LONDON: China, the world’s largest aluminium producer, is still running short of primary metal. The country imported another 140,000 tonnes in October, bringing the year-to-date total to 1.27 million tonnes.
Multiple Chinese smelters have been ordered to reduce or curtail production as provincial governments try to meet quarterly energy usage and efficiency targets.
China’s national output of aluminium peaked in February, when it was running at an annualised rate of 39.7 million tonnes. The International Aluminium Institute (IAI) estimates it was 38.5 million tonnes in October.
The call on metal from the rest of the world is depleting inventories. London Metal Exchange (LME) stocks have fallen to 893,775 tonnes, their lowest level since 2007.
Can Western producers respond to the call? The price incentive is there. LME three-month aluminium is currently trading around $2,640 per tonne, off October’s 13-year peak of $3,229 but still at a historically elevated level. But carbon is now as important as price for most producers, a collective green pivot that is muting the supply response to low stocks and high prices. Aluminium production outside of China rose by a marginal 1.7% to 21.97 million tonnes in the first 10 months of this year, according to the IAI. October’s annualised run-rate was just 271,000 tonnes higher than December 2020. Unforeseen supply hits have played their part in restricting growth despite a step-change higher in the aluminium price. A protracted strike at the Kitimat smelter in Canada - resolved in October - has dented North American production, which fell by 1.8% over January-October. High gas and energy prices in Europe are constraining regional smelter production, which was running at an annualised 3.29 million tonnes in October, down from in excess of 3.40 million in both April and May. But there hasn’t been much in the way of new capacity coming online either. That’s a result of the low pricing environment of the last decade, which was characterised by China’s over-production and high exports. The largest single addition this year has been the full commissioning of the Samalaju Phase 3 smelter in Malaysia, a 320,000-tonne per year capacity boost for owner Press Metal. The ramp-up of the plant has fuelled an 8.9% increase in Asian output in the first 10 months of the year. Only Latin America registered higher growth of 16.4% but that reflects the partial curtailment of two smelters in the first half of 2020 -Brazil’s Albras (fire) and Argentina’s Aluar (COVID-19).
It’s worth noting that Press Metals’ smelters are predominantly supplied by hydro power from the Sarawak State grid.
Carbon is emerging as a key differentiator in the aluminium market as producers respond to growing demand for green metal.