Ultimate Resource Covering The Crisis Taking Place In The Nickel Market
Nickel Spikes 60%: Here’s Why That Matters And Who Will Be Hit. Ultimate Resource Covering The Crisis Taking Place In The Nickel Market
* Metal’s Use In EV Batteries Has Caught The Market’s Attention
* Carmakers Like Tesla See Higher Costs As Nickel Prices Soar
The price of nickel spiked more than 60% Monday, one of most extreme moves ever seen on metal markets. Here’s why that matters and who’ll take a hit.
The metal added more than $10,000 to trade at a 15-year high above $40,000 a ton — the biggest-ever daily dollar gain in the 35-year history of the contract.
Russia is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of the metal, and the fear of sanctions or the inability to ship the metal has spooked an already tight market. Liquidity deteriorated dramatically in the nickel market overnight as sellers rushed to the sidelines, leading to sharp price jumps between trades as short-position holders scrambled for buy backs.
More than 70% of the global supply of nickel goes into making stainless steel. Yet it’s the metal’s use in batteries for electric vehicles that has really caught the market’s attention in recent years.
Currently, only about 7% of the supply goes to battery makers, but exponential growth has been forecast as the take up of EVs is forecast to boom in the coming years.
Russia supplies about 6% of global supply. Yet its importance to the battery industry is much higher. Russia’s MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC, which operates mines in far northern Siberia, supplies about 17% of the world’s so-called “Class 1” nickel, a high-purity form that’s more suitable for batteries and can be sourced in large quantities from only a few other locations.
The spike in nickel prices, alongside almost every other major commodity needed in manufacturing, is piling pressure on industries around the world.
The nickel market was already exceptionally tight before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with strong demand from stainless steel producers and battery manufacturers and supply concerns in Indonesia, the top producer.
That had already led carmakers, including Tesla Inc., to begin looking at cheaper alternatives, concerned about the cost and availability of both nickel and cobalt. Jeep maker Stellantis NV and Volvo Group had already warned higher prices for raw materials would add to supply-chain woes and fuel more inflation for the auto industry.
“The well-flagged headwind from raw material prices is accelerating as a result of the war and could potentially weigh on margins more than initially highlighted by the companies,” Deutsche Bank analysts led by Christoph Laskawi wrote in a March 3 report.
Chinese Tycoon Behind Big Nickel Short Faces Billions In Losses
* Xiang Guangda Caught Out By Metal’s Spectacular Rally
* London Metal Exchange Suspended Nickel Trading On Tuesday
A Chinese tycoon who built a massive short position in nickel futures is facing billions of dollars in mark-to-market losses after this week’s unprecedented price spike, according to people familiar with the matter.
Xiang Guangda — who controls the world’s largest nickel producer, Tsingshan Holding Group Co., and is known as “Big Shot” in Chinese commodity circles — has closed out part of his company’s short position and is considering whether to exit the wager altogether, the people said. Nickel rocketed to a record high above $100,000 a ton on Tuesday, driven in part by Tsingshan and its brokers’ activity, before trading was suspended.
While the exact scale of Xiang’s losses is unclear, Tsingshan’s short position on the LME is in the region of 100,000 tons of nickel, people familiar with the matter said.
It could be even larger than that when positions taken through intermediaries are taken into account, people separately said. That means it would have suffered well over $2 billion of daily losses at the most extreme point of nickel’s surge on Monday.
That would come on top of any losses incurred by the tycoon since he began building the short position late last year through closely held Tsingshan.
Xiang told Chinese news outlet Yicai that Tsingshan did not have any problems with its nickel trading. “We’ve received a lot of phone calls today. Tsingshan is an excellent Chinese enterprise, and our positions and operations don’t have any problems.”
The London Metal Exchange suspended trading in nickel on Tuesday morning after one of the most dramatic price spikes in commodity market history.
Prices had been ratcheting higher for weeks, amid fears of disruptions to supplies from Russia, the largest exporter of refined nickel.
The tightness in the market had been exacerbated by the presence of an unidentified trader who, according to exchange data, controlled somewhere between 50% and 80% of nickel warehouse warrants monitored by the LME as of last month.
Trading and mining giant Glencore Plc was the dominant holder of nickel in recent months, according to people familiar with the matter. A Glencore spokesman declined to comment.
But this week the rally became a melt-up, with prices surging as much as 250% in little more than 24 hours, to an all-time high of $101,365 a ton.
The superspike was driven by holders of short positions, including Tsingshan and its brokers, rushing to close them out. Tsingshan has been struggling to pay margin calls to its brokers, according to people familiar with the situation. It’s been under growing pressure to meet the payments in recent days, the people said.
Traders must deposit cash, known as “margin,” with their brokers on a regular basis to cover potential losses on their positions.
Brokers in turn must hold margin at the clearinghouse, LME Clear. If the market moves against those positions, they receive a “margin call” requesting further funds — and if they fail to pay, they can be forced to close their position.
On Monday, one of Tsingshan’s brokers — a unit of a state-owned Chinese bank — failed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in margin calls on its nickel positions. The LME did not put it into default, instead giving it more time to pay. Those payments have now been made, a person familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
The LME said Tuesday that trades that took place in Asian hours before the suspension — when prices rose from around $50,000 to above $100,000 a ton — would be cancelled. Even at Monday’s closing price of $48,063, however, Tsingshan’s mark-to-market losses would number in the billions of dollars.
Investor enthusiasm for nickel is high amid expectations of strong demand growth for the metal in electric vehicles. This week’s spike in prices has played out principally on the LME, and many traders expect the price to return to more normal levels once the margin call chaos has been resolved.
Tsingshan, among other Chinese companies, is ramping up a wave of new battery-grade nickel capacity in Indonesia. Xiang began building the short position in part because he wanted to hedge rising output, but also because he believed the rally in nickel prices would fade this year.
Still, this week’s short squeeze is nonetheless likely to push costs higher for battery companies and stainless steel makers, eventually feeding through into the price of everyday goods.
As such, if Tsingshan can weather the losses on its LME positions, the higher prices could yet benefit its core business of producing nickel and stainless steel.
Investors Wiped Out As Niche Leveraged Nickel Product Shuts Down
* WisdomTree Announces Compulsory Redemption Of Bearish 3NIS ETC
* Metal Has Surged On Russia Supply Concern, Short Squeeze
Investors in a niche leveraged product betting against nickel have been wiped out after the metal’s historic surge this week.
Issuer WisdomTree Investments announced that the Nickel 3x Daily Short exchange-traded commodity (ticker 3NIS), which aims to deliver three times the inverse performance of the commodity, will be redeemed following “extreme and continual” movements in the metal’s price.
