Nickel prices saw little upside in the first half of 2019, but this changed in the third quarter of the year as the Indonesian government surprised the market by bringing forward its export ban on unprocessed ores from January 2022, as originally scheduled, to January 2020. Rumours and reports that such a move was being contemplated first emerged in early August, which caused the price to begin its rally. The LME nickel cash price averaged US$13,459/t in July but reached an average of US$17,668/t in September following confirmation form the Indonesian government that the ban had been brought forward. While prices fell back in Q4 but remained elevated compared to recent annual averages. The 2019 annual average price was the highest since 2014.
Fears that the market could face shortages of supply caused a sharp drawdown of exchange stocks. LME stocks, which had stood at 152.7kt at the end of September, tumbled to 64.5kt by December. Given the size of the stock drawdown, Roskill believes it unlikely that this material was withdrawn from LME warehouses for consumption, but that instead it is mostly being held off-warrant on financing.
Indonesia’s decision to bring forward its ban on exports of low-grade (up to 1.7%) unprocessed ores to 2020 will affect the market considerably. In particular, it will impact Chinese nickel pig iron (NPI) production, since Chinese producers are heavily reliant on Indonesian ores (as well as ores from the Philippines) to feed their furnaces. Roskill forecasts a decline in NPI production in 2020 as Chinese NPI producers draw down their own ore stocks and those at Chinese ports. In 2021, production will come under further pressure as the Chinese NPI industry will no longer have stocks to draw down. Production is, therefore, likely to be similar to the levels achieved the last time Indonesia imposed a total ban on ore exports.
The market has also seen important demand-side changes. Demand only increased by around 4% in 2019, significantly lower than in the previous three years (when demand grew by an average of 7% per year). This is largely because of a slowdown in demand growth from the stainless steel sector in 2019. While Chinese growth remains strong, ROW demand is decreasing. Furthermore, primary nickel demand from the battery sector grew more slowly in 2019 than in 2018 due mainly to lower electric vehicles sales growth following the Chinese government’s withdrawal of EV subsidies.
Nonetheless, 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 or of intermediate products such as MHP. 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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