The 2015 Metals Outlook Series: Nickel

The story of nickel is finally one of stability.

Since 2005 the me­tal has been wracked by skyrocketing highs and sharp declines that have caused massive job losses and uncertainty that has seen an exodus from the sector by many of the larger players.

Much of this was due to a fall in stainless steel demand, working inversely to the growing demand for construction steel.

IBISWorld put it succinctly: "Nickel prices, having reached unprecedented highs prior to the global financial crisis, plummeted as global economic growth slumped in subsequent years."

And while the future is slated to be better, a swift and strong recovery is not forecast.

Earlier this year the metal reached a two year high in May, but since that time has reversed its gains, falling 27 per cent.

Much of this spike was based on Indonesia's implementation of a ban on unrefined nickel being exported, with prices surging 56 per cent at the time, however the fall came quickly due to the likelihood of current global supply more than meeting the hole left by the Indonesian ban.

BHP's attempts to sell off its Nickel West assets exemplified the confused nature of the sector.

While the miner saw the assets as valuable enough to retain during its greater demerger earlier this year, it did not see them as vital enough to keep within its mix.

Instead the miner attempted to sell off the various mines and smelter assets in Western Australia, and while there were plenty of alleged approaches for the suite from other majors such as Glencore and X2 Resources, BHP could not find a buyer and has now been left with the assets.

However the future is now looking more stable for nickel.

As opposed to the volatile movements seen earlier this century, there will finally be some stability ahead.

And much of this is due to the decline in the Australian dollar.

According to IBISWorld "trends in US dollar nickel prices, the value of the Australian dollar and in the volume of nickel production will continue to drive industry performance during the five years through 2018/19".

Speaking to David McCombe, BNP Paribas managing director energy and natural resources investment banking Asia-Pacific, he told Australian Mining there is likely to be a net deficit in the metal moving out which will drive the price up.

"In 2015 we expect the price to sit around the mid US$18 000 mark, and then it will slowly move up to approximately US$19 000 by 2019," he said.

Perth based Alto Capital ex-pects the price to hit approximately US$20 000 per tonne next year.

The price expectation is more than 11 per cent higher than the average US$18 000 evident in the sector so far in calendar 2014 – with Perth-based Alto Capital research analyst, Carey Smith, saying returns could go even higher due to pressure from the greenback.

"By next year, I expect that the Australian dollar will be trading around the range of 85-87c to the US dollar on average and that will be a bonus for Australian nickel producers," Smith said.

"That exchange market environment can potentially add another 20 per cent in Aussie dollar terms to revenue for producers, so the outlook for nickel not only looks pretty rosy at the moment but continues to hold firm for the long-term," he said.

There also positive trends predicted ahead, with IBISWorld stating "new firms are expected to enter the industry seeking new nickel resources".

However "a dose of realism is also needed and while there is always pressure to unearth the next big discovery, our junior explorers have time on their side – particularly if they are venturing into Western Australia's Fraser Range," Smith said.

"While Sirius Resources ignited that region when it struck nickel sulphide mineralisation at Nova just over two years ago, Fraser Range is still a very fresh nickel province and we should not expect the Sirius success to be replicated in any sort of hurry.

"Two years in a whole new province isn't a long time to get to understand its geology and my sense is that nickel explorers already in or planning to enter the province have a two-year window or so in order to make the level of discoveries that can keep market sentiment interested in both nickel, and the Fraser Range."

Smith noted that some Aus-tralian explorers are seeking op­por­tunities away from Australia but nickel-minded players did not need to look much further than Western Australia.

Australian Nickel Conference Convenor, Bill Repard, said the nickel sector had been energised this year, partly by speculation about how rapidly China was depleting its 2013 ore stockpile of 25 million tonnes, and similar speculation on when and if the Philippines would follow Indonesia's path and impose export bans on unprocessed nickel ore.

"Currently, there are no new large-scale nickel projects coming on stream and existing or mooted export bans will only add to the pace at which supply and demand pressures must invariably spike a price rise," Repard said.

But a strong recovery is not on the cards.

"Nickel prices are forecast to bottom out in 2014/15 and remain low through 2018/19," IBISWorld said.

Western Areas CFO Joe Belladonna pointed to next year as the pinch point for the metal, in particular quality nickel sulphides, which will force the industry to focus on new technological innovations if it is to remain viable.

In the previous 2013/14 period nickel revenues saw a decline of 6.9 per cent, which was an improvement on the previous period's recorded 19.7 per cent decline.

The shrinking of the sector is predicted to slow again in the 2014/15 period to only 3.9 per cent before it records its first positive movement since 2010/11, registering a 2.1 per cent improvement in 2015/16.

This upwards trend will continue for the next few years, with a 3.3 per cent increase in 2016/17, a 4.7 per cent increase in 2017/18, and a larger 6.3 per cent increase in revenues in 2018/19. 

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