Nickel has soared amid concern over supplies from Russia and a subsequent squeeze on short positions, with the London Metal Exchange suspending trading in the metal Tuesday.
In a notice on its website, WisdomTree said it had applied to the LSE and Borsa Italiana to immediately suspend and delist 3NIS. The redemption amount has been calculated as zero “so investors should not expect to get paid for the securities they hold,” the firm said.
A week ago, the ETC — a breed of exchange-traded product that invests in commodities, often via futures contracts — had more than $7 million in assets. A spokesperson for WisdomTree didn’t comment beyond the notices on its website.
The product’s demise is just one example of how recent wild moves across the metals complex are starting to make waves in usually obscure corners of the fund market. One of only two U.S. ETPs focused on nickel, the iPath Series B Bloomberg Nickel Subindex Total Return exchange-traded note (JJN), jumped more than 69% on Monday as trading volumes exploded to 55-times the average of the past year.
Leveraged products like 3NIS are especially vulnerable when such extreme moves are taking place. These vehicles use options to amplify returns, and they’re extremely popular with investors because they can offer big profits quickly. However these products can also suffer swift, heavy losses, and have become notorious for starring in multiple market meltdowns.
WisdomTree had announced a “restrike event” for 3NIS on Monday. That’s a mechanism that seeks to limit declines in a leveraged or inverse product by effectively resetting it before moves in the underlying security can destroy all value.
The Tuesday notice said that prices moved even further before the restrike could be concluded, so it was determined that the product’s value had dropped by 100%.
LME Halts Nickel Trading After Unprecedented 250% Spike
* Top Producer Tsingshan Under Pressure To Meet Margin Calls
* Prices Spiked As Short Position Holders Scrambled To Close Out
The London Metal Exchange suspended trading in its nickel market after an unprecedented price spike left brokers struggling to pay margin calls against unprofitable short positions, in a massive squeeze that has embroiled the largest nickel producer as well as a major Chinese bank.
Nickel, used in stainless steel and electric-vehicle batteries, surged as much as 250% in two days to trade briefly above $100,000 a ton early Tuesday. The frenzied move — the largest-ever on the LME — came as investors and industrial users who had sold the metal scrambled to buy the contracts back after prices initially rallied on concerns about supplies from Russia.
A Chinese tycoon who built a massive short position in the nickel market is facing billions of dollars in mark-to-market losses as a result of the surge in prices, according to people familiar with the matter.
Activity in the nickel market was suspended as trading got underway in London on Tuesday, and the LME later said it would cancel all nickel transactions that had taken place earlier in the day.
The debacle will raise memories of the LME’s darkest period, the “Tin Crisis” of 1985, which saw the exchange suspend trading in the metal for four years and pushed many brokers out of business. That was driven by the collapse of the International Tin Council, a body backed by 22 governments that fell apart when it could no longer keep propping up prices.
“This is second only to the tin crisis,” said Malcolm Freeman, a broker at Kingdom Futures who began his career on the LME in 1974. Suspending trading “was the right thing to do.”
Traders, miners and processors often take short positions on the exchange as a hedge for their physical stocks of metal. In theory, any price moves in the physical stocks and the exchange position should cancel each other out. But when prices rise sharply, anyone holding a short position on the exchange needs to find ever-greater sums of collateral to pay margin calls.
Traders and brokers must deposit cash and securities, known as margin, on a regular basis to cover potential losses on their positions. If the market moves against those positions, they receive a “margin call” requesting further funds — and if they fail to pay, they can be forced to close their position.
Chinese entrepreneur Xiang Guangda — known as “Big Shot” — has for months held a large short position on the LME through his company Tsingshan Holding Group Co., which is the world’s largest nickel and stainless steel producer, according to people familiar with the matter.
In recent days, Tsingshan has been under growing pressure from its brokers to meet margin calls on that position — a market dynamic which has helped to drive prices ever higher, the people said.
A unit of China Construction Bank Corp., which is one of Tsingshan’s brokers, was given additional time by the LME to pay hundreds of millions of dollars of margin calls it missed Monday. The necessary payment has now been made, a person familiar with the matter said Tuesday, requesting anonymity because the details aren’t public.
CCB International Holdings didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, while Tsingshan representatives had no immediate comment on Tuesday.
While giving the LME and its members time to restore order, the historic decision to close the market and cancel Tuesday’s trades quickly attracted controversy. Alex Gerko, the founder of XTX Markets, a leading electronic market-maker on the bourse, said on Twitter, that the move will mean “the end of the market”.
In a subsequently deleted tweet, he posted a chart suggesting the firm had seen a sharp slump in profits during the rally in nickel prices, but wrote that “you just can’t do what LME did”.
The LME said it was considering “a possible multi-day closure, given the geopolitical situation which underlies recent price moves.” In the meantime, nickel prices continued to rally on the Shanghai Futures Exchange, with prices hitting the upper daily trading limit as the bourse’s evening session got underway on Tuesday. Typically, there’s a highly liquid arbitrage trade between the two exchanges.
“I wonder how people running arb between SHFE and LME feel now,” XTX’s Gerko said in a separate tweet.
The suspension is for at least the remainder of Tuesday. The LME said it would calculate margin calls “for the present time” on the basis of Monday’s closing price of around $48,000.
Nickel had pared some gains to trade 66% higher at $80,000 a ton before the suspension. Other metals on the LME declined after the announcement.
A full default could have calamitous knock-on effects for the exchange, its members, and industrial users around the world who rely on its benchmark prices. The last time the bourse’s clearinghouse declared a default was in 2011, when ring-dealing member MF Global collapsed.
The LME initially announced rule changes late Monday in response to a daily spike of as much of 90%, allowing traders to defer delivery obligations on all its main contracts, including nickel — in an unusual shift for a 145-year-old institution that touts itself as the “market of last resort” for metals.
However, the move failed to address the key driver behind the squeeze — that market participants with short positions were being forced to close them out because they couldn’t meet margin calls.
Nickel was already rallying on tight supplies even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has sharpened fears of sweeping commodity shortages. Higher nickel prices, if sustained, threaten to ratchet up costs for electric-vehicle batteries and complicate the energy transition. Russia produces 17% of the world’s top-grade nickel.
A spokesperson for Trafigura, one of the top physical traders of the metal, said it supported the LME’s decision.
Nickel prices were quoted at $80,000 a ton as trading was suspended. Other metals pared or erased gains after the announcement. Aluminum dropped as much as 7% to $3,480 a ton, the biggest decline since 2018.
The Moral Hazard Lessons From Nickel Market Disaster
Every crisis brings busts, and the global disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may well bring more.
The tide went out this week in London’s nickel market, and we discovered—in Warren Buffett’s immortal words—who had been swimming naked: a giant Chinese producer that couldn’t meet its margin calls, additional security brokers require when leveraged trades lose money.
