Material Matters: Nickel, Aluminium & Iron Ore

Commodities | May 05 2021

A glance through the latest expert views and predictions about commodities: nickel, aluminium and iron ore

-Nickel expected to turn to surplus in the second half of 2021
-Aluminium vulnerable to constraints in the automotive industry
-Traditional price setting in iron ore products could be disrupted


By Eva Brocklehurst

Base Metals

Nickel is in deficit and Macquarie expects this situation will continue in the June quarter. Nickel production in the March quarter was below expectations and the shortfall between planned and actual production appeared to be around -30,000t. Macquarie assesses the deficit would have been larger but for a surprisingly strong performance of Chinese nickel pig iron production.

Yet global production of briquettes was the lowest since 2012 because of disruptions at several mines. The broker points out this product is used extensively to make nickel sulphate for the electric vehicle battery market and premiums for briquettes are rising.

As a result of the Indonesian nickel ore ban in January 2020 supplies fell well below China's reported nickel pig iron production, which suggested a large drawdown occurred. Port stocks appear to have fallen sharply.

A large surplus should follow in the second half of 2021 as Indonesian production increases. The broker notes recent nickel industry presentations have highlighted potential for nickel pig iron producers to take advantage of lower costs by converting to nickel matte and from there to nickel sulphate to meet rising demand for nickel in batteries.

Another issue the broker refers to is that Indonesian nickel pig iron is selling at a significant discount to Chinese nickel pig iron because of higher average nickel content and thus lower free iron content. Buyers appear willing to pay a premium for material with a higher iron content.

Macquarie points out there are already projects totalling 500,000tpa of nickel, and almost 20,000tpa of cobalt, planned for fulfilling battery demand by 2025. This is well in excess of expected demand growth. Moreover, beyond 2025 there are a large number of potential laterite projects and at least one known deep-sea mining project.

Still, the broker suspects, at most, half of the sulphide projects intended for meeting battery demand will get off the ground and this could mean 15% or less of the 2020-30 growth in battery demand will actually be met.

Macquarie believes Western Areas ((WSA)) offers the greatest leverage to nickel prices while Sandfire Resources ((SFR)) has the greatest leverage to copper prices over the next three years. Among those base metal miners that also generate gold output, OZ Minerals ((OZL)) provides the greatest leverage to stronger gold prices.

The broker notes the Sandfire Resources project in Botswana is underway and the A4 deposit could underpin a substantial expansion. Realised prices for Nickel Mines ((NIC)) were weaker than Macquarie expected in the March quarter and while price forecasts are cut by -4% to better reflect trends, the broker leaves production assumptions unchanged.

IGO Ltd ((IGO)) also had solid production at Nova in the March quarter and the mine is on track to push the upper end of FY21 guidance.

Meanwhile, Chalice Mining ((CHN)) is now planning for a larger-scale open pit at Julimar and Macquarie assumes in 8mtpa operation will be developed. Mine life has been extended to 12 years. Savannah has been formally approved by Panoramic Resources ((PAN)) for a restart, with mining to commence in August and first concentrate in December.

The automotive industry has been suffering a shortfall of semiconductors which has constrained light vehicle production, yet with very little impact on demand from the sector, Morgan Stanley notes.

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