Alumina market grapples with rising costs, Atlantic differential may switch direction

The alumina sector is continuing to grapple with rising costs and weakening market conditions, while the Atlantic differential could switch direction due to refinery production cuts and aluminium smelter closures, sources told Fastmarkets.

Fastmarkets calculated its benchmark alumina index, fob Australia at $357.75 per tonne on July 6 compared with $367.26 per tonne one week previously.

Prices have just ended a recent spell of stability during June with little day-to-day fluctuation.

The most recent deal heard on the market was $360 per tonne fob Western Australia on June 30, which was a step down from two previous deals at $371 per tonne fob done on June 22 and June 14.

Meanwhile, Chinese buyers remain out of the international market due to the closed arbitrage window.

China imported 71,455 tonnes of alumina in May, down by 2.7% month on month and down by 50.8% year on year, according to the customs data.

As well, China’s domestic market is weakening - some refineries in the country are now pausing due to high production costs and falling prices.

Fastmarkets’ price assessment for alumina metallurgical grade, exw China was at 2,900-3,000 yuan ($432-447) on July 7, up from 2,850-2,950 yuan on June 30 but down from a peak of 2,950-3,100 yuan per tonne in mid-April.

Still, Chinese exports to Russia have continued to climb - customs data shows that 153,362 tonnes of alumina were imported into Russia in May, up from 123,830 tonnes in April and around 13,000 tonnes in March.

The Atlantic premium over Pacific material is also facing challenges, with many sources expecting the recently announced closure of US-based Century aluminium’s Hawesville smelter to trim the premium if higher supply eases the continuing tightness in the region.

Fastmarkets’ alumina index adjustment to fob Australia index, Brazil was calculated at $41.25 per dry metric tonne premium on June 30, up from $37.06 per tonne premium two weeks previously due to higher freight rates but down from an all-time high of $41.99 per dmt premium on Thursday May 5.

This compares with $10.18 per dry metric tonne at the start of the year.

Alcoa, however, recently announced that its San Ciprian alumina refinery in Spain will reduce its production by up to 15%, while Alum in Romania said that it will cut production from August, which could maintain the high Atlantic differential premium.

“Alumina costs are up, aluminium prices are down - there are lots of things going against a smelter,” one trader said.

The rising energy costs remains a concern across the value chain, with many expecting further European smelter cuts because gas and energy prices show few signs of abating.

“It’s difficult to understand what will happen with availability of alumina in the pacific; energy prices are sky-high, Alro has production cuts and San Ciprian refinery is going to reduce production,” a producer said.

Another market participant said that some of the San Ciprian alumina refinery reduction could be offset by its recent smelting cuts in the US as well as the Century closure.

The alumina market also remains under pressure from a continued downward trend in the London Metal Exchange’s aluminium price for aluminium. The LME three-month price has dipped below $2,400 per tonne in recent weeks, down from $2,600 per tonne in June.

This has pushed up the alumina versus total aluminium figure to 15%, up from 12.5% in recent months, trimming margins further.

“I think the [Australian] price weakening is a logical trend and it will continue. The LME aluminium price is falling and the arbitrage between imported Australian alumina on a CIF China basis and Chinese alumina ex-works is huge, [while] alumina freight rates are high,” a market source said.

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