Global tungsten markets are returning to growth following several years of oversupply and low prices. Tungsten market fundamentals have changed as demand from defence, industrial, and oil and gas applications has picked up, just as environmental policies in China have curbed supply and added cost pressures for producers.
China is the largest producer of tungsten globally, accounting for over 80% of supply in 2017 for both primary tungsten concentrates and the key tungsten intermediate, ammonium paratungstate (APT).
Chinese APT prices have seen a sustained rise since late-2017, following new environmental policies and inspections, and higher consumption. In June 2018, market reports suggested that APT supplies had been restricted by the mothballing of some APT smelters in the key-producing province of Jiangxi, which have been closed to carry out work to comply with tailings storage and slag treatment requirements from the government. Since August 2016, APT smelting slags have been classified as hazardous waste and their handling and disposal is now supervised.
In early June 2018, APT prices reached an average of US$344-350/metric tonne unit (mtu), prices not seen since September 2014 when the Fanya Metal Exchange was still active. APT was traded on the exchange based in Kunming, Yunnan province, between April 2011 and April 2015 along with 13 other non-ferrous minor metals. Fanya is widely believed to have contributed to the last tungsten price spike in 2012-2014, as a result of APT purchasing that ultimately led to the accumulation of large stocks – and during which time tungsten prices largely detached from macroeconomic trends.
Since the exchange was frozen in mid-2016, there have been questions over how and when Fanya’s reported 30kt of APT stocks will be released to the market, however the case is yet to be brought before the courts.
While the stocks remain a source of concern, the threat of further environmental crackdowns is casting a bigger shadow of uncertainty over tungsten and other Chinese-produced commodities. In March 2018, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced that a second round of central environmental inspections would be carried out in all provinces within the next three years. Higher costs related to environmental compliance are, therefore, expected to prop up prices for Chinese tungsten products in the near-term.
At the downstream end of the tungsten supply chain, China also dominates world consumption, accounting for more than 55% of tungsten use in 2017. Other major consuming regions and countries are Europe, the USA, Japan and Russia. China has increasingly focused its tungsten industry on the production of value-added goods such as tungsten carbide and cemented carbide; in H1 2017, the country’s tungsten carbide output rose by more than 25% y-o-y.
Cemented carbide tool materials remain the largest market for tungsten and their fortunes continue to be tied to overall industrial activity. End-use applications for cemented carbides highlight the importance of the transport sector to the overall tungsten market, with automotive uses (passenger and commercial vehicles) alone accounting for close to 25% of the total in 2017. This sector faces a great deal of uncertainty in the period to 2027, with tooling rates for automotives likely to be impacted by higher penetration of electric vehicles (EVs), which contain fewer components and hence require less tooling. Steels and alloy applications represent the second-largest tungsten segment, followed by metal and mill products, and chemical and other applications.
There is a mixed outlook for tungsten in the next decade, with uncertainty around how rapidly the EV market could disrupt the automotive sector and how quickly tungsten-containing lightbulbs will be phased out in favour of more environmentally-friendly light emitting diode (LED) lamps. However, with several major mines set to reach their end of life during the outlook period, new mine supply will be required to ensure stable supply of primary material.