Instead of letting the market cleanse itself of this indebted trader, the exchange decided to wade in and save the firm from the consequences of its bets by canceling the trades.
This isn’t just a one-off in an obscure commodity. This is the natural conclusion of a trend that is undermining free markets and creating all the wrong incentives: A growing reluctance by the authorities to let financial groups go bust, even when they aren’t too big to fail.
The problems started on Tuesday morning, when traders on the London Metal Exchange smelled blood and nickel prices almost doubled. China’s Tsingshan Holding faced a $1 billion-or-so margin call that exchange officials feared it couldn’t meet.
Rather than let it fail, which would probably have taken down several of the smaller LME brokers that had serviced Tsingshan, LME decided to cancel all that day’s trading, more than 9,000 trades worth about $4 billion.
It. Canceled. The. Trades. Not because of a fat-finger error, which exchanges often cancel. Not even because of a rogue algorithm (as regulators claimed in the 2010 flash crash in U.S. stocks). But because someone with too much leverage was going to blow up, with knock-on effects on some members of the exchange.
This is moral hazard taken to its extreme. It has always been true that if you face a $100 margin call it’s your problem, while if you have a $1 billion margin call, it’s the brokers’ problem—and the authorities might save them. What is almost unprecedented here is that the exchange authorities decided to save them with money taken from other traders, who otherwise would be sitting on fat profits.
I say almost unprecedented, because it has happened before: Arch-speculator Jay Gould, dubbed the “most hated man in America,” bribed Senator William “Boss” Tweed and corrupt New York judges in 1869 to delay settlement of his gold dealings and so avoid losses after his efforts to corner the market collapsed.
Moral hazard is nothing new in markets, of course, usually resulting from a choice to inflict long-term damage to incentives to avoid the imminent failure of the financial system. But the money needed to rescue financial groups that could bring down the system typically comes from other financial institutions, as in 1907 or 1998, or from central banks, government and taxpayers, as with banks and insurers in 2008.
Taking away legitimate profits from traders in order to finance the rescue undermines the very notion that markets can themselves punish the highly leveraged. It means yet more intervention and regulation will be required in future to limit the extra leverage that such rescues encourage.
Even worse, the small brokers facing problems appear not to be too big to fail. If brokers know they’ll be rescued by the exchange if things go wrong, they have even less incentive to worry about large leveraged positions taken by their clients.
It also, of course, makes the LME a less-attractive place to trade, and its officials accept they may lose business as a result. Some outraged traders who had bet on rising prices are consulting lawyers.
The underlying problem of too much and too concentrated leverage is a staple of financial history. Tsingshan is primarily a producer, selling futures contracts as a hedge rather than as speculation—although it was unusual in having such a large position and was regarded as on the swashbuckling end of hedging, according to one LME trader.
But in a crisis the distinctions between what is meant to be super-low-risk hedging, low-risk arbitrage and outright speculation vanish. Tsingshan is the world’s biggest nickel producer, and even though LME hedges don’t perfectly match the type of nickel it produces, there was little risk of it having a problem at maturity. But in the short term, it would have had to stump up cash it didn’t have to cover the margin calls if the LME hadn’t acted.
There are recent parallels in the blow-ups of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, a high-profile Goldman Sachs quant fund in 2007 and broker MF Global in 2011.
All had taken high leverage for relatively low-risk bets: LTCM’s mainly on Treasury swap spreads normalizing, Goldman’s on a range of popular trades, and MF Global’s on troubled European government bonds paying off.
The trades eventually rebounded and made money, but holding on to them was impossible for investors with so much leverage. LTCM failed and was rescued and wound down by a Wall Street consortium, Goldman eventually shut its fund and MF was bankrupted amid scandal.
Every crisis brings blow-ups, and the global disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may well bring more. There are times when we have to hold our noses and rescue too-big-to-fail financial institutions, but they should be few and far between, because moral hazard is real.
The danger to free markets is that governments, regulators and, in the case of nickel, the exchange itself are setting the bar for bail-outs lower in every crisis.
JPMorgan Is The Biggest Counterparty For Nickel Tycoon’s Short Bets
* JPMorgan Is Leading Discussions Between Xiang And Banks
* Tsingshan’s Banks Also Include CCBI, Standard Chartered
JPMorgan Chase & Co. is the largest counterparty to the nickel trades of the Chinese tycoon caught in an unprecedented short squeeze, putting the bank at the center of one of the most dramatic moments in metals market history.
About 50,000 tons of Xiang Guangda’s total nickel short position of over 150,000 tons is held through an over-the-counter position with JPMorgan, according to people familiar with the matter. Based on that figure, the tycoon’s company, Tsingshan Holding Group Co., would have owed JPMorgan about $1 billion in margin on Monday.
The nickel producer has been struggling to pay margin calls to its banks and brokers, Bloomberg reported this week.
JPMorgan is leading discussions between Xiang and roughly 10 banks and brokers through which his nickel short position is held, the people said, asking not to be identified as the talks are private.
Tsingshan’s difficulties paying its margin calls have put its banks and brokers in a bind, as they have had to make hefty margin calls of their own at the LME to cover their short positions on the exchange. If Tsingshan walks away from its commitments, the banks stand to lose billions of dollars.
The other banks and brokers include BNP Paribas SA, Standard Chartered Bank Plc, CCB International Holdings, ICBC Standard Bank Plc, United Overseas Bank Ltd., DBS Group Holdings Ltd., BOC International Holdings Ltd. and brokerage Sucden Financial Ltd.
Spokespeople for JPMorgan, BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered, Sucden, UOB, DBS and ICBC Standard Bank declined to comment. Spokespeople for BOCI and CCBI had no immediate comment.
To be sure, the crisis could still be resolved without losses for Xiang and his banks. As the world’s largest nickel producer, Tsingshan stands to benefit from the increase in prices if it can weather the storm. And if Xiang holds on to his short position, as he has told his banks he wants to, and nickel prices go down once the LME reopens, the amount of money he owes his banks and brokers would also drop sharply.
Tsingshan has a short position of about 30,000 tons of nickel directly on the LME, held through brokers CCBI, ICBC Standard Bank and Sucden, the people said.
The remainder of the over 150,000 ton short position is held through bilateral deals with banks like JPMorgan, they said. Many companies prefer to trade via such “over-the-counter” positions, which mean dealing only with the bank and also are subject to much fewer reporting requirements. The banks in turn generally offset their risk by placing short positions on the LME.
JPMorgan, which is the leading bank in global metals trading by far, has the largest single short position on the LME, according to people familiar with the matter. To be clear, that position is held for client businesses and there’s no suggestion that the bank is placing its own short bets on nickel prices.
