Category Archives: aluminium

Getting the numbers right

Written by Paul Adkins

Platts ran a story recently, quoting the Henan Provincial Nonferrous Metals Guild as saying that the number of aluminium producers in China has slipped from 120 a decade ago to 64 now.  The article isn’t worded very well, but it seems to indicate that there are 32 corporations who own those 64 plants.

There’s one small problem with this data – it’s wrong. Any of you who subscribe to our monthly Pipeline Report will know that there are 80 smelters operating right now, with another 11 idle. Those 91 plants are owned by about 40 different corporations or companies.

We can’t speak to what the numbers were 10 years ago, because we weren’t keeping statistics in 2004. (AZ China was established in 2006.)

But it’s fair to say that the population of companies in the aluminium game in China has been steady in the last 4-5 years. There have been a couple of companies go bankrupt, but there’s been at least one new entrant – Jiarun, which is a real estate company. Indeed, it’s not unusual for companies to enter the primary metal industry from other entry points. China’s most successful aluminium company, Hong Qiao, started life as a garment manufacturer.   Companies such as CPIC and Shenhuo are energy companies.

While the population of companies has remained roughly stable, the population of plants is of course growing, but not in Henan Province. Henan used to be the spiritual heartland of China’s aluminium story, but today with high energy costs and an ageing smelter population, Henan is now well down below the new leading provinces – Shandong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere.

If you need to know what’s happening inside China’s aluminium smelters, who is coming or going, what projects are planned for when, and which plants are idle, you need to subscribe to the AZ China Pipeline Report.   Contact us for more information about subscribing.

 

Just speculatin’

Written by Paul Adkins

This post is based on absolutely no facts. It is my speculation.

The world’s primary aluminium industry is unloved. Where once those silvery factories that extend a kilometre long were a showcase for the companies that owned them, now those same companies want nothing more to do with them.   Alcoa has repositioned itself as an engineering company, focusing on downstream. Rio tried to spin off Pacific Aluminium. BHPB has created Newco, a shell in which to house its unwanted smelters.

Those spinoffs have not worked. RT could not find anyone with anything like the money they wanted. BHPB has deduced that the same will happen to them.

So a whole new strategy is needed.

What if, only speculating, just suppose Alcoa and Rio Tinto got together and combined their smelters into one new powerhouse aluminium company?   Alcoa has over 3.5 million tonnes of operating capacity plus another 20% sitting idle.   Rio Tinto Alcan has a similar volume of operating capacity, though less in mothballs.   Together they would make an enormous producer of primary aluminium, with over 7 million tonnes of metal.

Think about what that merged company could do! A smelting group that size would dominate the price of raw materials, not just alumina but the carbon products as well.   The new company would gain incredible synergies in technology and technical support, not to mention R&D. The board would be able to decide the future of new projects and the fate of old inefficient smelters without having to worry about how the market would react – they would be able to predict very precisely.

Such a company would reap the benefit of in excess of $400 per tonne in delivery premiums as well.   That’s an incentive on its own – $2.8 billion in revenue, controllable to a much greater extent than any single player or the LME could do.

If I were Klaus Kleinfeld, I would be booking a dinner with Sam Walsh real soon.   Something to talk about over cigars.

Oh and by the way, don’t you think Glencore would be an interested party in such a transaction?   If a new company were spun off, Glencore would likely be sitting up and taking notice.

Of course, such a move would require all sort of regulatory review in many countries. But no downstream activities would be involved, nor bauxite/alumina.   It would be a case of back to 1902, when Alcoa spun off Alcan as a new company.

Just speculation.   No facts.

 

Friday further thoughts. Imagine what such a move would do for Alcoa’s share price, and the RT price as well.

 

Xinjiang under attack of crippling blizzard

Written by Richard Lu

Xinjiang Province, home to China’s fleet of new mega smelters, is undergoing a strong ice storm. The snow is over 13cm (5 inches) deep in some severely afflicted areas and transportation is completely disrupted.

According to the latest weather report, the heavy snowfall may stop latter today or early tomorrow, but it will take some more days for transport to return to normal.  But the impact on China’s aluminium market may come quicker.

As per our latest weekly aluminium report, the bulls attempted to elevate the SHFE active price firmly over 14,000 RMB/t, however, they didn’t have the power to support that level, and the price retreated to 13,800 RMB/t. Tightness in metal supply should cause a bubble in the price, and the extent to which this occurs will tell us something about the sentiment prevailing in the market. In other words, a market which is weighed down by weak demand indicators and a shuddering economy is less likely to react to a supply disruption.

Xinjiang itself knows this weather all too well.  Winter weather would have already been factored in to construction planning. But a disruption to the flow of metal coming out of the district is something that the market would not be prepared for.

