By Raul de Frutos
In January, aluminum prices broke through the $1,800 per metric ton level. That was an important development signaling that bulls are taking over. Just a month ago, we pointed out that prices had upside potential.
We believe the key this year will be on the supply side and not as much on the demand side. These are some factors that could limit growth in aluminum output this year:
Pollution in China
A recent Chinese government document proposed that about a third of aluminum capacity in the provinces of Shandong, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi should be shut over the winter months. That sparked excitement among aluminum investors. These provinces account for over 20% of global aluminum output.
In addition, late last month, the country passed a law that will allow it to impose environmental protection taxes from January 2018, following an outbreak of hazardous smog in northern China, where many industrial producers are located.
The takeaway is that China is taking air pollution seriously. Given that coal burning is the biggest contributor to air pollution in China, industrial metals supply could shrink this year, particularly steel and aluminum. Environmental closures are looking increasingly likely in China this year. What's still up in the air is how much energy-efficient capacity will replace shutdowns in dirty capacity.
The fight against imports is getting more serious and this is something that could support not only aluminum prices, but also midwest premiums, which rose to $0.09/pound in January. Recently, the U.S. launched a formal complaint against the Chinese government with the World Trade Organization over subsidies it says Beijing provides to the country's vast aluminum industry.
In addition, U.S. customs officials seized $25 million worth of aluminum linked to a Chinese billionaire accused of stockpiling the metal across the world. The move is the most potent action yet by federal authorities probing whether U.S. companies connected to Chinese magnate Liu Zhongtian illegally avoided nearly 400% tariffs by routing the metal through other countries.
The same combination of domestic environmental and foreign trade imperatives already forced China to get serious about steel capacity closures. Is it possible that we see a similar outcome in aluminum? Quite likely.
Rising Raw Material Costs
Many analysts argue that cutbacks in China won't happen because aluminum prices are well above last year's levels, when prices were trading at $1,450/mt. However, it's important to note that production costs are well above last year's levels, too. The increase in production costs will limit additional restarts this year.
Chinese coal production dropped 10% last year. Thermal coal prices doubled and hard coking coal prices quadrupled. China also proposed to close 50% of alumina refining capacity in Shandong, Shanxi, Hebei and Henan from November to March. Alumina prices already rose by more than 50% in 2016. Further shutdowns are likely to support prices of the raw material this year.