Bloomberg reported earlier this week that Tsingshan has secured credit promises from banks including JPMorgan that could allow it to avoid defaulting on its margin calls.
Still, discussions are ongoing. Xiang has told the banks and brokers that he would like to keep his short position, and has proposed to pledge some of Tsingshan’s assets in Indonesia as collateral for the money it owes in margin calls, people familiar with the matter said Thursday.
The 18 Minutes of Trading Chaos That Broke The Nickel Market
When the commodity’s price went vertical last week, the metals industry plunged into turmoil not seen since the Tin Crisis of 1985.
It was 5:42 a.m. on March 8 in London when the nickel market broke. At that time of day, bleary-eyed traders are typically just glancing at prices as they swig coffee on their way to the office.
On this day, however, metal traders across the city were glued to a screen, watching the price action on the electronic market, which was already open to accommodate Asian trading. Nickel prices usually move a few hundred dollars per ton in a day. For most of the past decade, they’d traded between $10,000 and $20,000.
Yet the day before, the market had started to unravel, with prices rising by a stunning 66% to $48,078. Now, the traders watched with a mixture of horror and grim fascination as the price went vertical. Already at an all-time high by 5:42 a.m., it lurched higher in stomach-churning leaps, soaring $30,000 in a matter of minutes. Just after 6 a.m., the price of nickel passed $100,000 a ton.
For participants in commodities exchanges, a price rally is not necessarily good news. Miners, traders, and manufacturers often use the market to make short bets—that is, to make money when prices fall. And when those wagers move violently in the opposite direction, they can be hit with huge margin calls, or requests to put down more cash to back their trades.
The head of one London metals brokerage recalls feeling sick as he watched the moves, realizing what the spike in prices would mean for his company, the market, and the global metals industry. “Those 18 minutes will haunt me,” says the executive, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Nickel’s 250% price spike in little more than 24 hours plunged the industry into chaos, triggering billions of dollars in losses for traders who bet the wrong way and leading the London Metal Exchange to suspend trading for the first time in three decades.
It marked the first major market failure since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine jolted global markets, showing how the removal of one of the world’s largest exporters of resources from the financial system in the space of weeks is having ripple effects across the world.
The spike was driven in large part by a short squeeze centered on Chinese tycoon Xiang Guangda, who had amassed a big wager that nickel prices would fall through his company Tsingshan Holding Group Co. On Monday, a week after trading had been suspended, Tsingshan announced a standstill agreement from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and other banks that would allow it to maintain its short position. The LME said nickel trading would resume on Wednesday.
In a squeeze, rising prices put traders betting on a drop in an ever-tougher financial position, forcing them or brokers and banks doing business on their behalf to buy the asset, a trade known as short covering that can drive prices even higher.
Others in the market may also push up prices in anticipation of that short covering. The wild rise of nickel drew comparisons to the short squeezes in meme stocks such as GameStop Corp. that gripped retail investors for much of last year.
The difference is that nickel is a commodity that touches the entire global economy. The metal is found in all our homes as a key ingredient of stainless steel. It’s also one of the most important raw materials needed in making batteries for electric vehicles.
“This was the most disorderly move in a metal I’ve seen in my career,” says Mark Hansen, chief executive officer of trading house Concord Resources Ltd. “We had a frenzy based on speculation that accelerated on Monday and Tuesday. People forgot that this isn’t a video game retailer; it’s an important physical commodity.”
The seeds of the epic short squeeze were sown last year, when nickel, like all commodities, was rallying from its Covid-era low.
Xiang didn’t believe the rally would last. He started increasing his short position on the London Metal Exchange. The LME’s history dates back to the early 19th century, when metal traders drew a circle in the sawdust on the floor of the Jerusalem Coffee House in the City of London.
Today, in addition to its electronic market, it’s one of the last exchanges where brokers still gather in person to yell orders at one another for part of the day. Its participants are a mix of the industrial metals companies, which tap the market to offset their price risks, and hedge funds, which use it to speculate. Still, contracts on the LME are backed by physical metal in a network of warehouses around the world, providing a direct link with the real-world metals industry.
Xiang isn’t just a financial trader making paper bets on price moves. He’s in the physical nickel business. Born in 1958, he started out making frames for car doors and windows in Wenzhou, in eastern China. He went on to pioneer new methods for producing nickel and stainless steel that upended the markets and made his Tsingshan the world’s largest producer of both.
Nicknamed “Big Shot” in Chinese commodity circles, people who know him say he has absolute confidence in his convictions and doesn’t hesitate to bet big on his visions for the future. (This account of events in the nickel market is based on dozens of interviews with people involved, many of whom requested anonymity because the matters are private.)
Why bet against nickel when you have a nickel business? Xiang wanted to increase Tsingshan’s production dramatically by producing so-called nickel matte for electric vehicle batteries. The company had plans to produce 850,000 tons of nickel in 2022, an increase of 40% in a year, according to a person briefed on them.
While few observers believed Xiang could reach that level of production, he was confident. But the obvious consequence of so much nickel hitting the market, he believed, would be a fall in its price.
Not everyone shared his pessimism about prices. Some hedge funds were buying nickel contracts in a bet on the electric vehicle boom. The giant commodity trader Glencore Plc also had a position on the LME that would benefit from rising prices.
By early this year, it had taken ownership of more than half of the available nickel in LME warehouses. For a while, it was unclear which view of the market would prevail. Most analysts sided with Xiang, at least in the medium term, believing that nickel production—led by Tsingshan and its competitors in Indonesia—would outpace demand.
Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia is the world’s third-largest producer of nickel and its largest exporter of refined nickel metal—the type deliverable on the LME. While Russia’s nickel exports haven’t been targeted by sanctions, U.S. and European buyers have nonetheless sought alternatives to Russian sources.
Nickel’s price moved sharply higher in the week after Russia’s invasion. For Xiang’s big short position, that was painful.
Remember, when prices move up, traders like Xiang who have sold futures contracts face margin calls; they must put up more cash to cover potential losses.
While investors who sell stocks short want the price to drop, in commodity markets many producers, traders, and users take short positions as a hedge against losses on the physical commodities they hold in inventories. In theory, any price changes on the futures market should offset price changes in the value of the inventories—as long as the traders can meet their margin calls.
It’s not clear to what extent Xiang saw his position as merely a hedge or as a speculative bet. The annals of commodity markets are full of tales of producers and traders, from Metallgesellschaft to Sumitomo, that blurred the lines between hedging and speculation and ended with billions of dollars in losses.
In late February and early March, Tsingshan, which had sales of 352 billion yuan ($56 billion) last year, paid its margin calls on time. Then on March 7, nickel’s price began its parabolic ascent, surging from $30,000 a ton to more than $50,000.