Meantime, our sympathy goes to those folks who have to live and work in the extreme weather. Here in Beijing it’s a balmy 10 C, with no sign of snow. I know some readers would say that 5 inches of snow is not something to get excited about, when some areas of the USA measure snow in feet not inches, but Xinjiang’s climate is very dry, and they don’t usually get a lot of snow, except up in the mountains on the east of the province.   They just get freezing cold.

Weekly Aluminium Alert – Special Offer

Written by Paul Adkins

AZ China has revamped the Weekly Aluminium Alert recently. We are now providing a market call as part of the service. We are pleased to report that in the 20 weeks since we started making the call, our accuracy level exceeds 95%.

We think this new report is an excellent service to those of you who are in the aluminium market, so we are making a special offer. Buy a 12-month subscription to the weekly aluminium alert, and we will give you one month extra. Pay for your subscription in October, and we will double that to 2 months extra.

That’s right. If you order before October 31, you will receive 13 months subscriptions for the price of 12, taking you through to the end of November 2015. And if we receive your payment on or before October 31, we will extend that an extra month to December 31, 2015. (We will notify you as soon as we receive payment.)

The regular price for the Weekly Aluminium Alert is US$2,000 per subscriber. Discounts are available for multiple users in the same company.

How to take up this offer? Simply send me an email at enquiries@az-china.com. We will send you payment instructions. You can choose to pay by TT or PayPal or via Bitcoin. (Our e-commerce site is coming soon.)

If you aren’t sure that it’s a great help, or you aren’t sure what it covers, send me a note and I will send you a free sample of the report.

 

Why foreign analysts don’t understand China

Written by Paul Adkins

This weekend I got an email from a very respected senior analyst from a competitor company.

He was writing to question my assertion that as much as one third of China’s semis exports are really not semis at all. They are remelted in an intermediary country, then sold as primary metal. By doing so, Chinese entrepreneurs not only avoid the 15% tariff on exports of raw aluminium, but they also pick up 13% of the 17% VAT.

In his email, my esteemed friend told me “I recently visited 6 rolling mills in China, and I found no evidence of what you claim.”

He has fallen for the mistake that so many foreign analysts and commentators make. He takes the lack of evidence available to him as evidence that my view is wrong.

I felt like screaming to him, “Well of course you didn’t find any evidence. Did you expect that they were going to show you? Did you think that you being a “lao wai” would entitle you to access information that is highly sensitive?  You think they are going to admit bending the spirit of the law, if not the letter, to a complete stranger?  Do you think that visiting less than 1/3 of the population of rolling mills in China would allow you to draw conclusions about the other 2/3rds?”

Don’t get me wrong – this guy is very good at what he does, and he has taught me a lot in the time I have known him. I have the greatest respect for him. And I am not picking on my friend; it’s just that I see this attitude too often from all sorts of otherwise credible experts.

It reminds me of a report put out by a very well known Australian bank a few years ago.   The gist of it went, “we have spent 10 days in China, and everywhere we went, we heard the same message. So it must be true.”  It is bordering on hubris to suggest that one can glean a clear picture of a complex structure so easily.

I relocated to Beijing in 2005, after dealing with Chinese companies since 1998, and have been involved in the aluminium industry in China since then. Yet I consider myself still an apprentice when it comes to understanding the industry. How a guy based in London or New York can make sense of it is difficult enough, but to base an assessment on the lack of evidence when he was never going to get the evidence in the first place, is a stretch too far.

By the way, I am not asserting that we have indisputable proof of exactly how much metal is in this category.  We are working on that, but quietly, and not by sending a foreigner on a 2 week visit.  There are much better ways.

Foiled again

Written by Paul Adkins

Bloomberg has reported that Europe is set to renew tariffs on aluminium foil coming from China and Brazil.

The tariffs were originally installed in 2009, following complaints from  foil producers inside the European Union. Tariffs as high as 30% were imposed as a result of the investigation.

These tariffs were set to expire early October, but the European Union says they will remain in place another 15 months while they conduct a new investigation. The new investigation comes as a result of a submission from a group of foil producers inside the EU in June.

China aluminium capacity hits a new high level

Written by June Wang

Recently IAI released the production figures for August.  Monthly production of China aluminum (including China’s estimated but unreported production) climbed to new highs again in August, increasing to 2,277kt, up 9% compared to the same period last year. The figures show that rising aluminium prices helped induce smelters to increase product output after a sluggish first half year, assisted by various subsidies from local governments.

According to AZ China’s research, the growth of total capacity was 19% compared to the same period last month, which was far greater than the monthly production growth. With regard August of 2014, the ratio between total new capacity and restarted capacity is at 2/3, which means more capacity came from current old and restarted smelters then from new builds. After the decline and tougher months of loss leading to widespread shutdowns before June, many smelters took advantage of rising prices to restart in recent months, hoping to recover their earlier losses as much as possible. Overall, previously halted capacities have now almost recovered by August.

