Although China is the second-largest importer of lithium carbonate in the world, it dominates globally in exports for lithium oxide and lithium hydroxide.With moderate lithium deposits, the country will need to find ways to expand its resource reserves to support the rapid development of its electric car and electronics industries. It is widely viewed that China will construct lithium mining facilities in Afghanistan, but this is very unlikely in the near future due to the difficult military and political situation there.
In 2020, American imports of aluminium plates, sheets and strips slumped to 836K tonnes, reducing by -35.6% y-o-y. In value terms, they shrank from $4.2B to $2.5B over the last year. Canada, China and Saudi Arabia remain the largest suppliers of aluminium plates, sheets and strips to the U.S. In 2020, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Canada managed to boost shipments to the American market, while other exporting countries experienced significant drops in supplies. The average import price for aluminium plates, sheets and strips in the U.S. decreased by -6% y-o-y to near $3,000 per tonne.
Prices for aluminum this year will remain low thanks to the consistent growth in global production of the metal overcoming obstacles caused by the pandemic. In the mid-term, demand for aluminum in the construction sector and car manufacturing is forecast to steadily rise. The rapid development of alternative energy sources will also drive the market up because aluminum is used in the production of solar batteries, wind generators and other components of energy facilities. In China, the launch of quotas on greenhouse gas emissions could lead to higher prices for aluminum as production for the metal in the country leaves a heavy carbon footprint.
China steel prices continue to level off from mid-May heights off the back of sluggish seasonal demand, declines in domestic manufacturer steel consumption and government pledges to curb “unreasonable” demand, despite tighter climate controls on steel production. Overall, Asia-Pacific steel prices are still set to stay elevated in the medium-term with support from robust infrastructure spending, though concerns loom oversupply capacity expansions in South-East Asia and tightening of fiscal spending in China.
Nickel prices skyrocketed on the expectations of a shortage on the global market provoked by the increase in demand that outpaces the supply growth. The rebound in the steel industry and rising electric vehicle manufacturing drive nickel consumption. Pandemic-related lockdowns in the first half of 2020 and the related uncertainty led to a decrease in the global nickel mine output by -4% y-o-y. Despite this, refined nickel production increased by +2% y-o-y, boosted by the recovering demand from mid-2020 and the use of secondary smelting. Indonesia, the largest nickel ore producer worldwide, banned exports of the ore and thus achieved a record output of refined nickel.
During the pandemic year, global lead production declined by 4% y-o-y, to 12M tonnes, due to a drop in demand from the chemical, metallurgical and electrical industries, including battery manufacturing. As the downstream industries started to recover, the demand for lead follows. Combined with the expected growth in the electric vehicle industry, this creates opportunities for the future growth of the lead market.
In 2021, the copper price is expected to grow, driven by an increase in demand over supply. Heightened demand for copper is spurred on by a robust pace in construction and rapid development of the electric car industry in the Asia Pacific, the U.S. and the EU. At the same time, copper output still hasn’t fully bounced back after the shock of Covid-19.
The pandemic hit battery manufacturing, which is the main lithium-consuming industry hard. Lithium supplies on the global market exceeded demand, resulting in a fall in lithium prices. In the second half of 2020, lithium demand started to recover, buoyed by strong battery sales. Strategic partnerships shaped during the Covid crisis enabled lithium manufacturers to secure stable product supply chains.
The beginning of 2021 saw a sharp increase in the steel demand, while metallurgical plants were still recovering from the operational downtime incurred during the lockdown. This market disbalance leads to an increase in steel prices. The recovery of the automotive sector and other downstream industries in 2020, at a faster pace than expected, generates the conditions for robust steel demand in the medium term.