Global Nickel Market: Near-Term Surplus To Be Diminished By Indonesian Export Ban

by: Leo Liu

Nickel demand is underpinned by rising stainless steel production with China as the main driver

Why does nickel continue to be in great demand? The simple answer is that nickel has better corrosion resistance, better toughness and better strength at high and low temperatures than other metals, as well as a range of special magnetic and electronic properties. It is also unsurpassed in its ability to have the best of these invaluable traits passed on in the formation of new, incredibly light and durable materials. According to the Nickel Institute, most nickel is combined with other metals to form different alloys that are used in over 300,000 products for consumer, industrial, military, transport, aerospace, marine and architectural applications. Today steel alloys are the main source of nickel consumption; about two-third of all new nickel sold each year goes into stainless steel.

Figure 1. The primary end-uses for nickel 2011

Source: International nickel study group (INSG)

Despite the recession and uncertainties in Europe, global industrial output growth is recovering, as reflected in the rising demand for stainless steel. According to The International Stainless Steel Forum (ISSF), stainless steel production was 32.1 million metric tonnes in 2011, reaching a new record for a single year.

Figure 2. Crude Stainless Steel Production ('000 metric tons)

Source: The International Stainless Steel Forum

China was the main driver of global nickel demand growth over the past five years and will continue to be a major source of consumption. The other BRIC nations -- India, Russia and Brazil -- should also add to overall demand growth as rapidly increased industrialization leads to a corresponding rise in demand for stainless steel and alloys in these countries.

Figure 3. Global refined nickel consumption by countries in 2011

Source: Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU)

New supply from Asia, South America and Africa, with higher proportion in laterite deposits

Historically productive nickel-producing areas of the world such as Russia, Canada and Australia are being complemented by new production from Asia, South America and Africa. According to The United States Geological Survey (USGS), The mineral nickel in 2011 was mainly produced by Russia (15%), Indonesia (13%), the Philippines (13%),Canada(11%) and Australia (10%). According to the metal consulting group, CRU, the world's five largest refined nickel producers are MMC Norilsk Nickel (NYSE:MMS) , Vale SA (NYSE:VALE), Jinchuan Group Ltd, Xstrata Plc (OTC:XSRAF) and BHP Billiton Ltd (NYSE:BHP) in 2011.

Figure 4. World nickel production 2011

Source: Mineral Commodity Summary 2012, USGS

The majority of the nickel mined throughout the world comes from two types of deposits: sulphide and laterite ores, with about 73% of the world's known nickel resources being laterites found mainly in tropical areas such as Indonesia, Cuba, Columbia and New Caledonia. The remaining 27% are sulphide deposits with notable locations in Canada and Russia. Like Australia, Brazil has both sulphide and laterite nickel deposits.

Figure 5. World nickel reserves 2011

Source: Mineral Commodity Summary 2012, USGS

Nickel production used to come predominantly from sulphide ore deposits, as it is easier and cheaper to mine and process than lateritic ore. However, a higher proportion of future production is expected to come from laterite deposits as 1) known sulphide deposits, which are large in scale and of high nickel grade, are depleting. 2) Lack of potential new sulphide projects that are both large and high grade.

Figure 6. Nickel mine production, ('000 tonnes contained Ni)

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Source: CRU Analysis

Expected surplus for global nickel market

Although global stainless steel demand has been robust, much of it has been in China. With Western markets depressed, the global nickel market in 2012 is expected in a state of oversupply, mainly due to the successive putting into production of the nickel projects worldwide and the releasing of new capacities.

