By Alex Newman
Picking through the wreckage of commodities markets at the end of 2018, few investors will see much hope in the debris. Recent disappointments tend to stick in the craw, after all. So even if there are some budding signs of an apparent détente between the US and China, it’s only natural that the enduring threat of a trade war between the world’s two largest economies should trump fading memories of surging demand (and metals prices) in the run-up to the northern summer.
The metallic poster-child for this slump has been copper, which is often viewed as a key barometer of global economic growth. Absent a last-minute price swing, the red metal is on course to close the year 15 per cent off its June high of $3.29 (£2.58) per pound. On its economic fundamentals, it’s a confusing situation, not least because medium-term mine supply is set to tail off, demand is expected to remain solid and London Metal Exchange stockpiles have crumbled to a five-year low.
But copper isn’t the most baffling base metal market, by a long shot. That title goes to nickel, the price of which has declined 30 per cent over the same period, despite five years of strong compound annual demand growth, a similar collapse in stockpiles (see chart) and an arguably even brighter future ahead of it than copper. After falling below $11,000 a tonne, Macquarie Wealth Management recently described nickel prices as “unsustainably low”, and in “‘bargain’ territory based on a misreading of the strong fundamentals likely for a number of years yet". The question for investors (as it always is): when will that bright future start to be reflected in prices and miners’ earnings?
The next few months don’t offer a wealth of hope, even if the market may already be in a deficit. A weak stainless steel market in China remains a big challenge, as year-on-year falls in output have dissuaded steel mills from purchasing the metal – even at knock-down prices. A strong dollar, and fears about European and global economic growth have also bolstered bearish trading positions, further compounding weak prices. The wide spread in analyst forecasts (see table below) only underlines the uncertainty.
Analyst forecasts ($/t) Q4 18 Q1 19 Q2 19 Q3 19 Q4 19 Q1 20
Median 13350 13500 13653 13364 12689 12250
Mean 13416 13576 13739 13268 12834 12281
High 16500 17500 18500 15500 15000 13839
Low 11949 11622 11506 11355 11129 10754
Forward 11293 11064 11145 11223 11295 11361
Difference between median and spot 2057 2436 2508 2141 1394 889
But in the longer term, this reliance on the stainless steel industry promises to come unstuck. That promise centres on the metal’s growing use in batteries, including the rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries and nickel-metal hydride batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs), where demand is expected to surge in the coming years. It’s a story that will be familiar to many resources investors. Glencore (GLEN), which now pitches itself as investors’ best play on the looming electric vehicle boom, expects the looming demand to be massive.
It’s not hard to see why. Based on CRU Group projections for a compound annual growth rate in electric car manufacture above 30 per cent between now and 2030 (when sales will hit 30m a year), the commodities giant reckons that an additional 1.1m tonnes of nickel will be needed to plug the gap. That’s equivalent to 55 per cent of total global supply in 2017 – based on a 53 kilowatt hour (kWh) average battery pack, of which 30kg will be made of nickel.
This is an outlook Glencore is happy to champion. Last year, the group produced 109 kilotonnes (kt) of the metal, and plans to boost output by 30 per cent by 2020. And unlike its copper and cobalt divisions – the two other undersupplied, in-demand metals in that EV future – Glencore’s nickel assets are in less contentious jurisdictions such as Australia, Norway and Canada.
Much of Glencore’s projected nickel growth centres on Koniambo, the New Caledonian mine it jointly owns with South Pacific Mining Company, which is expected to reach full capacity by 2022. It has also identified room for growth at two more Canadian mines: Raglan in Quebec and Onaping Depth in Ontario, both of which could help to mitigate declines at Norman West and Nickel Rim Depth.
Nickels and mines
Glencore is not alone in these commitments to the metal, as you might expect given the apparent deluge in demand. Global leader Vale is investing $1.7bn in its Voisey’s Bay nickel complex. Russian giant Norlisk Nickel expects new projects to lift its copper and nickel output by as much as 15 per cent by 2025.
BHP Billiton (BLT), the largest London-listed nickel producer via its massive, fully-integrated Nickel West operations in Western Australia, is also doubling down. Last year, anticipating the shift in the sources of demand, the company “began its transition to become a global supplier to the battery materials market”. That pledge included approval of the first phase of a nickel sulphate plant at its Kwinana refinery, which is set to begin production in early 2019 and will ramp up to 100kt of nickel sulphate per year. Other pushes include mining for new ore at its satellite pit at Mt Keith, and another project at its Leinster Nickel operation – investments that don’t immediately point to the long-mooted sale of Nickel West.
