South Korean black mass market restrained by tepid demand and lithium weakness

Black mass purchasing in the key South Korean market was limited over the last week by middling demand in the country, while the fresh decline in Chinese lithium markets in recent days led to more caution among buyers, sources told Fastmarkets on Wednesday May 24

Payables for black mass - the term used to describe the remains of a battery pack after it is shredded and processed – had been increasing over recent weeks in line with a recovery in lithium prices.

But weaker sentiment in China’s lithium market in recent days, along with continued declines in key prices for battery metals such as cobalt standard grade and London Metal Exchange nickel, led to more caution among black mass buyers in Asia this week.

Fastmarkets’ assessments for black mass, NCM/NCA, payable indicator, cobalt, cif South Korea, % payable Fastmarkets’ standard-grade cobalt price (low-end) and black mass, NCM/NCA, payable indicator, nickel, cif South Korea, % payable LME Nickel cash official price were both at 60-68% on Wednesday, widening downward 3% from 63-68% week on week.

Part of the lithium price decline this week can be seen in Fastmarkets’ price assessment for lithium hydroxide monohydrate LiOH.H2O 56.5% LiOH min, battery grade, spot price cif China, Japan & Korea, which was assessed at $42.25-48.00 per kg on Wednesday, unchanged day on day but widening downward by $2.75 per kg from $44-48 per kg on Monday.

“The [Chinese black mass] payable increased since early May due the local lithium carbonate price soaring, but [payables] may start dropping [more] soon,” according to a Chinese battery materials producer source, who suggested that Chinese local black mass payables had already been starting to decline in recent days.

Trading activity remains slow

Black mass trading has fallen in the last few months and despite the rebound in lithium at the beginning of May, trading volumes are far from having recovered, sources said.

“The Asian black mass market has been dealing with lower payables for a while now – it has been dry for everyone and everyone is adjusting. There is more stock now in producers’ yards,” according to a Singapore-based trading source.

“South Korean black mass buying power has decreased. Demand for lower quality black mass has declined significantly, and demand for higher grade black powder has also dropped, but not by as much,” a South Korean consumer source told Fastmarkets on Wednesday.

A North American market black mass source said that lower black mass sales were leading some American firms to consider exporting material to the Asian markets, although there were quality concerns such as moisture content and consistency.

Black mass considered under Fastmarkets’ methodology for the CIF South Korea market must be dried and free-flowing, which is in line with regional preferences.

For nickel cobalt manganese (NCM) black mass, South Korean buyer and trader sources said that payables of 60-65% for nickel and cobalt - which is also including the lithium value – would be workable for material of around 20% nickel, 5% cobalt and 3.5% lithium this week.

Material of a similar specification, believed to have originated from North America, was heard sold at the end of last week on a CIF Southeast Asian basis at around 68% for nickel and cobalt, including the lithium value, following bids at around 63%, Fastmarkets heard.

Buyers in Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia, are typically able to pay very competitive prices for black mass because they can process the material into an intermediary product before shipping to China, according to market participants.

North American NCM black mass material was heard to be available at around 60-65% FOB for nickel and cobalt, including the lithium value, which would work out at around 63-68% CIF South Korea, Fastmarkets heard.

For the higher-grade black powder material, with lithium content over 7%, payables may exceed 80% in the current market environment, but there was also no new sales activity heard for this material recently, according to a second South Korean consumer.

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