, April 21, 2017
In recent months, news stories on nickel have been dominated by concerns over supply of nickel ores and concentrates from the Philippines and Indonesia. In the Philippines, an environmental crackdown led to the closure of 23 mines and the suspension of a further eight, which together account for an estimated 49% of nickel production in the country in 2016. While miners have launched legal action challenging the decisions, the closure is potentially significant to Chinese NPI miners that depend on imported ore.
In Indonesia, following the country's 2014 ban on the export of unprocessed mineral ores and concentrates, the government announced in January that it would ease restrictions. The ban had been intended to promote the development of domestic smelting capacity. While initially appearing successful, amidst a flurry of announced projects, the collapse in nickel prices led to a rethink. Although some notable projects (such as one backed by Tsingshan of China) have successfully been completed, many more have been delayed, dampening hopes of a potential new source of state revenue. With the lifting of the ban, smelters will be permitted to export surplus low-grade ores, of a grade below 1.7% Ni. In March, PT Antam, the country's largest nickel miner, received initial permission to export 2.7Mt over the coming year, containing up to 46kt Ni.
As these supply shocks have worked in opposite directions, one increasing supply concerns and the other alleviating them, the impact on prices has been relatively subdued. Despite week-to-week volatility, prices have fluctuated within the US$9,000-11,000/t range since the middle of 2016. While this is a significant range, compared with the 50% drop in prices from 2014 the recent price swings represent comparative stability.
Much neglected in recent news stories has been a critical analysis of demand. With over two-thirds of nickel used in stainless steel, this sector typically receives most attention. Following a lacklustre year in 2015, when stainless meltshop production remained virtually steady at 41.5Mt, down only marginally from 41.7Mt in 2014, performance improved considerably in 2016. Production increased by 10% to 45.8Mt, led by growth in Asia, which accounted for over 54% of total production.
A common assumption has been that weak performance in stainless steel production in 2015 and apparent consumption reflects wider economic concerns over China's performance. Roskill, however, has emphasised that stainless steel is a commodity largely driven by consumer demand, which has continued to show rapid growth in China, and is expected to continue to boom as the economy is now classified as a middle-income country. As such, real consumption of stainless steel has shown more steady growth, with the drop in apparent consumption in 2016 attributable more to destocking than to weak fundamentals.
Nonetheless, despite the dominant size of stainless steel applications in the nickel market, it would be a mistake to ignore the smaller applications of nickel, where much of the future growth in demand is expected to come from. Nickel in batteries, in particular, presently represents a small use of the metal, accounting for 3-4% of total nickel use, much of it still in NiMH and NiCd batteries.
A new use of nickel, however, is in the cathode materials of lithium-ion batteries. While such batteries, as of 2016, are predominantly used in consumer electronics, automotive uses are gaining rapid market share and may overtake wearable applications by 2018. Owing to much larger battery capacities - of up to 100kWh in passenger cars - vehicle electrification is expected to contribute to a dramatic surge in demand in battery cell demand.
Nickel, at present, is used primarily in nickel-cobalt-manganese (NMC) and nickel-cobalt-aluminium (NCA) cathode materials, but the intensity of use is increasing. While early generations of NMC included the three metals in roughly equal proportion, newer cathode materials include as much as eight parts nickel, to one part cobalt and one part manganese, as part of efforts to improve battery performance. While improved performance reduces the overall number of tonnes of cathode material requirements per kWh, or per mile of range, this is expected to be more than offset by the increased intensity of use of nickel, and the overall increase in capacity requirements.
Forecasts for nickel demand from lithium-ion batteries are highly contingent on assumptions regarding electric penetration rates, themselves dependent on consumer, producer, and government attitudes. China, the largest market by far for passenger sales, is aggressively promoting the use of electric vehicles. In Germany, the government has mandated all new vehicle sales to be fully electric by 2030, with similar proposals under discussion in countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands.
On the basis of these trends, nickel demand in lithium-ion batteries could increase by as much as 400kt by 2025, compared to total nickel demand of 1.9Mt in 2016. Demand for other battery materials, including cobalt, however, raises concerns over material availability, which if not addressed in a timely manner, could lead to demand destruction as downstream users may substitute nickel or cobalt containing cathode materials, or adopt entirely new technologies altogether. In Roskill's view, this potential upside for nickel is not yet priced into the market, with few producers tuned into this market.
Roskill has been following the nickel market since the 1970s. Its new market outlook report for nickel will be published in the fourth quarter of 2017.
Roskill will be attending the Metal Bulletin's 5th International Nickel Conference in Lisbon, Portugal on 24-25 April 2017
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SOURCE Roskill Information Services