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Nickel Price Forecast: Top Trends That Will Impact Nickel in 2024

Nickel started 2023 high after a rally at the end of 2022, but supply and demand pressures saw the base metal’s price decline throughout the year to close nearly 50 percent lower at US$16,375 per metric ton (MT).

Production has increased rapidly in recent years, and oversupply played a big role in nickel’s 2023 price dynamics. Indonesia in particular has ramped up its output and now accounts for more than 50 percent of global nickel supply.

Excess supply was compounded by weak demand out of China, which has continued to struggle since ending its zero-COVID policy in January. China’s central bank is now working to stimulate the economy to prevent runaway deflation.

Experts call for another nickel surplus in 2024

Nickel is coming into the year with a holdover surplus from 2023. This glut has mainly come from an increase in Class 2, lower-purity nickel produced in Indonesia, but it’s also been driven by an increase in the production of Class 1, higher-purity product from China. The former category, which includes nickel pig iron and ferronickel, is used in products such as steel, while the latter is necessary to create nickel sulfate and nickel cathodes for electric vehicles (EVs).

Against that backdrop of higher supply, both nickel products have also faced decreased demand.

“This buildup is making nickel vulnerable to violent price spikes should inventors unwind their short positions,” she said. This type of situation occurred in 2022, when the nickel price catapulted rapidly to over US$100,000 before the exchange canceled billions of dollars in trades and suspended nickel trading. The LME’s approach to the situation has been criticized, but was recently ruled lawful by London’s High Court of Justice.

The International Nickel Study Group (INSG), an intergovernmental body consisting of government and industry representatives, met in October to discuss the current state and outlook for the nickel market.

At the time, the group forecast that surplus conditions would continue into 2024, with oversupply reaching 239,000 MT on the back of increases in nickel pig iron output from Indonesia. Meanwhile, decreases in nickel pig iron production from China are expected to be offset by increases in nickel cathode and nickel sulfate production.

Even though the INSG expects demand to grow from 3.195 million MT in 2023 to 3.474 million MT in 2024, production is still anticipated to be higher, rising from from 3.417 million MT in 2023 to 3.713 million MT in 2024.

Chinese recovery needed to buoy nickel price

At the outset of 2023, experts thought Chinese demand for nickel would increase as the country ended its strict zero-COVID policy. China’s construction industry is a key consumer of nickel, which is used to make stainless steel.

However, the recovery was slower than predicted, and demand from the real estate sector never materialized.

While the lack of recovery in China’s real estate sector negatively impacted nickel demand and pricing through 2023, according to Fitch Ratings’ China Property Developers Outlook 2024, the country has been targeting construction and development policy in higher-tier cities and injecting liquidity in the market. This has largely been a balancing act as it tries to stem deflation in its market and battles with inflation globally.

If China’s efforts to provide real estate sector support are successful that could be a boon for the nickel price. But as 2024 begins, more economists are forecasting a continued downtrend in the Chinese economy.

Even so, the INSG’s October forecast indicated that demand for stainless steel was set to grow in the second half of 2023, and the group was calling for further growth in 2024.

EV demand for nickel rising slowly but surely

While the Chinese real estate market is a key factor in nickel demand, it’s not the only one.

The expanding EV sector is also a growing purchaser of nickel. “Global nickel consumption is expected to increase due to recovery of the stainless steel sector and increased usage of nickel in EV batteries,” Manthey said. “Batteries now account for almost 17 percent of total nickel demand, behind stainless steel.”

As a cathode material in EV batteries, nickel has become a critical component in the transition away from fossil fuels, which the expert anticipates will help its price in the future.

“The metal’s appeal to investors as a key green metal will support higher prices in the longer term,” she said.

While demand for battery-grade nickel is predicted to grow over the next few years as the metal is used in the prolific nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) cathodes, manufacturers and scientists have been working to find alternatives that don’t rely on nickel and cobalt due to environmental and human rights concerns, as well as the high costs of these cathodes.

Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries have become a contender in recent years, growing in popularity in Asia and seeing uptake from major EV producers like Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), owing to their longer lifespans and lower production costs. However, because of their lower range, LFP batteries have low demand in regions such as North America, where the ability to drive long distances is an important factor in purchase decisions.

This means that for now, NMC batteries will remain an essential part of the EV landscape.

EV demand has also declined recently as the industry faces headwinds that have soured consumer interest, including charging infrastructure shortfalls, inconsistent supply chains and elevated interest rates. These factors are already starting to have an impact, with Ford (NYSE:F) and GM (NYSE:GM), among others, cutting production forecasts for 2024.

What will happen to the nickel price in 2024?

Following its near 50 percent drop in 2023, the nickel price is expected to be rangebound for most of 2024.

“While LME nickel prices are expected to find support from a weaker US dollar in 2024 as the Fed eases monetary policy, we expect prices to remain subdued next year as further primary nickel output growth from Indonesia and China keeps the market in a surplus for the third consecutive year,” said Jason Sappor of S&P Global Commodity Insights.

Manthey agreed that the price is likely to stay flat. “We see prices averaging US$16,600 in Q1, with prices gradually moving up to average US$17,000. We forecast an average of US$16,813 in 2024,” she said. Manthey also noted that nickel is set to remain elevated compared to average levels before the short squeeze in March 2022.

Sappor suggested that the nickel surplus and the metal’s rangebound price may prompt producers to reduce their output. “Nickel prices have sunk deeper into the global production cost curve, raising the possibility that the market could be hit by price-supportive mine supply curtailments,” he said.

At this time there is no indication that producers will ease production next year, and Vale (NYSE:VALE), one of the world’s top nickel miners, is expecting its Indonesian subsidiary to produce slightly more versus 2023.

Investor takeaway

Much like the rest of the mining industry, nickel is being affected by broad macroeconomic forces in the post-COVID era. Higher interest rates are stymying investment across the mining industry, while also lowering demand for big-ticket items like real estate and cars, which help to drive demand for metals.

For nickel, this means another year of oversupply. A potential rebound in the Chinese real estate market and increased demand from upfront tax credits for EVs could shift its trajectory, but the headwinds in 2024 look to be strong.

Securities Disclosure: I, Dean Belder, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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