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Last month, nickel prices traded up with a strong rebound during the first three weeks. However, prices soon fell back within range. These declines continued until the opening days of October, with prices mainly remaining consolidated since July. For the long term, these movements offer no clear price direction. This means the market will have to wait until there is a meaningful break out to the upside or downside.
U.S. cold rolled stainless pricing is a “tale of two cities.” Whereas 304 spot prices are declining as service centers, master distributors and end users work down high inventories, the U.S. mills are holding firm in maintaining base price levels for 2023 contracts. As service center inventories have over four months of supply, North American Stainless and Outokumpu are using Q4 to perform deferred maintenance, catch up on late orders or perform trials. No cold rolled stainless mill will reduce base prices as service centers have no orders to give, regardless of price.
U.S. cold rolled stainless production will remain constrained for 2023 and end market demand looks positive. The mills have no compelling reason to reduce base prices.
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304 spot buyers have a short-term opportunity for advantageous pricing. Service centers and master distributors are anxious to draw down their inventories, and are willing to make deals to move metal. MetalMiner is tracking the 304 surcharge progression to determine if the low point in alloy surcharge for 2022 will be in November or in December. The ferrochrome benchmark for Q4 2022 has already been established at $1.49/Lb, which was a decline of $0.31/Lb compared to Q3. The major factor in determining the low point for the 304 surcharge is the nickel.
Global nickel supply has shifted into surplus due to strong output from Indonesia. According to data from the International Nickel Study Group, mine production in the archipelago saw a 41% year-over-year rise during the first seven months of 2022. This surge helped to push global production up 14% during the same period. In fact, Indonesian supply rose to account for some 47% of total global output. It’s quite impressive, considering the nation contributed just 38% during the first seven months of 2021. Following a roughly 146,000 ton deficit last year, supply now outpaces usage by around 29,000 tons.
Indonesia’s production boom fits into the country’s larger economic strategy. As MetalMiner discussed back in August, that strategy largely focuses on exploiting and pursuing various value adds to the nation’s vast nickel reserves. While it has yet to come to fruition, Indonesia has already announced plans to tax nickel pig iron (NPI) and ferronickel exports. This comes on the heels of a related ban on nickel ore exports in 2020, which focused on supporting domestic processing capacity. The move will likely pay off, as most data shows a continued, if uneven, demand for stainless steel.
Nickel Prices: March 2021, March 2022
Late last year, Xiang Guangda underpinned his short position, a move that subsequently broke the LME nickel contract in the early-March squeeze. He did this with the knowledge that production would increase and that his company, Tsingshan Holding Group, would announce the start of nickel matte production in Indonesia in early December.
Increased supply, by default, would expectedly drag down nickel prices. And when the stainless steel giant initially disclosed plans to mass produce EV battery materials in March 2021, prices did indeed drop sharply. Tsingshan is the world’s largest nickel producer and boasts major investments in Indonesia. Unfortunately, Guangda formed his short position roughly a year ago, in late 2021. This was just before Russia invaded Ukraine. There was no way he could have predicted the black swan event. Still, instead of a price reversal, nickel (and other base metals) soared due to global supply concerns.
The macro uptrend finally reversed once the nickel squeeze ended and trading resumed. However, the LME nickel contract remains plagued by low market participation (both in terms of open interest and daily trading volumes). Currently, nickel prices sit at their lowest levels since January 2022. But when other base metals continued to slide last month, nickel stood as the only base metal that traded up. Ultimately, the loss of liquidity continues to foster both directional uncertainty and increased volatility.
Increased nickel supply and the shift from deficit to surplus will weigh on prices, which have demonstrated mixed price direction since July. While the supply/demand balance does not inherently dictate short or long-term price direction, an oversupplied market will undoubtedly serve as a bearish driver.
Beyond that, nickel price direction will contend with the same factors that continue to pull other base metal prices downward. The main issue is demand destruction due to a global economic slowdown. However, there’s also the continued bullishness of the U.S. dollar as the Federal Reserve and central banks around the world try to combat high inflation with interest rate hikes. The collective impact of these two factors will support the overall bearishness of industrial metals as a whole.
Still, the outlook for the LME nickel contract remains uncertain. Thus far, market participation has yet to return. Instead, many industrial buyers prefer to negotiate prices directly, circumventing the bruised exchange altogether. So far, the daily price limits implemented by the LME following the crisis have maintained some order. However, the increased level of volatility stands likely to persist, as any single trade holds an outsized impact.
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