Figure 7. Global nickel metal supply/demand forecast ('000 Tonnes)

Source: Brook Hunt, CRU, CICC

Short supply of nickel ore in China as Indonesia banned it raw ore export

The Chinese developed new sources of nickel as their primary sulphide nickel supply was insufficient to support demand. The approach involves the direct shipping of low grade nickel laterite feed from the Philippines, Indonesia and New Caledonia to produce a low-nickel, high-iron product (nickel pig iron or "NPI") that is used by the Chinese stainless steel industry. According to Goldman Sachs, in 2011, nickel pig iron (from laterite ores) accounted for 56.5% of China's nickel output, while the production of electrolytic nickel (mainly from sulphide ore) decreased to 41.5%. Such change largely contributes to the following aspects:

  1. Stainless steel businesses increasingly rely on nickel pig iron with the proportion for some as high as 50% or more;
  2. Nickel pig iron smelting technology advances. A new advanced and environment friendly smelting/refining method adopting rotary kilns and electric furnaces (called an RKEF method) has been popular in the nickel pig iron industry and has become the mainstream.

Nearly all the laterite nickel ore used in China's production of nickel pig iron is imported. In 2011, over 25 million tonnes - 53% of China's total imported nickel ore - came from Indonesia.

Figure 8. Supply breakdown of China's imported nickel ore

Source: Bloomberg

Indonesia enacted an export tax system, effective May 6, 2012, under which a 20% export tax is levied on 14 raw ores of Indonesia origin, including nickel, with an exception for miners that plan to build local processing facilities. Rather than a temporary measure, this is the first step towards the full ban on the export of minerals from Indonesia that is scheduled to begin in 2014. The second step will likely see the government increase the tax to 50%, followed by the total export ban as the final step.

This final move will devastate the supply of laterite nickel ore in China and drive the nickel price dramatically upward. Small and medium-sized NPI producers in China that don't have stable nickel ore supply channels may face shut down risks.

Investment Vehicle

Investors can share the gain from nickel price recovery and the potential demand increase by having the exposure in the stock of the major nickel production company operating in North American and Asia. Such Companies include:

1) Vale SA (VALE): Vale is the second biggest nickel producer in the world. After iron ore, it is our company's most important business. Its nickel business is concentrated in Canada, where we have mines and plants. We also have nickel activities in Brazil, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Japan, New Caledonia, Wales and Taiwan. (Declare: I do not have any options and stocks for Vale , and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 3 months)

2) Jinchuan Group Ltd: The Jinchuan Group is China's largest producer of nickel, cobalt and platinum metals, as well as China's third largest producer of copper. Its subsidiary Jinchuan Group International Resources Co was listed in Hong Kong stock exchange. (Declare: I do not have any options and stocks for Jinchuan Group , and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 3 months)

Price would continue stay around the level of marginal cost

Globally, it is expected that nickel will be in a surplus in 2012. Therefore, the price would continue to trade around the marginal cost of production, which comes from Chinese nickel pig iron producers. As forecasted by Goldman Sachs and CICC in the recent report, the marginal cost of NIP production in China now is in range of $17000-17500/tonne and $18000-20000/tonne, respectively.

The tax on nickel ore export from Indonesia is less likely to affect the cost on NIP in near term, as Chinese buyers have been pre-emptively over-importing ore ahead of the Indonesia government actions. The middle term outlook for the NIP output costs is dependent on the scale and scope of nickel ore export ban forced by Indonesia government. Should the government restrict nickel ore exports, the marginal cost of nickel output would likely be higher, while the subjected nickel price would increase as a consequence.

Figure 9. LME official nickel price Curve (US$/tonne)

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(Click to enlarge)

Source: LME

Note: The forward curve shows the seller price only

Longer term, the effects of the Indonesian ban remain to be seen. But when China, the primary driver of stainless steel demand, a major worldwide producer of nickel pig iron and the world's major economy, loses 53% of its annual supply, serious reverberations will be felt. As is typical in commodities markets, an event of devastating consequence to some can be a tremendous opportunity for others. Given economic fundamentals, a drop in supply with no corresponding drop in demand will result in higher nickel prices, also means alternatives need to be sought in order to avoid continued escalation of nickel - and therefore - steel alloy prices. Suddenly, nickel from sulphide ore deposits become much more interesting to China, particularly if it can be imported from geopolitically stable countries with economically-viable export and transportation infrastructure. Look for China to start courting Canadian nickel producers to mitigate the loss of Indonesian supply.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

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