Surge in China’s appetite for imported lithium carbonate mirrors price recovery in October

Monthly Chinese custom data compiled by Fastmarkets showed lithium carbonate imports in China for October were at their highest level in at least seven years.

The spike in Chinese imports of lithium carbonate reflected the uptrend in the country’s spot market as well as stock building by key suppliers in the country in preparation for a price recovery and increased demand, Fastmarkets understands.

According to China’s custom data, imports of lithium carbonate compounds totaled 6,554 tonnes in October, up by 25.6% month on month from 5,218 tonnes in September and up almost 100% from 3,294 tonnes in October 2019. Most of those imports came from Chile and Argentina, imports data showed.

The import data includes different grades of lithium carbonate as well as contract and spot prices. Nevertheless, Fastmarkets head of battery raw materials research William Adams pointed to a battery-grade market recovery as a driver of the imports.

“Our research view is that carbonate prices in China have put in a base, the market has turned and we are getting some rebound as the supply chain restocks and as domestic brine production has slowed for the winter months, due to cold temperature,” Adams said.

Meanwhile, Daniel Jimenez, founder of Chile-based mining advisory Ilimarkets told Fastmarkets that most of those imports could be the result of a key South American incumbent producer’s strategy to build up inventory. He also acknowledged that lithium carbonate spot prices in China have bottomed out: “Yes, prices in China have bottomed, and are moving to a level that will allow producers at least not to lose money, probably to an equivalent of $6-7 per kg. There is a sensation of less oversupply.”

Earlier this year during the release of its third-quarter results, key Chilean lithium producer Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM) said that that it targets a 30% market share increase in 2020 compared with 2019 and overall sales of 60,000 LCE metric tonnes in 2020.

Battery-grade and technical-grade lithium carbonate prices in China bottomed out at the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2020 and the upward momentum has continued in early December amid a resurgence of lithium iron phosphate (LFP) battery demand in the country.

Fastmarkets’ weekly price assessment for lithium carbonate, 99.5% Li2CO3 min, battery grade, spot price range exw domestic China was 42,000-45,000 yuan ($6,426-6,885) per tonne on Thursday December 3, up from 41,000-43,000 yuan per tonne the previous week.

Between July 9 and October 8, the spot price for battery-grade lithium carbonate in China dropped to a multi-year low of 41,000-37,000 yuan per tonne, Fastmarkets historical data showed.

China’s technical and industrial-grade lithium carbonate spot market has also trended up recently.

Fastmarkets assessed the Chinese technical and industrial-grade lithium carbonate spot price at 37,000-39,000 yuan per tonne on December 3, rising from 36,000-37,000 yuan per tonne on November 26.

The price has been as low as 30,000-34,000 yuan per tonne between June 11- July 9, data showed.

On the market outlook, Fastmarkets’ Adams said: “While we expect some price lift we think prices will be capped 1) because there are still stockpiles of spodumene in China that can be converted; 2) some producers are carrying on with the capacity expansions so will have more material to offer in 2021; and 3) because there is idle capacity that is probably only too keen to be restarted.”

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