped prices reach dizzying heights. These longer-term narratives and countless other factors such as instability in the DRC, substantial physical stockpiling, and the public moves of major consumers looking to secure future cobalt supply, all helped to elevate prices in a trader-dominated market.
In Q2 2018, prices began a period of decline. High demand and tight supply meant that producers were receiving very high payables. High prices and payables led to a significant supply response from producers in the DRC, including artisanal miners. This, inevitably, pushed the market into oversupply and large stocks of cobalt hydroxide were built up.
Oversupply of intermediates, thereafter, contributed to a subsequent fall in prices in H2 2018 and Q1 2019. With the cobalt chemicals market sufficiently supplied, refined producers in China took advantage of market conditions and produced additional cobalt metal in order to bring in revenue before year end.
Though prices have fallen back, and market sentiment is depressed, Roskill forecast significant cobalt demand growth over the next decade, with the market expected to roughly double in size. Cobalt is used in a wide range of applications including batteries, nickel alloys, tool materials, catalysts and magnets. With demand across most major end-use applications set to increase, and with demand from the battery sector expected to enjoy double-digit growth over the coming decade, the market is gearing itself up for a sustained period of unprecedented consumption growth.
This will require huge volumes of new mine, intermediate, and refined capacity. While the major refined producers in China all have aggressive expansion plans, Roskill considers that the recent rate of capacity expansion will need to increase if supply is to meet demand through the next decade. Crucially, this refined capacity will need feedstock, and while there should be sufficient supply over the medium term if major producers and advanced projects ramp up operations as expected, the longer-term outlook is uncertain. Roskill believes that a combination of expansions, re-starts, recycling, and new projects will be required if supply is to meet demand.