Nickel producers fend off output cuts as losses mount

Fri Aug 2, 2013 2:25am EDT

* French miner Eramet warns of full-year operating loss

* Nickel miners likely to unveil more writedowns and losses

* Miners continue to stick to production plans

By Melanie Burton and James Regan

SINGAPORE/SYDNEY Aug 2 (Reuters) - Nickel miners are clinging to plans to maintain production, despite a growing supply glut and prices around four-year lows, raising the risk of more writedowns and losses being unveiled in the current financial reporting season.

France's Eramet this week reported a first-half operating loss and warned the second half would be worse due to weak nickel prices, while other top producers such as Vale SA , Glencore Xstrata and BHP Billiton report in the next few weeks.

Between a quarter to a half of the nickel sector could be running at a loss, according to industry estimates, hit by weak demand from China, the world's top producer and consumer of stainless steel. Nickel is a key component of stainless steel.

Nonetheless, few miners have yet made deep cuts in output and the trend is set to put more pressure on depressed prices.

"It's a staring contest, no one wants to be the first to take the pain," said Robin Bhar, an analyst at Societe Generale in London.

Three month nickel on the London Metal Exchange hit $13,205 a tonne on July 9, the lowest since May 2009 and down from nearly $19,000 in February. Nickel is the worst performer on the exchange so far this year, down nearly 20 percent.

"I think you're going to have to see writedowns and maybe some further closures," he added.

The market is in a glut with registered stocks in LME warehouses at a record high above 200,000 tonnes, while Macquarie Bank forecasts nickel supply will rise 4.1 percent 1.845 million tonnes this year.

But at many mine sites, nickel producers are chasing lower operating costs by producing more.

Canada's First Quantum Minerals Ltd mined a third more nickel in the June quarter, while Western Areas Ltd has just had a record fiscal year in 2012/13. Rather than curb output to reduce costs, senior management at the Australian firm will take 10-20 percent pay cuts.

Fellow Australian Mincor Resources NL also beat its guidance and is maintaining production over the next 12 months.

And despite being one of BHP Billiton's least profitable businesses, the world's third-biggest nickel division only saw a 2,000-tonne drop in quarterly production from the previous and year-ago quarters.

PINING HOPES ON INDONESIA

Cuts to output so far have been paltry and there has been limited appetite to buy nickel assets, with the market expected to be in a big surplus this year.

As China's manufacturing intensity slows, the nickel market has been doubly hit, with China's stainless steel factories also turning away from high purity metal to cut costs.

Instead they are feeding a cheaper alternative - nickel pig iron - typically formed from laterite ore which has low nickel content - into their furnaces.

Macquarie and Citi cut their nickel price outlooks for this year and next, by 7 and 14 percent for Macquarie, and by 15 and 22 percent for Citi. The banks expect prices to average around $15,200 this year with Citi forecasting prices at $16,375 next year and Macquarie $15,500 a tonne.

Citi has also cut its earnings forecasts for Norilsk Nickel , the world's largest nickel producer, and Canada's First Quantum Minerals Ltd.

Based on current LME prices and excluding nickel pig iron capacity, Barclays estimates close to 450,000 tonnes of mine production capacity is losing money with "significant-sized nickel mines in countries like Australia and Canada that ostensibly have been losing money for the past 18 months."

But for now Glencore Xstrata, Vale, First Quantum, China Metallurgical Corp, Sherritt International and Sumitomo Corp are among companies spending heavily to build new nickel mines and processing plants.

So far, the nickel industry is pinning its hopes on a tougher stance by Indonesia to curb exports of raw materials from 2014, with Eramet Chief Executive Patrick Buffet calling on Indonesia's government to confirm it will implement the ban aimed at processing more laterite ore at home.

But analysts say that a blanket ban is unlikely because it will have too big a hit on Indonesia's revenue.

"Short of a now very low probability supply squeeze from Indonesia next year, (we) have little reason to believe prices will recover in the next few years," Barclays said.

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