LME brokers and their clients were hit with margin call after margin call. Several large brokers got margin calls of close to $1 billion each over the course of the day.
Tsingshan’s were even larger, numbering roughly $3 billion, according to a Bloomberg calculation based on the company’s total short position—which, even after Xiang had closed out a portion of the bet in previous weeks, was over 150,000 tons.
The company paid at least some of its margin calls early on Monday, according to a person familiar with the matter. But its obligations dwarfed its available cash and bank credit. As the price rose through the London day after offices in Asia had closed, Tsingshan started struggling to pay, the people say.
That put Tsingshan’s banks and brokers, which include JPMorgan Chase, BNP Paribas, and Standard Chartered, in a bind. They had offset their deals with Tsingshan by placing their own short positions on the LME. Now they had to pay big margin calls on the exchange while receiving no margin from their client.
Some started hurrying to buy back nickel contracts, sending the price of nickel spiraling ever higher. It was a classic short squeeze, as the pain for Tsingshan, its brokers, and other shorts created a self-reinforcing cycle.
By now, the entire nickel industry was in crisis. The LME convened its “special committee,” a small group of metals and legal experts with the power to issue emergency rules for the market. They held a hurried call on Monday evening, but decided to allow the nickel market to continue trading.
At 1 a.m. on Tuesday, the market opened. Matthew Chamberlain, the LME’s chief executive officer, had stayed up to watch.
Things seemed calm at first: Prices were hovering around $50,000 a ton, and he went to bed. He was awakened by a phone call at 5:30 a.m. The nickel market was anything but calm. Worse, the chaos was spreading to other markets: Zinc prices spiked 15% in a few minutes to a record high, only to collapse again.
The LME’s special committee held another call at about 6 a.m. Now they recognized that they had to suspend trading. At 8:15 a.m., the screens stopped flashing, hours before the in-person pit trading session was even set to begin. The price was frozen, below the record high but still at $80,000 a ton. Soon Chamberlain and other executives at the exchange began receiving frantic phone calls from LME brokers.
By now, Tsingshan wasn’t the only nickel company that was struggling—just the biggest. Many producers, traders, and users of nickel with short positions on the LME were facing margin calls many times larger than they were prepared for.
“When it was flying towards $100,000, you could feel the damage, and you knew companies were fighting for their existence,” says John Browning, founding partner of brokerage Bands Financial Ltd. and a former LME board member.
At the current price of nickel, the brokers themselves wouldn’t be able to pay their margin calls, they told the LME. Four or five of the brokerages that are LME members would have failed, a shock that could have devastated the global metals industry.
The price move on March 8 “created a systemic risk to the market,” the LME said two days later. The exchange had “serious concerns about the ability of market participants to meet their resulting margin calls, raising the significant risk of multiple defaults.” Despite that, Chamberlain insisted to Bloomberg TV on March 9 that the solvency of the LME itself was never in doubt.
The LME made a near-unprecedented decision. It decided to cancel all the trades that took place on Tuesday morning—$3.9 billion of them, according to a Bloomberg calculation. Exchanges sometimes cancel trades when technology glitches or “fat fingers” cause one-off mistakes. But it’s extremely unusual for an exchange to cancel whole sessions of trading after the fact.
Crucially, the decision meant traders wouldn’t need to pay margin calls on the basis of the $80,000 nickel price. Effectively, it rewound the market to the moment when prices closed on Monday at $48,078.
Even at that level, clients of LME brokers had failed to pay some $500 million of margin calls in relation to their short positions on the exchange, according to a person familiar with the matter. Tsingshan accounted for about half that amount.
And that was just for the portion of the short position it held directly on the exchange—about 30,000 tons. The company had a further 120,000 tons or more in short positions off the exchange, in bilateral deals with such banks as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Standard Chartered Plc.
The fallout was immediate. Investors who had booked trades during the chaotic session in the early hours of Tuesday were furious. Among them were some of the biggest names on Wall Street.
Executives from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. voiced their displeasure at the decision on a call with Chamberlain. Executives at Tower Research Capital, one of Wall Street’s oldest electronic market-makers, reined in its trading activity on the LME and put its membership in the exchange under review.
Others took to social media. “For the LME to cancel nickel trades between willing buyers and sellers is unforgiveable.
UNFORGIVEABLE,” tweeted Mark Thompson, a former trader at Trafigura and Apollo. Cliff Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, accused the LME, which was for more than a century owned by its members but in 2012 was sold to Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing, of “stealing money from market participants trading in good faith and giving it to Chinese nickel producers and their banks.”
LME’s Chamberlain defended canceling the trades. “Our fundamental responsibility is market stability,” he told Bloomberg TV.
“The prices that were being seen during that Asian session were becoming disconnected from, I believe, physical reality.”
Xiang’s short position has now racked up billions of dollars in losses. Undeterred, the Chinese tycoon has told banks he wants to maintain his position, and has asked them to keep funding him despite the losses. It’s unclear whether he will get his way.
One resolution to the situation may be for Glencore and Xiang to strike a deal to use Glencore’s long positions to cancel out some of Xiang’s short. Neither party seems very keen on this idea, however. The Chinese government may also play a role.
Beijing is supportive of him, Xiang told contacts recently. One thing is sure: If Xiang can weather the storm, Tsingshan’s nickel producing assets stand to benefit from the higher prices, offsetting losses from the short.
For the LME, the future is unclear. Some think this could herald the end of the exchange itself. “The LME is now very likely going to die a slow, self-inflicted death through the loss of confidence in it and its products,” predicted Thompson in a tweet.
Still, the LME has weathered numerous scandals before in its 145-year history, from a 1985 crisis in the tin market that caused many brokers to go out of business to the incident when a trader at Sumitomo hid more than $2 billion in losses.
Those past scandals forced reforms on the exchange. Now, people familiar with the matter say, the exchange is likely to introduce such measures as position limits and greater transparency. Most market participants expect nickel prices to come back down once the crisis around Xiang’s position has been resolved.
But the effects of the short squeeze are likely to be felt in other ways. Some aggrieved traders are already preparing to take legal action against the exchange. There are also traders making plans to abandon the LME nickel contract, a move that would reduce market liquidity, making it harder for everyone from miners to car companies to manage their exposure to prices and access financing.
Hansen of Concord Resources argues that financial investors who traded nickel last week should have been prepared for the LME to step in. He draws a comparison with “Silver Thursday,” the day in 1980 when an attempt by the Hunt brothers to corner the silver market came unstuck.
Then, as now, a key factor was the intervention of the exchange. “The LME at the end of the day is a physical metal market,” he says. “Anyone using the LME needs to understand that. It’s not just a casino.”
Will Financial Stability Get Nickel-and-Dimed?
