FOCUS: Umicore’s moves to secure battery materials chain reassure oversupplied cobalt market

Opportunities to lock in long-term sales of cobalt hydroxide – and diversify a customer base outside of China in the process – are too appealing to pass by in a market still feeling the effects of a ramp-up in intermediates supply.

Earlier this week, Umicore and Glencore announced a long-term revolving agreement for the latter to supply cobalt hydroxide to the former’s global operations.

This follows last week’s news that the cobalt refining and cathode precursor business at Kokkola in Finland will change hands from Freeport Cobalt to Umicore by the end of the year.

The Belgian battery materials manufacturer last week signed an agreement to buy the refinery for $150 million, to underpin the growth of its battery materials business over the next few years.

While some of the Glencore hydroxide units will find their way into Kokkola, China Molybdenum (CMOC) will continue to supply material from the Tenke copper-cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo into Kokkola as well.

“We will remain suppliers to Freeport Cobalt as outlined by the previous contract in the short term, and are likely to supply materials to the refinery after Umicore’s deal with Freeport Cobalt is closed,” according a source at CMOC.

According to market sources, CMOC supplies more than 10,000 tonnes of cobalt hydroxide into Kokkola per year, though the company declined to comment on the precise volumes.

Kokkola has total cobalt refining capacity of 15,000 tonnes per annum, and produced 12,900 tonnes of cobalt in 2018, according to trading house Darton Commodities.

When CMOC purchased Freeport’s stake in the holding company for the Tenke mine in 2016, it placed more cobalt in Chinese hands, just as the country was gearing up to produce chemicals for use in electric vehicles (EVs) and consumer electronics.

At that time, CMOC might have been keen to diversify its customer base and place its units elsewhere to take advantage of rising prices against a bullish backdrop for future demand.

According to forecasts from Fastmarkets’ battery raw materials research team, demand for cobalt from the EV sector will reach 63,000 tonnes by 2025, when EV sales will reach about 17 million units.

With such forecasts in mind, prices for standard-grade cobalt metal – the benchmark typically used across the cobalt supply chain – rallied to near ten-year highs of $43.70-44.45 per lb, in-warehouse, in April 2018, on the back of expectations of demand from the battery sector.

But since CMOC’s purchase in 2016, extra cobalt hydroxide units have come on stream. Glencore’s Katanga is expected to produce about 26,000 tonnes of cobalt in 2019, while ERG’s Roan Tailings Reclamation (RTR) project is ramping up to 14,000 tonnes.

Fastmarkets analysts expect a 16,000-tonne cobalt overhang in 2020; the anticipated increase in demand from the e-mobility sector – that fueled much of the rally in 2017 and 2018 – has yet to be converted into consumption.

Benchmark standard-grade cobalt metal prices were last assessed by Fastmarkets on Wednesday May 29 at $15.35-16.10 per lb, in-warehouse, down by 64.3% from last April’s highs, and down by 42.3% compared with the beginning of the year.

Cobalt payables in the spot market – where Chinese buyers have had a preference to buy their intermediates units of late – stand at 67-69% of the standard-grade low, according to Fastmarkets’ assessment. Payables will next be assessed on May 31.

By comparison, long-term supply contracts were agreed at 85% and above of the metal’s price for 2018 contracts.

CMOC did not comment on the payables it receives for Tenke cobalt hydroxide supplied to Kokkola, though multiple sources said they are likely to be more appealing to the company now than before given the vulnerable payables amid an apparent oversupply dynamics projected for the next few years.

With that in mind – and with Katanga and RTR units coming into the market – CMOC might rather hold on to its Kokkola supply contract.

“In this kind of market, you’d much rather have a confirmed outlet for your units,” one trading source told Fastmarkets.

Geographically, sales to Kokkola have the appeal of diversifying a customer base outside China, where hydroxide demand has largely retreated to spot or shorter-term contracts.

While the autonomy to place Tenke units elsewhere might once have seemed appealing, such a move now would serve to increase competition for sales in China, to the detriment of payables, sources said.

“China’s demand for cobalt hasn’t been that great [recently] and one big player is enough to satisfy demand,” a second trading source said. “Cobalt hydroxide payables in China are likely to move lower if the major miners and smaller producers are all competing.”

Others likewise, including Glencore, might be just as keen to supply to Umicore, not just for the opportunity to lock in a sale of considerable volume, but again, for the opportunity to diversify their customer base outside China.

China has dictated the direction and extent of price moves in the cobalt market for the greater portion of the past year, most recently, its cautious sentiment capping gains on a rally in metal prices stemming from Europe.

The lingering softness in Chinese cobalt sulfate prices, a key indicator for market sentiment, is likely to feature heavily in negotiations between cobalt hydroxide suppliers and Chinese refineries who are close to break-even levels.

Fastmarkets’ Chinese cobalt sulfate, 20.5% Co basis, was assessed at 42,000-44,000 yuan ($6,074-6,364) per tonne on May 29, down by 35.3% from the beginning of this year.

Cobalt prices illustrate a market that is oversupplied, and according to Fastmarkets’ research, will remain so over the next few years.

On the other hand, Umicore’s Kokkola purchase is designed to make sure it can meet growing demand for its cathode materials, while its Glencore deal ensures security of supply as its own raw materials requirements increase.

Those two things are a bullish sign that the EV story and its associated cobalt demand extend beyond China.

Join members of Fastmarkets’ cobalt price reporting and research team for a web seminar on Tuesday June 18 at 9.30am London time to discuss recent price moves in the cobalt market and how industry developments might affect the market going forward. Click here to register now.

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