Steep levies on Russian aluminium could threaten U.S. nickel supply

A worker controls forming of aluminium ingots on a conveyor belt at the foundry shop of the Rusal Krasnoyarsk aluminium smelter in Krasnoyarsk
A worker controls forming of aluminium ingots on a conveyor belt at the foundry shop of the Rusal Krasnoyarsk aluminium smelter in Krasnoyarsk, Russia October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
  • Russia accounted for 11% of U.S. nickel imports in 2022 -TDM
  • Russia supplied 35% of U.S. palladium imports in 2022 total -TDM

LONDON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Russia is likely to limit exports of key metals such as nickel and palladium if the United States imposes steep taxes on imports of aluminium from Russia, analysts say.

While Russian aluminium accounts for only a small portion U.S. supplies, nickel is vital for the aerospace industry and electric vehicle batteries. Palladium, meanwhile, is a key component for autocatalysts in gasoline-fuelled cars.

U.S. nickel imports

Data from statistics provider Trade Data Monitor (TDM) shows that nearly 11% of the 92,624 tonnes of nickel imported by the United States last year came from Russia and that Russian palladium shipments, at 20 tonnes, accounted for nearly 35% of U.S. imports.

U.S. palladium imports

In an attempt to ramp up pressure on Russia over the war in Ukraine, the United States is considering raising the import levy on Russian-origin aluminium to 200%.

Russian aluminium is produced by Rusal (RUAL.MM), which accounts for about 6% of global supplies.

"There’s no real gain in targeting this trade flow," said Liberum analyst Tom Price. "If such a tariff was imposed, then markets should expect a response from Russia – possibly constraints on other critical metals exported to the U.S."

Price added that such a move is typical of trade conflicts.

An analyst at a commodities-focused fund agreed there was a high chance Russia could hit back by banning nickel and palladium shipments to the United States.

U.S. aluminium imports

U.S. imports of unwrought aluminium and alloys from Russia amounted to 191,809 tonnes, or roughly 4.4% of the more than 4.4 million tonne total last year, compared with 8.9% in 2018 and 14.6% in 2017, according to Trade Data Monitor.

"Our view is that tariffs, on a standalone basis from the U.S., should not have a large impact on the market as Russian volumes into the U.S. have already dwindled," Macquarie analysts said.

"This would change, however, if sanctions were imposed, with potential spillover effects to other regions."

Neither Russian metal nor the companies that produce it have been targeted by sanctions imposed on some Russian companies after Russia sent troops into Ukraine last year.

In 2018, however, U.S. Treasury Department sanctions on Rusal froze the bulk of the company's exports, paralyzed its supply chain and scared off customers.

LME aluminium prices
Reporting by Pratima Desai Editing by David Goodman

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