What used to be routine seems riskier now; strategist Zoltan Pozsar highlights parallels to previous crises.
Is the canary in the nickel mine this time?
Much of the financial world—and many commodity producers—are wondering the same after an uncontrolled leap in nickel prices left the world’s largest nickel producer struggling to satisfy billions of dollars of margin calls from big banks last week.
Future prices for the silvery-white metal, which is used in stainless steel and batteries, have been on a tear. They hit a record $100,000 per metric ton last Tuesday—two days earlier they had been trading below $30,000. Worries about reduced supply from Russia, which is a major nickel producer, kicked off the chaos.
But the more proximate cause was a short squeeze in the futures market, when traders trying to cover their short position led to others doing the same, creating a vicious spiral. China’s Tsingshan Holding, the world’s largest nickel producer, is on the hook for billions of dollars in trading losses while the London Metal Exchange has suspended trading in nickel futures.
Nickel is a relatively small market, and following Tuesday’s trading halt Tsingshan and its creditors, including J.P. Morgan and Standard Chartered, are already in negotiations on additional credit lines, potentially backed by the company’s nickel and steel assets in Asia.
But the problem is that nickel may not be the end of it.
It is common for commodity traders and miners to use futures to hedge their exposure and lock in prices. But when prices swing so wildly, there can be mismatches in cash flows as the traders have to post additional collateral.
Asian coal prices have also experienced vertigo-inducing swings in recent days—nearly doubling in late February and early March before giving up some gains—as have aluminum prices and wheat prices, to say nothing of the immense swings in crude oil itself.
No one knows exactly what lies ahead for commodity prices but the idea that Tsingshan is the only company out there with big hedges that could go very wrong might prove optimistic.
And the sanctions also create extra uncertainties: Is it kosher to buy any Russian commodities, even ones hitherto spared by sanctions? What used to be routine seems riskier now. Even before the U.S. said it would ban imports of Russian oil and gas, traders were already staying away from them: Urals crude has been trading at a big discount to benchmark oil prices.
Credit Suisse strategist Zoltan Pozsar has highlighted some obvious parallels to previous crises when the sudden repricing of another asset class—mortgage backed securities—led to massive trading losses and hard-to-suss counterparty risk. “Russian commodities today are like subprime CDOs were in 2008,” he wrote in a note in early March.
As commodity traders dash for cash and lenders start to worry about counterparties’ exposure, that could in theory start to put pressure on borrowing costs more generally. Russia is the gorilla in the room: It is a major exporter of many commodities from natural gas to wheat.
Commodity-related financial chaos may not prove nearly as destructive as the U.S. subprime explosion, but more big cave-ins could still be ahead.
Nickel Tycoon Reaches Deal With Banks To Avoid Margin Calls
* Tsingshan Agreed Standstill With JPMorgan-Led Group Of Banks
* Talks Continue On Loan Facility To Backstop Short Position
The Chinese nickel tycoon whose big short position caused chaos reached a deal with his banks to avoid further margin calls, marking a key step toward restoring stability to the market after an unprecedented squeeze.
Xiang Guangda has been in discussions with banks led by JPMorgan Chase & Co. about a loan facility to backstop his short position, which has roiled the nickel market after he struggled to pay massive margin calls to banks and brokers last week.
The London nickel market has been closed since last Tuesday morning, when the exchange intervened after prices spiked as much as 250% in two days, and the standstill announced by Xiang’s Tsingshan Group Holding Co. could provide the certainty needed to restart trading.
Tsingshan’s banks agreed they won’t close out positions against the company or make further margin calls during a standstill period, the company said in a statement on Monday. The two sides will also continue discussions about a secured credit facility to cover the company’s nickel margin and settlement requirements.
The agreement also allows for Tsingshan to reduce its positions “in a fair and orderly manner as abnormal market conditions subside,” the company said.
The LME last week attempted a process to try to close out short positions by matching market participants with long and short positions before the market reopened, but received little interest. Xiang told the banks and brokers last week that he would like to keep his short position, Bloomberg reported at the time.
Tsingshan’s difficulties paying its margin calls have put its banks and brokers in a bind, as they have had to make hefty margin calls of their own at the LME to cover their short positions on the exchange.
JPMorgan is the biggest counterparty to Xiang’s nickel trades, people familiar with the matter said last week. About 50,000 tons of his total nickel short position of over 150,000 tons was held through an over-the-counter position with JPMorgan.
The other banks and brokers include BNP Paribas SA, Standard Chartered Bank Plc, CCB International Holdings, ICBC Standard Bank Plc, United Overseas Bank Ltd., DBS Group Holdings Ltd., BOC International Holdings Ltd. and brokerage Sucden Financial Ltd.
Banks To Keep Talking On Nickel Trading Losses, Tsingshan Says
Chinese metals producer says JPMorgan, others will continue talks, while nickel trading remains suspended on the London Metal Exchange.
Tsingshan Holding Group said large banks agreed to continue discussing a potential settlement with the Chinese metals producer, whose wrong-way bets led to a dayslong suspension of nickel trading on the London Metal Exchange.
JPMorgan Chase JPM -3.00% & Co. and other banks are seeking billions of dollars that Tsingshan owes them for trades the banks made on its behalf on LME. The trades amounted to a big wager against the price of nickel and led to large losses at Tsingshan when prices for the metal, used in stainless steel and batteries, surged in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The price increases are now rippling through the global financial system and the world economy.
As losses on the trades mounted, banks and brokers that acted as intermediaries between Tsingshan and the LME faced big cash demands from the exchange. Some sought to unwind the trades by buying back nickel contracts, fueling an unprecedented run-up in prices last Tuesday and prompting the LME to close the market. The LME said trading will resume Wednesday morning.
During the so-called standstill agreement reached Monday, Tsingshan said in a statement, the banks will continue talks on a secured lending package that would enable the company to pay the upfront cash it owes banks and brokers, known as margin.
Tsingshan said the banks had agreed not to close out positions they hold against the company. It said they also had agreed not to make further margin calls in relation to existing trades. JPMorgan declined to comment.
The deal provides a mechanism for Tsingshan to reduce its position in nickel as market conditions normalize, the statement said. The statement didn’t provide details on the duration of the standstill, the size of the credit facility under discussion or the assets against which it might be secured.
The unprecedented surge in nickel prices on the LME sparked by Tsingshan’s ill-fated trade first rippled through the financial system and is now affecting the real economy. In particular, it has disrupted the operations of producers and manufacturers in China that make nickel-related products, showing how the trading fiasco is reverberating across the supply chain for the widely used material.
Over the past week, more than half a dozen Chinese companies—most of which produce and supply nickel compounds—sent notices to their customers and investors warning of supply hiccups, price hikes, or slowdowns in their ability to accept or meet orders.
