MI ANALYSIS: High prices changing the nature of Chinese nickel imports
Metals Insider - 24 April 2007
MI ANALYSIS: China’s net imports of refined nickel (including alloy) were 48% higher year-on-year in the first quarter of 2007 at just under 23,000t.
However, net imports in March itself dropped to 5,800t—the lowest monthly level since October—in what has all the appearance of a reaction to the continued rise in LME prices during that month.
Exports were little changed in March at 1,930t. However, exports through Q1 ran at relatively high levels, at least partly due to what may have been distress deliveries of metal against LME short positions. At 6,600t in the period, they were up by 42.5% year-on-year and the vast majority of them—5,300t—went to South Korea, which hosts two LME-registered warehouse locations.
Imports at 7,700t in March were well off the pace of February’s 12,000t and the lowest monthly figure also since October last year. That said, they have proven very resilient given the tremendous price increases seen over the last year or so and our view is that the country has been forced to restock over the back end of 2006 and the start of 2007 despite cripplingly high prices.
Super-strong outright prices—LME cash nickel averaged $46,325/tonne in March, up from $41,184 in February—continue to drive the newly-emergent flow of laterite ore into the country. This is converted to nickel pig iron which is then used as a relatively cheap substitute for ferronickel by stainless steel producers. So far at least, the material’s usage seems to have been limited to low-nickel grades of stainless but Chinese producers are reported to be experimenting with using it in the higher-nickel 300-series grades of stainless.
Imports of ore and concentrates—the country’s customs department does not differentiate—hit a fresh record of 1.035 million tonnes in March. Cumulative imports over Q1 2007 were 2.256 million tonnes, compared with 180,000t in Q1 2006. However, the comparison doesn’t really hold since most of those imports in the year-earlier period were in the form of concentrate and the bulk of those this year in the form of ore.
Key suppliers of that ore in Q1 2007 were Indonesia, the Philippines and New Caledonia, in that order.