China Nickel Trade Shifts as Ore Imports Drop, Ferronickel Rises

China’s imports of nickel ore and refined metal dropped in July, while overseas purchases of an intermediate form of the raw material surged, signalling the shifting mix of shipments into the world’s top stainless-steel producer.

Inbound shipments of ore were 3.29 million metric tons, down 34 percent from about 5 million tons a year earlier, while imports of refined metal dropped 41 percent to 27,129 tons, according to Chinese customs data Wednesday. Overseas purchases of ferronickel jumped 56 percent to 92,240 tons, the second-highest on record, as Indonesian shipments rose more than fivefold.

Refined nickel in London has advanced 16 percent this year amid speculation a mining clampdown in the Philippines will encourage Chinese buyers to seek other forms of the metal as ore shipments from the top producer decline. Indonesia prohibited ore exports from the start of 2014, both paving the way for miners in the Philippines to move into the trade, and laying the groundwork for a rise in semi-processed ferronickel exports. This week, Indonesia’s National Development Planning Minister said the curbs had proved a success.

“The basic trend now is that Indonesia is exporting more ferronickel because after they banned export of ore in 2014, they started to go downstream and build ferronickel plants,” said Helen Lau, an analyst at Argonaut Securities Asia Ltd. in Hong Kong. In July, supplies of ferronickel from Indonesia rose 457 percent to 74,493 tons.

Different Forms

Nickel comes in different forms that vary according to purity. Shipments of ore -- typically unprocessed earth -- have less than 5 percent metal, while refined nickel is pure metal. Ferronickel in Chinese customs data lies between the two, usually containing 10 percent or more. Nickel is used to make stainless steel.

In the first seven months, imports of ore fell to 14.5 million tons, down about 26 percent. Volumes may be squeezed further after the Philippines shut mines accounting for about 15 percent of output amid the nationwide audit of the mining industry, according to Macquarie Group Ltd. Inbound shipments of refined nickel were 256,735 tons in the period, up 72 percent, while volumes of ferronickel climbed 47 percent to 557,208 tons.

Nickel traded 0.5 percent lower at $10,210 a ton on the London Metal Exchange at 3:27 p.m. in Shanghai. The price gained to $11,030 earlier this month, the highest since August 2015, as investor concern mounted about the potential impact of the Philippine audit.

— With assistance by Martin Ritchie

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