Prices of nickel, a key ingredient used in stainless steel and electric-vehicle batteries, went through the roof last week following an epic short squeeze that centered around China’s biggest nickel and steel producer. At one point last Tuesday, prices for the three-month nickel contract reached $100,000 a metric ton, leading the LME to suspend trading and cancel trades that took place that day.
That put the contracts’s last closing price at $48,078 a metric ton last Monday, nearly double its level from the prior week. The exchange has yet to say when nickel trading will resume.
The sharp increase in prices is impacting companies far and wide. In Australia, a base-metals producer said Monday that its planned $800 million purchase of a nickel miner could be delayed because of the huge nickel price move.
Jilin Jien Nickel Industry Co., a medium-size nickel sulfate and nickel chloride producer based in the Eastern province of Jilin, told its customers in a letter dated March 9 that it was likely to lose money due to the sudden and dramatic increase in its imported raw material costs, which are benchmarked off LME nickel prices.
“A ruthless game of capital has come to us with lightning speed,” said the privately held firm, whose website said it has the equivalent of $2 billion of assets and 5,000 employees. “It has brought an unprecedented survival crisis to those responsible and hardworking enterprises including us,” the company lamented, adding that “huge losses are no longer avoidable.”
It couldn’t be determined whether Jilin Jien has a short position in nickel futures contracts. The company also told customers that it can guarantee that only about half of the amount specified in its accepted orders will be delivered.
Miracle Automation Engineering Co., a Wuxi-based automation machinery maker, told investors that if nickel prices remain high, the company may have to lift the price of its nickel products as well. Fushun Special Steel Co., a steelmaker based in Liaoning province, told customers last week that the company has decided to stop accepting new orders until prices of these metals stabilize.
Last Friday, the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association, a trade group whose members include hundreds of state-backed and private companies, said it was highly concerned about what it called “the irrational surge” in nickel prices on the LME.
The association said it believes that nickel prices have seriously deviated from fundamentals and have also caused serious damage to related industries and companies in the global nickel supply chain.
A spokesperson for the group, who was quoted in its own industry publication, also tried to comfort those Chinese companies that have been forced to reduce production and stopped taking new orders. The spokesperson said that when the prices of some nonferrous metals including copper and aluminum skyrocketed last year, the Chinese government distributed these metals to targeted companies, which helped resolve their problems.
Many Chinese nickel producers import raw nickel ore from abroad and rely on the LME prices—which are denominated in U.S. dollars—as a benchmark for their overseas purchases, which also tend to be in dollars. Companies have also tended to use LME nickel futures for hedging purposes, industry analysts said.
Although there is also a nickel futures market on the Shanghai Futures Exchange, trading onshore is denominated in China’s currency, the yuan, and the market has been regarded by traders as smaller and less liquid than its British peer.
Nickel trading has continued in Shanghai over the past week, despite some one-day suspensions after prices moved by the maximum limits allowed by the exchange. The most active nickel contract hit a high equivalent to $42,225 a metric ton last Wednesday, and has since fallen back to $32,624.
The trading fiasco has hurt nickel producers who have been using the LME as a place for genuine hedging purposes, said Michael Lion, president of Everwell Resources Ltd. and a metals industry veteran.
“This is a completely, artificially created crisis,” Mr. Lion said. He added that if producers and true hedgers are no longer able to carry out activities on the LME, the primary core function of the exchange as a risk-management tool of the physical global metals trade would be destroyed.
Too-Big-to-Fail Risk Looms Over Commodities
The giants who dominate global trade in raw materials confront unprecedented unpredictability.
A decade ago, Timothy Lane, deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, posed an intriguing question: Are commodity traders too big to fail? It was just after the 2008-09 global financial crisis, when policy makers were scanning the global economy looking for the next potential nightmare.
Lane was among a small group of officials who worried it was hiding in plain sight — that the likes of Glencore Plc, Cargill Inc., Vitol Group and Trafigura Group, the secretive giants that underpinned global trade in natural resources, represented a systemic financial risk.
“Could the failure of one of the large trading houses cause serious disruption in the commodities markets?,” he asked in a speech in September 2012, arguing their size raised “the possibility” they were “becoming systemically important.”
The events of the last few days, from the London Metal Exchange shutting down nickel trading to commodity titans rushing to raise credit lines, make Lane’s hypothetical a crucial question right now.
I have long argued that commodity traders don’t matter to the global economy in the same way that Lehman Brothers did: the collapse of one won’t trigger a global recession. And yet, they remain too big to be ignored — and a possible source of big trouble if left unattended.
In a letter to governments dated March 8, the European Federation of Energy Traders, a trade body that groups some of the largest commodity traders and utilities on the continent, pleaded for help. They warned that the industry was facing “intolerable cash-liquidity pressure” and may need “time-limited emergency liquidity support” to weather the crisis.
The federation said emergency liquidity could be provided directly by governments or “public-law financial institutions like the European Central Bank (ECB), European Investment Bank (EIB) or Bank of England.” It warned in the letter, which was first reported by Risk magazine: “The current extreme market conditions lead to liquidity shortages which endanger the functioning of European energy markets.”
The commodity market is witnessing the wildest price swings ever. Nickel, for example, surged 250% in just two days. The Bloomberg Commodity Spot index earlier this month posted a weekly jump of more than 13% — the largest one-week price increase in data going back more than 60 years ago.
The high — and volatile — prices create an enormous problem for commodity traders. They rely on bank credit to finance their cargoes of oil, aluminum, wheat and other natural resources. When prices rise, the value of those cargoes goes up, increasing their need for financing. In early December, the cost of a typical oil cargo of 2 million barrels was about $140 million. At one point last week, the same cargo was worth almost $280 million.
The physical cost isn’t the only problem. In the world of paper trading, as commodity prices rise and become more volatile, the amount of cash the traders need to back up their deals in the derivatives market rises significantly. Those so-called variation margin calls have run into several billions of dollars per company in recent days, according to industry executives.
The surge in margin calls has exposed one of the weakest points of the commodity system. The LME is a case in point. When the exchange shut down nickel trading last week and canceled billions of dollars in trades, it said that without those actions, several brokers would have failed.
The move on March 8 “created a systemic risk,” the LME said. Matthew Chamberlain, the exchange’s head, said it “would have been extremely difficult for some of our market participants to continue their activities.” In a statement last week, the exchange said there was a “risk of multiple defaults.”
The industry is a hidden giant of the global economy, with the largest four commodity firms moving the equivalent of more than $700 billion worth of raw materials per year. Adding every other firm, and the additional derivatives contracts beyond the physical flow, and the industry handles trillions of dollars worth of natural-resources contracts.
