China's August nickel ore imports from Indonesia surge 26.5% ahead of ban

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s nickel ore imports from Indonesia rose 26.5% year-on-year in August, customs data showed on Wednesday, as stainless steel producers stocked up on raw materials ahead of a ban on exports from the Southeast Asian country.

FILE PHOTO: Excavators are seen at a nickel ore mining area at Kolonedalle village near Morowali, Indonesia's Sulawesi island January 14, 2014. REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmad/File Photo

Following weeks of speculation, top nickel miner Indonesia confirmed on Sept. 2 it would ban nickel ore exports from Jan. 1 next year as it seeks to process more of its resources at home.

That sent benchmark London nickel prices CMNI3 to their highest in almost five years.

China, the world’s biggest stainless steel producer and the top importer of nickel ore, imported 5.72 million tonnes of nickel ores and concentrates in total last month, up 5.5% from July.

That was the highest monthly number since September 2018 but was 7.5% lower year-on-year, data from China’s General Administration of Customs showed.

Imports from Indonesia stood at 1.61 million tonnes, down 8.4% from the previous month but up sharply from 1.27 million tonnes a year earlier.

“Everyone is trying to ship Indonesian ore as much as they can before the end of the year,” said Linda Zhang, a nickel analyst at Wood Mackenzie. “But there will be constraints in terms of mining rate, ship availability and port capacity in Indonesia, so they have to look for other alternatives,”

Shipments from the Philippines, China’s biggest supplier of nickel ore and its most obvious source of alternative supply, came in at 3.99 million tonnes last month, up 13.2% from July. That was the highest monthly total since October but was down 16.8% from August 2018.

Experts say, however, that even though Philippine nickel miners are likely to boost production next year, they cannot match the higher grade of Indonesian ore and will be unable to completely fill the supply void.

Zhang said the month-on-month increase in shipments from the Philippines was a seasonal trend ahead of the monsoon season starting in October. “In the meantime, Philippine miners are also encouraged by the surging ore price thanks to the Indonesian ore ban,” she added.

Chinese buyers “definitely need to stockpile, not only from Indonesia but also from anywhere else,” Zhang said.

Nickel ore inventories at major Chinese ports stood at 12.4 million tonnes as of Sept. 20, according to research house Antaike, down 482,500 tonnes from the previous week.

Reporting by Tom Daly; Editing by Jan Harvey and Muralikumar Anantharaman