South African platinum rebound to push market into surplus, says Johnson Matthey

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A wall of platinum production from South Africa coming back online following covid-19 disruptions is expected to offset demand growth this year and push the market into surplus territory, new data released by PGMs (platinum group metals) specialist Johnson Matthey shows.

A 27% gain in autocatalyst demand, according to estimates published in the latest PGM Market Report, is not enough to stem the impact of a 40% rebound in output from South Africa as covid disruptions subside, and treatment backlogs at processing outages in 2020 are resolved.

The backlog entails about one million oz. of PGMs that accumulated during processing plant interruptions last year.

The Matthey report contrasts a report published by The World Platinum Investment Council on Monday that said the global platinum market was expected to be more undersupplied this year than it anticipated as economic recovery fuels a surge in demand from industry.

The platinum price appears to have stabilised around $1,200 per oz. following steady growth over the past 12 months from a March 2020 low below $600 per oz.

Palladium and rhodium recorded record high prices early in 2021

Johnson Matthey says the higher price levels are hitting investments, with Japanese bar purchasing turning negative in early 2021 and ETF buying subdued.

According to the report, Chinese retailers stocked up on platinum jewellery in the second half of 2020, but the recovery has stalled due to a narrowing discount to gold.

In contrast, the palladium and rhodium markets are expected to remain in deficit in 2021. Both metals recorded all-time price highs in early 2021, with palladium climbing above $3,000 and rhodium repeatedly surging to $30,000.

PGM prices have generally increased over the past 24 months. Source: Johnson Matthey

In response, automakers have accelerated thrifting and substitution programs, seeking to reduce the use of these metals in gasoline autocatalysts. Despite this, both palladium and rhodium will see double-digit growth in automotive demand in 2021 as vehicle output rebounds and primary markets phase in tighter emissions regulations and more stringent test procedures.

“The overall PGM content of catalyst systems are still rising, in line with tightening emissions legislation in many regions,” says Rupen Raithatha, Johnson Matthey market research director, in a media statement.

According to the analyst, the auto sector is also supporting palladium and rhodium demand, despite aggressive thrifting and substitution programs at virtually all global automakers.

Supporting the higher price levels is platinum’s rising share of the auto PGM mix, and demand for platinum in gasoline-fuelled cars is expected to climb steeply in 2021, albeit from a low base.

Demand for platinum in gasoline cars is expected to climb steeply in 2021

Platinum will also benefit from the phase-in of China VI emissions legislation. According to Raithatha, meeting China VI limits requires a complete overhaul of heavy-duty diesel catalyst systems. He expects loadings on Chinese diesel trucks to more than treble this year.

High prices will also incentivize increased recycling of PGMs from scrapped vehicles, but platinum recoveries will be constrained by technical difficulties in treating diesel particulate filter scrap.

The ‘minor’ PGMs; ruthenium and iridium, have seen steep price gains during early 2021, reflecting strong industrial buying, disruptions to South African supply, and rising investor awareness of the potential for PGMs’ use in hydrogen applications.