Should BHP decide to sell out of nickel, presumably given its limited effect on group earnings, it’s unlikely to be short of buyers. Industry consultancy Roskill expect “major producers to… review their operations, look to consolidate costs, or realign their operations to different markets”.
Outside of exchange-traded funds, there is no direct way for UK investors to get undiluted exposure to nickel. That could change if Brazilian Nickel, developer of the Piauí nickel-cobalt project in north-east Brazil, gets its UK initial public offering off the ground. In the meantime, investors could look to mining royalty outfit Anglo Pacific (APF), which last year paid $2m to secure a 1 per cent revenue royalty over Piauí, together with an option to expand the royalty by 3-4.5 per cent, for up to $70m. This deal, typical of Anglo’s focus on highly sought-after or undersupplied commodities, is structured to give Anglo an equity-like, low-risk carry in a low-cost battery metals project, in exchange for a staggered financing on guaranteed terms. First production is currently slated for 2021, and could arrive just as demand for the metal starts to soar.
SP Angel thinks investors should believe major commodity traders such as Glencore when they say the nickel market is misunderstood, because they are “in touch with the reality of physically trading and delivering commodities [and] can see this disconnect more than anyone”. Investors should be a little more suspicious of a trader-producer talking up their own book. That’s particularly true of Glencore, which expects its ramp-up at Koniambo to increase nickel costs from $1.80 per pound this year to $3.68 in 2019, reining in forecast adjusted cash profits to just $417m. Should Goldman Sachs’ 2019 price forecast of $17,250 per tonne prove prescient, cash profits would triple. In the longer term, we are steadily warming to Glencore’s battery metals pitch, even if its heavy weighting to coal leaves a major question mark above its earnings profile.
The expert’s view
The battery-powered boom
While surging electric vehicle battery demand is often seen as a distant prospect, there is evidence to suggest that the dial may be turning. “The major worldwide push to promote electric vehicles as a way of cutting emissions from fossil-fuelled vehicles has already resulted in increased primary nickel consumption in lithium-ion,” says industry consultancy Roskill.
Unsurprisingly, it is China that remains in the driving seat. “Chinese incentives and regulations are steering battery producers and original equipment manufacturers towards higher energy density batteries,” Roskill argues in a report on the nickel sulphate market due in early 2019. “Longer-range options and nickel-bearing cathodes are thus expected to be dominant cathode technologies throughout the next decade.”
At present, the market remains nascent. Despite its use in nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) and nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries, the metal’s penetration of the broader batteries market has not exceeded 4 per cent of total global consumption. But according to Roskill, nickel’s use in lithium-ion batteries “will soon make batteries the second-largest end-use application for nickel”, leading to a 10-fold increase in the primary use of nickel in batteries by 2030.
While traders appear to doubt this, Roskill highlights a supply chain that “is already responding to the need for new capacity for nickel sulphate production… processing capacity is rapidly being built in China, by conversions of existing plants (BHP Nickel West, Terrafame) and through new third-party processors (such as Thakadu Battery Materials)”.
However, a transforming nickel sulphate supply chain does not answer the question of where the feedstock will come from. Nickel sulphate, which is usually produced as a by-product of copper refining, or the dissolution of nickel or nickel oxides, can be found in lots of feedstock materials – including briquettes, mixed sulphide precipitate, mixed hydroxide precipitate, carbonyl pellets and powder. “Production of these feedstock materials is going to have to grow to satisfy the demand for nickel sulphate by the battery industry,” says Roskill.
From ‘Nickel Sulphate: Global Industry, Markets and Outlook 2019’ by Roskill
The consensus view is that the market has entirely mis-priced nickel. SP Angel goes further, suggesting the dislocation between real demand and short-futures prices are being “manipulated by commodity trading advisers (CTAs) and other funds in the market”. Can the market be this wrong? It’s a possibility, so long as demand outstrips supply, though investors would do well to remember the difference between projected and real demand. So while battery manufacturers are set to become nickel’s dominant customer base, for now the metal remains tethered to steel production, especially the Chinese variety. Furthermore, though demand for electric vehicles is expected to explode in the decade ahead, the industry has a series of important milestones ahead, including closing the economic gap with combustion internal combustion engine. Progress here will likely provide the tipping point.