* GRAPHIC: Nickel prices vs stocks link.reuters.com/vaq25w
* Eramet shares vs nickel price reut.rs/1RjPL0z
* Nickel price and market balance forecasts
* Prolonged slump will force mines to close
* Benchmark LME nickel seen in $7,500-$10,000/T range
* Demand for stainless steel stable, but sluggish
By Louise Heavens
LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - Nickel’s freefall may have halted as output cuts move the chronically oversupplied market towards deficit, but prices are unlikely to recover sharply unless more loss-making mines close.
Prices for the metal used to make stainless steel have crashed more than 40 percent since the start of 2015 on rising stockpiles and weak Chinese demand, leaving around 70 percent of producers losing money, according to consultants at CRU Group.
But cutbacks, at a time when demand is steadying, should boost benchmark prices on the London Metal Exchange, which recently hit 13-year lows at $7,550 a tonne. It is now around $8,525.
“While we have no growth in demand we will have a 7 percent fall in supply, driven mainly by a fall in production by the nickel pig iron producers in China,” said Jim Lennon, senior consultant at Macquarie.
“The issue is that the deficit has to be sustained for a number of years before you see any tightness developing.”
The market is expected to swing into a 31,000 tonne deficit this year and a 34,000 tonne deficit in 2017, according to a Reuters survey of metals analysts.
Macquarie said prices have to rise above $10,000 a tonne “or else closures in capacity will be enormous”.
Analysts expect nickel prices to rise this year, with Macquarie penciling in $10,000 to $12,000 per tonne, Deutsche Bank seeing $9,750 a tonne on average and Bank of America Merrill Lynch targeting $7,500-$9,500 a tonne.
So far few producers outside China have cut production, hoping to ride out the slump and keep market share when demand eventually picks up.
French miner Eramet has slashed costs to save its nickel subsidiary in New Caledonia, where miner and commodity trader Glencore and Brazil’s Vale also operate.
Analysts say the closure of mines such as Glencore’s Koniambo and Murrin Murrin projects and First Quantum Minerals’ Ravensthorpe plant in Australia will be key to ending the vicious circle.
“Then if you could reduce non-Chinese production by around 50,000 tonnes you get a much more interesting picture, because you start to push the deficit up into the 50,000-100,000 tonne range,” said VTB Capital analyst Wiktor Bielski.
Global demand for nickel is expected to rise to 1.965 million tonnes in 2016 from 1.905 million in 2015, the International Nickel Study Group predicts.
Much of the demand will come from China, although it is uncertain whether it is driven by real consumption rather than a need to meet deliveries from investors who had taken out futures contracts on the Shanghai exchange <0#SNI:>.
But a slight increase in demand is a drop in the ocean given stocks of the metal on the LME have quadrupled over the past three years.
There are around 435,702 tonnes sitting in LME-registered warehouses <0#LME-STOCKS>, although the true picture of availability is skewed by the fact that some is tied up in financing deals.
“The market is not as oversupplied as it seems but you’d have to struggle to suggest that you’d see any signs of tightness in supply this year,” said VTB’s Bielski.
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