Major lithium producers eye price recovery as buyers expected to restock soon

US-headquartered lithium producers Albemarle and Livent are expecting lithium spot prices to recover from the weakness seen in recent months, because they foresee a brighter demand picture for the remainder of the year

Both companies recorded a quarter-on-quarter drop in revenues during the second quarter of 2023, which they attributed to lower realized prices.

Lithium spot prices have been volatile so far in 2023, but overall have trended downward since the beginning of the year.

For instance, Fastmarkets’ daily assessment of the lithium carbonate 99.5% Li2CO3 min, battery grade, spot prices cif China, Japan & Korea, was $36-38.50 per kg on Tuesday August 8, down by 52.84% from $78-80 per kg on January 3.

Livent reported second-quarter revenue of $235.8 million, 7% lower than the first quarter of 2023 but 8% higher than the second quarter of 2022.

“Given the negative trend we saw in lithium market prices in the first quarter of this year and the natural lag of a few months typically seen in achieved contract prices, we had decent visibility into this move lower,” Livent’s chief financial officer, Gilberto Antoniazzi, said during a company earnings call on August 4.

But Livent executives reiterated during the call with investors the company’s full-year guidance for 2023 – which was raised from previous estimates made in the company’s first-quarter earnings release.

Livent projects revenue to be in the range of $1.025 billion to $1.125 billion in 2023, which represents growth of 32% at the midpoint from the prior year.

Meanwhile, Albemarle posted net income of $650 million for the second quarter ended June 30. This is down by 45.83% from $1.2 billion in the first quarter of 2023, but up by 37.41% from $406.8 million for the year-earlier period, according to the company’s earnings release on August 2.

Nevertheless, Albemarle has raised its revenue outlook for 2023, partially due to expectations of improving lithium prices.

“Customers are returning to the spot market after destocking to unsustainably low levels of inventory against the backdrop of growing demand, with lithium inventories decreasing in the supply chain over the last few months,” Albemarle chairman and chief executive officer Kent Masters said during a company earnings call in early August.

“Global lithium supply demand remains relatively balanced, driven by increased electric vehicles demand as well as challenges in bringing on new projects,” Masters added.

Albemarle now expects its annual revenue to total $10.4 billion to $11.5 billion in 2023, up from its previous projection in May of $9.8 billion to $11.5 billion. That would represent a gain of 40-55% compared with the 2022 revenue of $7.32 billion.

“In a number of recent major lithium producers’ earnings calls we have heard that destocking across the lithium-ion supply chain in China, and broadly in Asia, was reaching its bottom and a recovery in demand was expected,” a market participant told Fastmarkets.

“This coupled with potential disruptions due to power-rationing in key producing regions in China that we have seen historically happening at the beginning of the fourth quarter has the potential to reverse the weakness in lithium spot prices,” the market participant added.

“Our view is broadly in line with those portrayed in the latest lithium producers’ earnings calls, but perhaps not as bullish. For now, weak demand has fueled bearish sentiment, resulting in softening prices. We think this is temporary and coincides with the usual summer lull in spot activity,” Fastmarkets battery raw materials analyst Jordan Roberts said.

“Consumers will currently be running down inventories which were replenished in June. We expect their return to the spot market to coincide with the seasonal increase in demand during the fourth quarter and this should see an uptick in prices, although they are unlikely to reach the levels seen in the same period last year. There is certainly scope for prices to recover to levels seen in mid-June,” Roberts added.

Fastmarkets’ assessment of the lithium carbonate 99.5% Li2CO3 min, battery grade, spot prices cif China, Japan & Korea, averaged $42.55 per kg in June, up from an average of $32.15 per kg in the prior month.

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