As pressure on BHP and Glencore grows, Australia cuts may signal nickel revival

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian nickel miners are under increasing pressure to suspend or cut production, with investors eyeing key announcements in coming weeks after rival producers in New Caledonia won a pledge of support from France.

Excavators sit idle in a nickel-mining area on the hill of Pomala village in Southeast Sulawesi province September 2, 2012. REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmad

Benchmark prices of the steel-making material have fallen more than 45 percent since early 2015 to their lowest since 2003, and are seen grinding lower amid ample global stocks and slowing property growth in top consumer China.

Glencore and BHP Billiton, whose high-cost Murrin Murrin and Nickel West facilities are struggling to sustain operations, are both due to make production and profit reports in coming weeks. News of any output cuts could buoy prices.

“Everyone is waiting for everyone else to blink first - it is just a question of how long can people hold on for,” said Ian Warden of AME Group in Sydney. “They’re (Australian miners) at the top of the (cost) curve and under quite a bit of pressure.”

Other major nickel producers Russia and Canada have been insulated from rock-bottom prices by a dive in the rouble and technology upgrades that have cut costs respectively.

And France at the weekend pledged to support the nickel industry in its Pacific territory of New Caledonia - shielding the world’s other major high-cost producer.

In Australia, Queensland Nickel has already been placed into voluntary administration, while miner Mincor Resources, which feeds Nickel West, is putting its operations on care and maintenance.

JPMorgan this week costed closure of BHP’s Nickel West at $1 billion in rehabilitation costs, but said it may be the miner’s best option given it would otherwise be hit with almost $1 billion in free cash flow losses over the next three years. Closure or curtailments at Nickel West and Murrin Murrin could shave as much as six percent from this year’s expected supply in addition to cuts already announced by Brazil’s Votorantim and refineries in China.]

Morgan Stanley said many have been expecting Australian and New Caledonian operations to shut due to low prices, which could boost prices if matched by restocking from China mills after the Lunar New Year.

“Nickel remains our top pick for 2016,” it said in a research report this week.

Glencore declined to comment, while BHP declined to comment on the closure of Nickel West.

“Like all nickel producers, Nickel West is feeling the pressure of persistent weak nickel prices,” a BHP spokeswoman said, adding that the company was looking at new business to offset low prices.

“There’s a huge environmental liability around closing some operations,” said Ric Ronge, a portfolio manager of Pengana Global Resources Fund, adding that it was unlikely BHP would close Nickel West completely.

“That doesn’t stop them from putting things on care and maintenance. That still takes tonnes out of the market.”

Reporting by Melanie Burton; Additional reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Richard Pullin