Nickel fell to a 13-year low of $7,725 a tonne ($3.50 a pound ) in February last year; then rallied to more than $11,700 by mid-November only to fall back nearly 20% to trade at a six-month low on Friday.
Nickel, mainly used as an anti-corrosive in steel alloys, rallied in 2016 on the back of a clampdown on mines in the Philippines which took over as the main supplier to China following an ore export ban in Indonesia in place since 2014.
The market was rocked earlier this month when Indonesia abruptly announced a partial lifting of the ban allowing exports of up to 5.2 million tonnes of nickel ore this year.
In a new report Capital Economics, a London-based independent research house, believes of all industrial metals, the nickel price has the best prospects to improve adding that “the market is tightening [following years of underinvestment in new mines] and it is still too soon to say what the partial lifting of Indonesia’s ban on ore exports will mean for supply.”
In addition supply from the Philippines may remain constrained. Final results of an audit of the mining sector in the Asian nation ordered by President Duterte is expected this week.
Some 11 mines have already been shut down for failing to comply to stricter environmental rules and a further 20 are under threat. Capital Economics says ultimately 50% of the country’s mining capacity could be closed:
However, there are other sources of supply, notably from New Caledonia, that are chomping at the bit to take market share. In late December, the New Caledonia government approved requests from nickel miners to export over 2 million additional tonnes of ore to China. (The government restricts ore exports in a bid to encourage domestic processing.)
On the demand side Capital Economics estimated growth in 2016 at a robust 6.2%, but the firm warns that China’s stainless steel production have have ran ahead of demand last year. Demand for nickel could get a bump from fiscal stimulus in the US, but given the relatively small global share of US nickel consumption, the impact may be limited.
Notwithstanding the likelihood of slower growth in demand, Capital Economics continues to expect that the market will record another deficit in 2017 putting a floor under prices in 2017.
Capital Economics sees the price of nickel climbing to $11,500 per tonne by the end of the year (that’s a 20% jump from today’s price), with further upside predicted in 2018. That makes nickel the metal Capital Economics is by far the most bullish about.