Albemarle expects higher lithium prices and supply tightness through 2023

Albemarle has increased its revenue outlook for 2023 partially due to expectations of improving lithium prices, although some analysts expect the lithium market will be oversupplied in upcoming years

The US-based lithium producer now expects its annual revenue to total $10.4 billion to $11.5 billion, up from its previous projection in May of $9.8 billion to $11.5 billion, according to its earnings released this week. That would represent a gain of 40-55% compared with the 2022 revenue of $7.32 billion.

The increase is attributable to expectations of volume growth from its energy storage division –which focuses on lithium-ion battery materials – and realizations of higher average prices “assuming recent lithium market prices continue through the rest of 2023,” executive vice president and chief financial officer Scott Tozier said during the company’s earnings call on Wednesday August 2.

“Last year, we saw dramatic increases in prices for lithium and spodumene. Due to the time lag on spodumene inventory, we realized higher lithium pricing faster than higher spodumene cost of goods sold,” he said.

“This year is the reverse. As prices decline, we are realizing lower lithium prices faster than lower spodumene costs, and we expect the majority of this impact is going to recur in the third quarter, ” Tozier added.

“We don’t have the confidence to know exactly ourselves what the price is going to do, but we do know this: We believe that the market will continue to be quite tight next year as well,” Albemarle president of lithium Eric Norris said during the call.

“There’ll be significant demand growth in the market, and indeed, there will be more supply growth as well, but those two will be fairly matched, right? It will be a fairly tight market,” Norris added.

But Bank of America commodity strategist Michael Widmer said in a report on Tuesday that the lithium market is expected to be oversupplied in 2024 and 2025, with weaker fundamentals already visible in the sharp falls of prices of spodumene, carbonate and hydroxide.

Production curtailments or industry consolidation could help rebalance the market, with spodumene processors in China as the first line of defense, he said in the report.

Albemarle updated its 2023 net sales mix to reflect “the recent rebound in lithium prices,” with the mix now expected to be 80% index-referenced variable price contracts and 20% spot agreements.

“We have pivoted to be more index-based… so we’re going to move with the market,” Albemarle chairman, president and CEO Jerry Masters said. “We decided to do our guidance not by forecasting lithium prices, but basically by taking whatever the market is today and we forecast it for the balance of the year. That’s the methodology we’re going to use for the foreseeable future.”

On 2024 results, Tozier commented: “It’s going to be a volume story next year. Of course, pricing is going to be a question mark that we would have, and it’s all based on the contract structures. We’re not anticipating to have any big changes in the contract structures, so as that pricing moves, we’d expect to see that trailing kind of three-month lag to what those indices are.”

Fastmarkets’ assessment of spodumene min 6% Li2O, spot price, cif China was $3,450 per tonne on Thursday August 3, the lowest point in the past year and down by 47.92% from $6,625 per tonne on the same day a year ago.

The assessment for lithium hydroxide monohydrate LiOH.H2O 56.5% LiOH min, battery grade, spot price cif China, Japan & Korea is also at a yearly low point, reaching $37.50 per kilogram on Friday. That is 50% lower than $75.00 per kilogram on August 4 2022.

Lithium carbonate 99.5% Li2CO3 min, battery grade, spot prices cif China, Japan & Korea was assessed at $37.50 per kilogram on Friday, up by 29.31% from the yearly low of $29 per kilogram in late April and early May, but down by 48.63% from $73.00 per kilogram a year ago.

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