Owing to a slowdown in demand growth and an extended stainless steel destocking cycle, nickel prices hit multi-year lows in 2016. Prices started to recover in 2017 and improved further over the course of 2018, averaging over $13,600/t in the first nine months of the year. However, nickel prices are still relatively low by historical standards: on average, every year between 2004 and 2014, the LME nickel cash price was above the 2018 year-to-date average price.
Demand for nickel rose strongly in 2017, due mainly to increased consumption by the stainless steel industry. China continued to account for the greatest share of primary nickel consumption: the country accounted for around 53% of global consumption in 2017, while the stainless steel sector continued to account for the greatest share of total primary nickel consumption, at around 69%. It is not only that the stainless steel industry is large compared to the other users of primary nickel – where this stainless steel is produced also has a major impact on demand for primary nickel.
China represents over half of global primary nickel consumption, but it also accounts for over half of global stainless steel production. Although the country produces a high proportion of low-nickel content 200- and CrMn stainless steels, China’s stainless steel industry is heavily reliant on primary nickel units for the stainless steel that it does produce, thus leading to an elevated requirement for primary nickel, typically in the form of Nickel Pig Iron (NPI). Other countries, on the other hand, rely to a far greater extent on scrap, thus limiting the requirement for primary nickel.
Elsewhere in Asia, 2017 saw the emergence of Indonesia as a new producer of stainless steel. The stainless mill that was commissioned in mid-2017 is owned by a Chinese company and was designed and built from the outset to exploit locally-available nickel ores that are converted into NPI on-site. The Indonesian mill (which will ultimately have a design capacity of 3M tpy of stainless steel) will, therefore, also be a major consumer of primary nickel.
On the demand side, the push for automotive electrification is set to provide a dramatic upside to nickel. Nickel, used in the cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries, is being consumed in increasingly large quantities. Its outlook is supported not only by the rapid volume growth of the electric vehicle market, but also owing to the increased intensity of use of nickel, as part of efforts to improve the energy density of batteries and extend driving range. Over the outlook period, Roskill forecasts that nickel use in batteries will grow from around 3–4% of nickel demand, to account for as much as 15–20% of the market.
Nickel sulphate is the key raw material for the nickel in lithium-ion batteries and producing this will require an increase in the supply of class I material. However, most of the growth in output in recent years has been in the form of NPI for the Chinese (and now also for the Indonesian) stainless steel industry. One of the key issues for the nickel industry going forward will be how to supply the material that the battery industry will require.
Owing to these various changes, the nickel market is going through a period of introspection and restructuring. Major producers are likely to review their operations, looking to consolidate costs, or realign their operations to different markets. Roskill’s new report provides a comprehensive insight into the trends and likely future direction of the market, to help market participants navigate nickel’s stormy waters.
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