Experts believe the positive long-term outlook for electric vehicles means lithium demand’s breather could just be temporary.
Lithium prices climbed over 400 percent last year, with other key battery raw materials such as cobalt and nickel also seeing prices rally as demand from the electric vehicle (EV) industry picked up pace.
But by the end of the first quarter, prices started to stabilize as demand took a breather, particularly in China, where the government has imposed lockdown measures to contain a new wave of COVID-19.
“We expect lithium and cobalt prices to peak this year, from dented but still strong demand and supply chain challenges,” Alice Yu of S&P Global Market Intelligence said at a recent webinar.
For the past year, the sharp rise in prices, which has seen lithium increase almost 130 percent year-to-date, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence data, has pushed major lithium miners to restart idle capacity and outline expansion plans, with juniors also moving ahead with their projects.
For Yu, supply should ease in H2 and into 2023 as new capacities commission and ramp up. “These will pressure larger price corrections,” she said, adding that she expects the annual price to drop by a third in 2023. “Lower lithium prices will be good news for the downstream and lift some of the demand resistance we have seen so far.”
COVID-19 restrictions are behind the recent demand pullback seen in China, where the measures have impacted the entire supply chain, from the closing of factories to shipping and transportation networks.
“There are also constraints on Chinese lithium chemical exports to Japan and South Korea due to port and logistical challenges stemming from the lockdown,” Yu said.
Overall, Chinese vehicle sales for April plunged almost 48 percent compared to a year earlier due to lockdowns, as per data released by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Meanwhile, sales of EVs and plug-in hybrids in the country plunged 38.3 percent compared to the previous month, but jumped 45 percent year-on-year and more than doubled over the first four months of the year from 2021 levels.
According to the S&P Global Market Intelligence, plug-in EV sales across key markets China, Europe and the US were up 96 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2022, despite weaknesses in the overall vehicle market caused by the ongoing computer chip shortage.
The long-term EV sales outlook is positive, which means lithium's recent demand breather could be temporary.
“We don't know how long the lockdowns are going to last in China, but the underlying fundamentals are still there,” William Adams, head of base and battery metals research at Fastmarkets, said at a recent webinar. “The lithium market is very tight. We don't see that easing anytime soon.”
In fact, he added that to some extent the market may have seen some destocking coming into the pullback in prices. “So we could be set up for quite a sharp rebound once we see the end of lockdowns.”
Looking further ahead to mid-decade, in the period between 2023 and 2026, lithium prices are expected to remain above historical levels, and above prices in and before 2021, according to the S&P Global Market Intelligence.
“This is because the market expects a lithium deficit from 2024 onward, so a strong price environment will be needed to incentivize supply,” Yu said.
The high lithium price environment is accelerating product development and restarting idle operations, but whether they will be up and running fast enough is yet to be seen.
“One of the things which has surprised us is how long it has taken for some of the idle supply that was closed down during the weaker period into 2019 and 2020 to be reactivated,” Adams said.
Australia, Chile and Argentina dominate lithium production today, and they will lead the supply expansions, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
“At the same time, there'll be more diverse locations of lithium production,” Yu said. “We expect Mexico, Canada and Finland to start or restart lithium production over the next five years, especially as North America and Europe and their PEV supply chains in these regions seek more localized sources of lithium.”
But it has been stated time and time again how long lithium projects can take to ramp up, and how many delays they can suffer, with COVID-19 restrictions just adding to the mix of challenges.
“There's no shortage of lithium, it's all about can you get it? Can the supply chain keep up with the demand side of it in the time that is needed?” Adams said.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Priscila Barrera, currently hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
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