The future of nickel: tensions, trade bans and technology

Umar Ali 10 December 2019 (Last Updated December 10th, 2019 09:36)

It’s an interesting time for nickel on the global markets. Prices have risen dramatically despite trade tensions between the US and China, and are expected to explode as Indonesia and the Philippines prepare for nickel export bans. We assess the market dynamics of this important metal.

The future of nickel: tensions, trade bans and technology
The Ravensthorpe nickel mine is located in Ravensthorpe, Western Australia. Credit: First Quantum MInerals (FQM).

Indonesia’s export ban

With increased demand for stainless steel production and recent developments in technologies such as electric vehicles, demand for nickel is higher than ever. Unfortunately, this demand is struggling against an increasingly tightening supply of the essential metal.

In response to the risk of this increasing demand tightening local supply, the Indonesian government announced in September 2019 a ban on the export of raw nickel ores, bringing the ban forward from 2022 to January 2020.

According to GlobalData analyst David Kurtz, this ban is intended to produce value-added nickel products, stimulate domestic processing of ore, and make the country a hub for electric vehicle production.

Indonesia is the largest global producer of nickel and a major supplier of the metal to China’s stainless steel industry; in anticipation of the ban, Chinese producers are building up nickel inventories.

This has increased the price of nickel significantly, with prices at the end of September 2019 reaching more than $16,000 per tonne, an increase of more than 60% from January. When the ban was announced, nickel prices increased by 8.8% to reach a peak of $18,620 per tonne, the highest price since 2014.

While over half of Indonesia’s nickel is processed in the country, around 218,000 tonnes of the metal is unprocessed and would be affected by the ban, which represents around 10% of global demand.

Concerns over supply have led to LME nickel warehouse stock levels dropping by almost 50% since the announcement of the ban, with Reuters reporting that stocks have fallen to 79,800 tonnes, the lowest since January 2009, as of 24 October 2019.

Potential for the Philippines?

The mining sector in the Philippines is expected to benefit from the supply gap created by this export ban, with the country’s nickel industry having suffered in recent years.

As the second-largest producer of nickel, the Philippines accounted for nearly 16% of global production in 2018.

However, production volumes fell sharply in 2016 when the country’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources launched an audit process for over 40 metallic mines, resulting in a number of suspensions and 27 closures. Of these 27 mines, 19 were involved in nickel production, resulting in a drop in nickel production of over 100kt.

Since the shutdowns, output has steadily increased but has become dependent on a smaller number of operations, particularly in the mining region of Caraga. According to Kurtz, the ban in Indonesia “paves the way for higher exports of nickel from the Philippines to China.”

However the shutdowns in the Philippines, as well as the lower quality of nickel ore in the Philippines compared to Indonesia, are expected to challenge this financial growth. The lower grade of nickel ore in the Philippines is a particular problem for Chinese operators, as it affects the ability of nickel pig iron producers to achieve the necessary purity mix for stainless steel production.

With China being a significant importer of nickel, particularly for its stainless steel production, the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China has had a considerable influence on nickel prices.

Prior to the announcement of Indonesia’s export ban, nickel prices fell steeply in the second half of 2018, but has eased in anticipation of trade talks later in 2019. Indonesia’s export ban has also allowed the price of nickel to fare better than other metals such as copper, avoiding the longer-term financial concerns seen across the resources sector.

Future prospects

Primary nickel production is forecast to rise by 9-10% in 2019 to reach 2.4MT, primarily driven by an increase in Indonesia from rising production in new mines. Demand for nickel in China is expected to grow over 2.1Mt, as opposed to the 1.6Mt estimated for 2019.

According to analytics from GlobalData, the number of electric vehicles is expected to increase from 1.6 million in 2018 to 6.8 million in 2023, and the demand for nickel for lithium-ion batteries is expected to quadruple over this period from 3-4% in 2019.

With the export bans in place, nickel prices are expected to remain high while stocks remain low. However, any escalation of the trade tensions between the US and China could lead to a fall in prices, and there remains the possibility of Indonesia relaxing their export ban (as it did previously in 2017 for a ban established in 2014).

This reversal applied to operators working on building processing capacity, and came about due to losses incurred by stated-owned nickel exporter PT Aneka Tambang as well as a need to ease the country’s budget deficit.