Nickel Market Doubles up on Political Uncertainty: Andy Home

A worker processes nickel at a nickel smelter of Vale Indonesia, near Sorowako, Sulawesi. (Reuters Photo/Yusuf Ahmad)

By : Andy Home | on 10:25 PM February 08, 2017
Category : Business, Opinion, Commentary, Analysis

London. Last month Indonesia rocked the nickel market. This month it is the turn of the Philippines.

Indonesia's decision to allow the partial resumption of exports of nickel ore sent the London Metal Exchange (LME) nickel price spiralling to a six-month low of $9,350 per tonne.

What Indonesia giveth, the Philippines apparently taketh away.

The country's eco-warrior-turned-mining-minister Regina Lopez has ordered the closure of 23 mines and the suspension of five others, most of them nickel producers.

In London the price shot up to a three-week high of $10,500 on the news and is currently trading around $10,400.

Over the coming weeks nickel's fortunes are likely to be beholden to the uncertain implications of government policy in both countries.

Volatility is assured but it will be at least partly mitigated by high stocks of the alloying metal.

This, after all, is a market that is struggling to emerge from years of over-supply and resulting inventory build. And while events in both Indonesia and the Philippines are going to be key price drivers for the foreseeable future, they will impact only the most upstream part of a supply chain which is still amply filled at the refined metal stage.

More Uncertainty

Last month's part reversal of Indonesia's 2014 ban on the export of unprocessed nickel ore was not what the market was expecting.

And it appears to have been wrong-footed again by the severity of the Philippines' proposed action on its mining sector.

Most assumed the environmental audit of the country's mines would punish only a small handful of operators.

But, according to research by Goldman Sachs, the closures would represent around 139,000 tonnes and the suspensions another 34,000 tonnes of annual capacity, equivalent to 7.0 percent and 1.7 percent of world supply respectively.

"The potential production losses from these suspensions and closures is substantially higher than our prior expectations, not just owing to the size of mines affected (...) but also in the length of time that these mines may not be producing." ("Metal Detector", Feb. 2, 2017).

Of course, it remains to be seen whether policy becomes reality.

Lopez's aggressive campaign against the mining sector is already generating an equally aggressive reaction. Expect weeks if not months of political push-and-shove and court action as operators fight back.

It amounts to a doubling-up of political uncertainty because everyone's still trying to work out what are the implications of Indonesia's decision to roll back its ban on nickel ore exports.

The details are still confused and confusing.

Not all miners will qualify for export shipments. It will depend on whether they are committed to investing in downstream processing capacity, the nature of the ore they generate and on how much of that ore is used within Indonesia itself.

But there are tangible signs that some are gearing up to restart production.

China Hanking said its Indonesian subsidiary is preparing the ground at its site in Sulawesi and has signed a sales agreement covering "at least 1.5 million wet tonnes of nickel ore containing 1.9 percent or above nickel".

Others will surely follow.

Ore not metal

What will be the net impact on nickel supply of Indonesia's (part) return to the market and the Philippines' mine clamp down?

Answers on a postcard. That is precisely what every nickel analyst is trying to calculate right now.

But it's important to remember that we're just talking about ore and the flow of ore to China's nickel pig iron (NPI) sector, which converts that ore into feedstock for stainless steel mills.

NPI production has fallen from its heights but the sector is still not only operating but starting to be offshored in Indonesia itself.

Those with a long memory will remember a time when the consensus thinking was that NPI operators would be out of business at a price below $20,000 per tonne.

But they have reduced costs, diversified their ore sourcing to countries such as New Caledonia and experimented with supplementing ore with other forms of nickel.

The NPI sector is still in its relative infancy having been born out of nickel's stratospheric climb to above $50,000 per tonne back in 2007 and it is not going to go away any time soon.

Its resilience has been a key factor in the global market's excess supply of recent years.

The International Nickel Study Group (INSG) estimates a cumulative global supply surplus of 468,000 tonnes over the 2012-2015 period.

Much of that surplus is sitting in warehouses registered with the London Metal Exchange and the Shanghai Futures Exchange. Right now the two exchanges are holding just over 472,000 tonnes of metal between them.

Transition Narrative

Nickel is a market that is still in transition from chronic supply surplus to deficit.

The process started gaining momentum last year. The INSG estimates a global deficit of around 64,000 tonnes over the first 11 months of 2016.

But as ever with such transitions, it's a stop-start, slow-fuse process and it's worth noting that LME nickel stocks are once again rising, up by over 11,000 tonnes since the start of January.

The double conundrum represented by government action in Indonesia and the Philippines will affect the timing of this transition but only at the margins.

At least as important in terms of all that metal sitting in exchange warehouses will be demand.

Stainless steel is the primary determinant of nickel demand growth and global output rose strongly by 7.0 percent in the first nine months of last year, according to the International Stainless Steel Forum.

Can it maintain that pace this year? And, in particular, can Chinese production keep rising at the same rate, 11.4 percent, it recorded in the first three quarters of 2016?

The answer to that question may turn out to have bigger medium-term impact on the nickel price than events in south-east Asia.

Because this is not a story of scarcity and looming supply crunch. If it were, the whipsaw price action seen so far this year would look mild by comparison.

And the nickel price wouldn't still be gyrating either side of the $10,000 level.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters


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