The LME nickel affair sounded very much like the stuff the Bank of Canada’s Lane worried about a decade ago — although confined to commodity brokers, rather than traders.
Now, the nickel crisis was just a short-squeeze that wrong-footed a single Chinese tycoon and his posse of brokers and bankers. What if, instead, it had been a large commodity trading house, and not just in nickel, but across a dozen markets? And what if the commodities affected were not nickel, but rather oil, natural gas, electricity, or, God forbid, wheat and other food staples? That may not be as bad as a Lehman-induced recession but would still be a gut-punch for the global economy.
The LME trouble showed that regulators were asleep at the wheel — none saw it coming. They should quickly pay far more attention to commodity markets — not just financial, but also physical. For now, the biggest commodity traders appear well ahead of any regulators, having beefed up their finances. The spike in European natural gas prices in December was for many a wake up call. The current crisis found them better prepared.
Then there’s access to credit. High commodity prices may sound like wonderland for a trading house, but they can create hazards before generating profits. The higher the price, the more credit is needed — and right now, credit is in short supply, even for giants like Trafigura, which has been holding talks with private-equity groups for additional financing. Commodity prices have come down over the last three days, diminishing the pressure. But the industry as a whole is still under stress. In private, industry executives acknowledge they are skipping some deals to conserve cash. Lots of the price volatility of recent days can be traced by trading houses and others avoiding taking positions. The commodity market is trading risk, rather than supply and demand fundamentals. Liquidity is thin.
Investors are showing nervousness, selling debt of some of the trading houses. Oil trader Gunvor Group Ltd. notes due in 2026 fell on Wednesday to 69.1 cents, while the Trafigura bonds due the same year dropped to 85.1 cents. Louis Dreyfus Co., an agriculture specialist, saw its debt maturing in 2028 fall to 88.4 cents, according to Bloomberg data.
Commodities trading houses deal in U.S. dollars, but receive credit mostly from European commercial banks. If prices in multiple markets spike again because of, say, renewed sanctions on Russia, traders may struggle to access enough credit to continue buying raw materials. That’s particularly a concern for the medium- and small-sized traders, who lack the deep pockets of the industry leaders. There’s a serious risk that global commodity trade may freeze, even if only temporarily, creating turbulence for their bigger rivals.
The number of banks providing commodity-trade finance in large size has shrunk significantly over the last decade, particularly with the departures of one-time industry leaders BNP Paribas SA and ABN Amro Bank NV. Today, the traders rely on the likes of ING Groep NV, Credit Agricole SA, Unicredit SpA and a handful of other largely European banks. Several scandals, including the collapse of Singaporean oil trader Hin Leong last year, have prompted many banks to scale back their lending to the sector or even exit completely.
The result is an industry that has fewer doors to try in a crisis. If commodity prices were to spike further, central banks may very well have to step in, making sure the flow of dollars continues, in a similar fashion to emergency liquidity injections the U.S. Federal Reserve and the ECB performed in 2008-09 during the global financial crisis.
In public, all commodity traders, small and large, say everything is fine. Talk to executives in private, however, and the anxiety is plain — that their industry is one accident away from trouble. For now, we aren’t there, but central banks and policy makers should prepare for that eventuality.
Tesla Dodges Nickel Crisis With Secret Deal To Get Supplies
* Sanctions On Russia Threaten Output Of Key EV-Battery Metal
* Carmaker’s Sourcing Is Called ‘A Hidden Competitive Advantage’
The invasion of Ukraine has added to agita among electric-vehicle makers over the supply of nickel, a critical ingredient in EV batteries, since Russia is one of the world’s biggest producers.
But Tesla Inc. had already been scouring the globe for the metal, signing pacts with several nickel suppliers since 2021.
That includes a multiyear supply deal with mining giant Vale SA. The agreement, which hasn’t been announced, covers nickel from Canada, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing private details.
Unlike most of its peer automakers, Tesla has spent years focusing on how to secure its own nickel supplies.
The efforts are part of Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk’s focus on vertical integration to maintain control over Tesla’s supply chain. The company jointly operates a massive battery-cell plant outside Reno, Nevada, with Japan’s Panasonic Corp. Tesla buys cells from other leading suppliers but also makes its own.
And the company is constantly pushing for advances in how raw materials are processed and batteries are made. At a presentation in 2020, executives talked about shortening the processing path from mine to cathode.
“What Tesla has done with nickel is a hidden competitive advantage,” said Gene Munster, managing partner of Loup Ventures. “Tesla continues to be a couple of steps ahead of the rest.”
Musk has repeatedly flagged nickel supply as the company’s biggest concern as it boosts output, and the metal’s availability is a source of anxiety throughout the EV sector. Battery-sector demand for nickel is expected to jump to about 1.5 million tons in 2030 from 400,745 tons this year, according to BloombergNEF.
“Please mine more nickel,” Musk urged producers on an earnings call two years ago. “Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.”
Sanctions against Russia over its invasion have added urgency, since the country holds about 17% of global capacity for refined Class 1 nickel, the type required for EVs. Since the Feb. 24 attack on Ukraine, the price of nickel had climbed 30% though Tuesday on the London Metal Exchange. Prices tripled over two days during that period because of a short squeeze though much of that advance was pared. The market could settle down if there are signs the war will end.
“The nickel price surge and the implications from the Russia-Ukraine invasion are likely to push battery manufacturers, particularly in the U.S., to secure alternate supply chains,” according to a BloombergNEF report.
Tesla’s deal with Vale is one of several that the carmaker has forged over the last year. In January, the Austin, Texas-based EV manufacturer committed to purchase 75,000 metric tons of nickel concentrate from a Talon Metals Corp. project being developed in Minnesota. That followed agreements with BHP Group, the world’s biggest mining company, for material from Australia. Tesla also has a pact with operators of a nickel mine in the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.
“People don’t realize how far ahead Tesla is when it comes to securing the supply chain for raw materials and an integrated approach to battery materials,” said Todd Malan, a spokesman for Talon Metals.
Vale said it has plans to increase its sales to the EV market to between 30% and 40% from 5%. The Brazil-based miner didn’t comment specifically on its Tesla agreement. Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Vale’s American depositary receipts rose less than 1% at 9:56 a.m. Wednesday in New York after Bloomberg News reported on the nickel deal with Tesla. Shares of the carmaker were little changed.
Nickel is a key component for the cathodes of electric-vehicle batteries, and Tesla is focused on nickel-based chemistries for longer-range vehicles. It uses iron-phosphate for shorter-range vehicles.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s administration is discussing adding battery materials as soon as this week to the list of items covered by the 1950 Defense Production Act, looking to encourage domestic production, people familiar with the matter said.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is scheduled to hold a hearing on the domestic supply of critical minerals on Thursday.