The nickel market has gone through a volatile, unsteady period in recent years. After the rapid increase in output of nickel pig iron in China from the mid-2000s, restrictions on the export of nickel ores and concentrates from Indonesia and environmental action in Indonesia constrained the availability of feedstock to Chinese nickel smelters. However, new smelting capacity is under development in Indonesia to process material locally, with the first plants now ramping up.
Despite these disruptions, overcapacity has continued to haunt nickel prices. Owing to a slowdown in demand growth and an extended stainless steel destocking cycle, nickel prices hit multi-year lows in 2016, and remained weak in the first half of 2017. As prices fell well below the operating cost of a majority of producers, persistent weakness has triggered a swift supply response. A string of announcements from major nickel producers on cutbacks and plant closures has reduced the effective operating capacity.
The outlook for stainless steel, however, remains stronger than these market trends indicate and, indeed, the market has already shown signs of improved performance, contributing to some recovery in prices. Much, however, will depend on further legislative action and enforcement in the Philippines and Indonesia, as news regarding further restrictions on export licenses or mine output will have a direct impact on market prices.
On the demand side, the push for automotive electrification has the potential to provide a dramatic upside to nickel. Nickel, used in the cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries is 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.
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. This report provides a comprehensive insight into the trends and likely future direction of the market, to help market participants navigate nickel’s stormy waters.