Nickel's rollercoaster year

IT’S been a dramatic year for nickel and despite the current rout, the longer-term outlook remains strong.
Nickel's rollercoaster year Nickel's rollercoaster year Nickel's rollercoaster year Nickel's rollercoaster year Nickel's rollercoaster year

At one stage, nickel was the best-performing metal of 2019, rising as high as US$18,153 per tonne, a five-year high, in September as Indonesia brought forward a ban on nickel exports.

It dropped as low as $13,075/t on December 4, but at the time of writing (Friday), it was back over $14,000/t.

Still, nickel has had a good 2019 (so far), starting the year off at the lowest point of $10,791/t and rising from there.

"The ongoing uncertainty of Indonesia enacting ore bans (now set for January 2020) has seen stockpiling of nickel inventories (across all product types) amongst consumers; however, we view this as rather transient with ore inventories (circa 11Mt,) reported at Chinese ports stable at around four months of consumption," Canaccord Genuity analysts said this month.

Despite the volatility, nickel stocks have had an exceptional year, with Western Areas up more than 50%, Independence Group up more than 60% and Nickel Mines surging by more than 130%.

Canaccord believes Chinese nickel pig iron producers will face rising costs in 2020 due to increased competition for ore from the Philippines and a potential drawdown on already low Class 1 stocks.

"We believe this dynamic will drive a more positive outlook for nickel over CY20, offsetting the below factors that have characterised the slide in LME price over H219."

Canaccord is forecasting a short-term nickel price of $6.32 per pound ($13,929/t) and a long-term price of $9/lb ($19,836/t).

Glencore remained bullish on nickel in an investor update earlier this month.

"Going forward to 2025 we predict that there will be about 11.5 million electric vehicles being produced per year," CEO Ivan Glasenberg said earlier this month.

"To get there, we are going to have to produce another 330,000 tonnes of nickel per annum to meet that demand."

He estimates that figure will rise to 425,000tpa by 2025.

The majors ‘fall back in love' with nickel

While Glencore has long been a nickel fan, the big two diversified miners also expressed their desire to be more involved in the commodity.

In May, BHP announced it would keep its previously non-core Nickel West division and even look to beef it up.

CEO Andrew Mackenzie said the company had "fallen back in love with nickel".

Nickel West boss Eddy Haegel then revealed at Diggers & Dealers the company had amassed 13,000sq.km of ground in Western Australia's Madura province (east of the Fraser Range) to conduct a greenfields exploration program.

Rio Tinto is conducting greenfields exploration at Sipa Resources Akelikongo nickel-copper project in Uganda, where assays from the latest drilling are due in January.

The company made it clear it was very interested in acquiring more nickel opportunities.

"We're evaluating battery materials and screening opportunities in the market," Energy & Minerals chief Bold Bataar said in late October.

"That does include nickel - obviously it's hard to find.

"We're not currently pursuing any aggressive acquisitions."