Biden team to hold off on Russia sanctions hitting aluminum

Volgograd aluminum plant, Russia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Biden administration is holding off for now on sanctions against Russia that could disrupt global aluminum supplies, according to people familiar with the matter, as the market grapples with already severe shortages of the metal.

White House officials met with industry representatives in recent weeks and told them there was no U.S. intention for now of levying sanctions that would hit Russian aluminum, the people said, asking not to be named because the discussions weren’t public. Benchmark aluminum prices in London retreated from record highs after Bloomberg News reported the discussions.

Russian-supplied aluminum accounts for roughly 10% of total U.S. imports, highlighting the negative impact that sanctions could have for the U.S. and allies who rely on the metal for everything from iPhones to automobiles and fighter jets.

A spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council declined to comment.

Aluminum prices have surged more than 55% in the past year as plants across the globe tried to ramp up production to meet demand spurred by the reopening of economies from the pandemic. Benchmark prices hit a record on Thursday as Russia began armed conflict in Ukraine. The global market swung to a 1.9 million ton deficit last year, according to the World Bureau of Metals Statistics.

The supply situation hasn’t gotten any better as surging energy prices in Europe forced mills to shut down, while efforts by top producer China to curb its pollution led to output cuts. Almost four years ago, the U.S. levied sanctions on Russian aluminum producer United Co. Rusal International PJSC that sent prices surging and leaving buyers scrambling to find units. 

Aluminum for delivery in three months was up 1.5% at $3,341 a metric ton as of 5:43 p.m. on the London Metal Exchange. It earlier jumped as much as 5.7% to a record $3,480 on heightened supply concerns.

U.S. officials had previously disclosed concern that sanctions impacting aluminum supply could drive up the price of the metal, replicating chaos in the commodities market when the Trump administration in 2018 sanctioned Russian business tycoon Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska’s En+ Management LLC has a majority stake in Rusal, the world’s second-largest aluminum producer. 

While sanctions were never ultimately implemented on Rusal due to repeated waivers from the U.S. Treasury Department, global aluminum prices shot up as much as 20% at one point, with each delay in imposing the sanctions causing more turbulence.

Russia is also a major exporter of oil, natural gas, wheat, crop nutrients and other metals.

(By Joe Deaux and Saleha Mohsin, with assistance from Mark Burton and Jennifer Jacobs)

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