In addition, a large proportion of the new capacity that entered the market in August came mainly from the Shandong, Inner Mongolia and Qinghai provinces. All of which have started close to full capacity and are gradually increasing their operational rates. No smelters in the Xinjiang province have come on-stream recently. According to our statistics, nearly 1 million tonnes of annual capacity in the Xinjiang province will come online for production in the coming months.

AZ China has forecast 26.5 million tonnes of production for this year, and based on the current increase in output plus new capacity set to enter the picture, we are confident our prediction will hold true.

Although financial concerns could cause concern for some smelters, the seasonal increase in demand, especially during the ‘golden October’ period should help maintain aluminum prices in the current range, which should stimulate smelters to produce more output. Longer term, as we approach the end of the year, prices are likely to soften slightly, as the market struggles to accept all the new metal. Demand indicators are steady to good, but not spectacular.

Alumina prices are also showing the effect of increased metal production, along with some operational problems at 2 refineries.

 

How to export raw aluminium from China

Written by Paul Adkins

One of the most popular questions we have been getting recently is, will China export more aluminium into the growing supply gap in the Rest of the World (RoW)?

It is well known that China imposes a 15% tariff on the export of raw metal, while semi-finished metal earns a refund of VAT, reducing the cost and making it more competitive in foreign markets. So the popular wisdom is that if China increases exports, it will be in semis.

And this is true. But those of you alert enough, will notice that the heading of this post does not carry a question mark.

The key to increasing exports of both raw metal and semis is … liquid metal.

Operational people will tell you that liquid metal is a great cost saving for both the smelter and its downstream customer. Instead of the smelter having to process metal through the cast house, alloying the metal, cooling it, packing and shipping it to the customer, simply send a crucible full of metal at 600° C plus to the factory. It then also save the downstream factory from the cost of reheating the metal. Provided the factory has spent some money on receiving the metal in liquid form, it saves that factory a lot of money on energy.

And liquid metal is how to export raw metal in the guise of a semi finished product. Simply pour the hot metal into a continuous caster, run the metal one pass through a rolling mill and roll it up into a coil.   It is now a semi finished good, ready for export as 99.7% pure aluminium. albeit not in a 25kg form as is usually the case.

We at AZ China will be bringing more information on this to our clients and subscribers.   Make sure you are on the list.  Contact us at blackchina@az-china.com.

 

RTA to increase smelting capacity

Written by Paul Adkins

Finally someone somewhere is investing in new metal units. But don’t get your hopes up.

Rio Tinto has announced that it will spend $14.8 million on improvements to its Alma smelter. This smelter, in Quebec province in Canada, is currently rated at 440,000t, and the investment will lift this by 12,000t.   So in reality this is nothing more than “capacity creep”, created by tweaking the amps.  The plant is of course a Pechiney design, with AP30 cells.

Alma has had a chequered history recently. The plant was at the centre of a union dispute that saw the company cut one third of production at the height of the dispute.   It was also the centre of a study launched a few years ago to examine if it could be expanded to 570,000t, though nothing ever came of that study.

Alma gets its name from the town in the Lac St Jean district in northern Quebec where it is located. (Hat tip to Gordon, who corrected my original comment that it was in La Terriere.)

 

 

Xinfa accident update

Written by Paul Adkins

Here’s the latest of what we know about what happened at the Xinfa smelter.   Please note, Xinfa have not released this information – we have gleaned it from our sources, so to that extent some of these points will need to be confirmed when/if Xinfa release an official report.

The accident occurred in line 1, not their new line.   This line was running at 500KA, according to our information.   The accident occurred at the point where the anode bar and the bus bar risers connect.   The pot where the accident happened was being brought back into operation, but there appears to have been a gap between the anode bar and the circuit, and that caused a short circuit and an explosion.    The accident did not happen in a control box as previously reported.

We estimate there will be a loss of about 80,000t of metal output, based on the fact that only half the 400,000tpa line was affected, and will be out of operation about 2 months.

The market impact is likely to be small.   Not just because it’s only 80,000t (about how much aluminium China uses in one day), but because the plant’s customers are mostly in the south and eastern provinces, where there are plenty of other metal sources.   We believe no customers will be directly impacted.

Nobody was hurt as best as we can find out.

If the accident occurred at one pot, then it begs the question, why weren’t they able to save the other pots in the line?   The official post mortem will no doubt give a full explanation and corrective actions, but what we are hearing is that there were two reasons why they were not able to save the line.   Quite simply, the plant had not invested in circuit breaker equipment, and the operators had had little or no training on how do save the remaining pots.   Xinfa may dispute this, and we have not been able to confirm this, and anyway, any investigation will be some weeks away from reporting, but that’s what we are hearing from our sources.

We will bring any more information to you as we hear it.