Demand dynamics support price premium for alloy-grade cobalt

Availability concerns on certain materials and in specific regions have been supporting the emergence of a premium for alloy-grade cobalt against standard-grade material, compounded by the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war and its potential effect on flows of Russian cobalt

Fastmarkets’ price assessment for cobalt metal has shown a narrow premium developing for alloy-grade material over the last couple of daily sessions – a move sources attributed to a combination of tightness concentrating on some types of alloy material, downstream drivers pushing alloy in some destinations and some consumers looking at optionality as a result of concerns over the viability Russian material.

Fastmarkets assessed the price of cobalt standard grade, in-whs Rotterdam, at $38.50-39.30 per lb on Friday March 18, widening upward by $0.05 per lb from $38.50-39.25 per lb a day earlier.

Cobalt alloy grade, in-whs Rotterdam, was assessed at $38.50-39.50 on Friday, flat compared with the previous day.

The $0.20-per-lb premium on alloy follows a concentration of trading activity in that grade earlier in the week, in comparison with a relatively quiet standard grade.

While the majority of market participants had reported the two grades trading at parity for several weeks, several now see alloy grade higher than standard – pointing to a focus of demand for the grade in some markets and improving fundamentals for aerospace.

“I am hearing the market to be higher specifically in the US at the moment,” a distributor said.

As was the case at the beginning of the year, sources reported tight availability of alloy grade brands in the United States compared with Europe or other regions.

Demand in the US was evidenced by multiple alloy trades there earlier this week.

“We’re very bullish on alloy. There’s [very little] available,” a trader said. “At the moment it does carry a premium that may be harder to achieve [under these conditions] in standard.”

Aerospace demand

Aerospace is one sector that is beginning to see a recovery in demand – which is expected to spur consumption of alloy grade cobalt, market sources said.

Cobalt demand in this sector could increase by 47% year on year in 2022, according to Fastmarkets’ research team.

Commercial aircraft manufacturer Airbus told suppliers in May 2021 to prepare for annual production increases.

“The message to our supplier community provides visibility to the entire industrial ecosystem to secure the necessary capabilities and be ready when market conditions call for it,” Guillaume Faury, chief executive of Airbus, said at the time.

This seems to already have taken effect. Airbus have reported 79 deliveries as at end-February 2022, up from 53 deliveries in 2021 by the same point.

“Alloy grade goes to a higher degree of end uses than standard,” a second distributor said. “We’ve had a flat market [between the two grades] that is more of an aberration recently, and the Russian thing is part of [the differential between alloy and standard grade as well].”

Seeking alternatives

Another element supporting alloy-grade prices this week was the fact that some consumers, wary of handling Russia’s Norilsk material due to the specter of potential sanctions or future tariffs, have been reportedly looking for alternatives.

Russia-origin cobalt metal remains tradeable to this day and the origin has not seen western sanctions – imposed on a series of Russian individuals and businesses – so far directly affecting its cobalt suppliers nor officially restricting sales. Fastmarkets has seen Russian cargoes traded on a number of occasions over the past weeks.

Nevertheless, financing of new purchases from Russia was becoming near impossible according to some western traders, who reported lenders’ unwillingness to get involved with the origin as Europe and US tighten their economic barriers against Russian industry.

Issues were reported also for non-cleared Russian material sitting with suppliers in western warehouses. Lenders had informally instructed sellers to put any Russian material they held through clearing to avoid potential risks.

Just over three weeks since Russia first invaded Ukraine, some suppliers said they will not handle Russia-origin cargo: “Russian material [for us] is now untouchable. And we have consumers asking to know the origin of the material [when they inquire],” a second trader said.

There is no strong consensus on how Russian material is handled. Other suppliers reported being able to do business on Norilsk volumes without difficulties.

“Norilsk has not been an issue to sell. We can sell ample at mid-range,” a third trader said.

“While it is true that one party has made such a move [not handling Russian material], it is not a general trend,” another said, adding that “so far there is no de jure issue” with the origin.

Nevertheless, perception of availability has changed since the start of the Ukraine invasion and western governments’ regimes of sanctions toward Russia.

“A market that was already fundamentally tight and bullish is having to contemplate that some tonnages from Russia may not be fully available for a number of reasons,” a seller said, adding that the fast-paced price rises in cobalt metal over the past two weeks were “chiefly driven” by tightness that was exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war.

As some consumers consider their option to replace Russian cut cathodes if those were to become less viable, it has led to additional pressure on some alloy brands that supply cut cathode shapes.

“The [most accessible] replacements for Norilsk cut cathodes are Nikkelverk and SMM,” a fifth trader said.

“Both of those were tight already well before [Ukraine], so you’re seeing that additional pressure that is pushing prices for certain brands,” he added.

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