INTL NICKEL CONF: LME nickel price unlikely to hit $13,000/t in 2019, bearish analysts say

Nickel market analysts were resolutely bearish during a pricing panel at the Fastmarkets’ seventh International Nickel conference in Amsterdam on Wednesday June 5, forecasting that the London Metal Exchange three-month nickel price is unlikely to breach $13,000 per tonne this year.

The LME three-month price is currently trading below $12,000 per tonne, hitting an intraday high of $11,860 per tonne on Tuesday June 4. According to analysts speaking at the conference, this decline will continue into the second half of 2019.

The LME three-month nickel price is likely to average $11,250 per tonne in the fourth quarter of 2019, said Colin Hamilton, managing director of BMO Capital Markets.

“$13,000 is three or four years down the line,” he told delegates at the conference.

Citi commodities strategist Oliver Nugent was less bearish, forecasting a base scenario of $13,000 per tonne in the fourth quarter due to an improving macroeconomic environment.

But Nugent gave a 30% probability to a more bearish scenario that would see nickel prices fall to $10,000 by year-end should trade wars escalated or global economic growth worsened.

“It’s all macro. It’s not about electric vehicles but about the global economy. That’s what is really driving the nickel price,” he said.

Macro headwinds were indeed seen by all analysts attending the conference as the prevailing factor capping the LME three-month nickel price to the downside.

Tariff uncertainty from the United Kingdom’s planned exit from the European Union and increasing tension between China and Indonesia are now macros effecting a downward pressure on the nickel price alongside ongoing US-Sino trade disputes.

And increased material supply in 2019 is a factor contributing to downside price risk.

Chinese nickel pig iron (NPI) supply is currently dominating this supply growth, constituting 36% of nickel market supply, growing by an approximate estimate of 5.5 million tonnes between 2015 and 2020.

A recovery in Indonesian nickel ore supply and potential for low-cost supply of refined supply from Indonesia, which increased mine output by 31.1% to 57,700 tonnes per month in the first quarter of 2019, are also exacerbating supply factors.

And while nickel demand from the global stainless steel sector has roughly doubled to almost 40 million tonnes over the past decade and stock drawdown remains healthy with LME warehouse stocks at a seven-year low of 164,052 tonnes, market fundamentals are not tight enough to drive the price up.

And while much has been made of the advent of electric vehicles and an anticipated increase in nickel-rich battery demand, expected to reach double-digit market penetration in 2025, analysts on the pricing panel do not view this as a sufficient incentive to incite nickel bullishness in the current market.