Cobalt Supply Chain Massively Disrupted by Glencore and China

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China-based GEM is reported to have signed an agreement with Glencore PLC for 52,000 tonnes of cobalt hydroxide. This has massive real-world implications for the availability of cobalt and for pricing.

According to Bloomberg (the terminal, not the mayor), “GEM Co., Ltd. collects and recycles cobalt and nickel scraps into ultra-fine cobalt and nickel powder and other products.” Revenue for 2016 was 7.7 billion CNY (USD$1.2B). Market cap is roughly 28B Yuan or USD$4.4B. Glencore is a huge commodity trader, ranking 10th on the list of the largest companies in the world for 2015, and in 2016 ranked 16th in global revenue.

Initial reports were that Gem had agreed to buy 52,000 tonnes of cobalt from Glencore per year for 3 years, but other reports later gave it as 52,000 tonnes over three years. There is still a lack of clarity on this point. If it’s the former, that’s half of the world’s cobalt supply being consumed by one consumer – that’s highly unlikely given the dynamics of the cobalt market. But even 52,000 tonnes over three years sucks about one-third of the world’s supply of cobalt out of the market, an amount that can’t help but drive up the price.

Global consumption of cobalt is roughly 100,000 tonnes per year. (Glencore is forecasting a production increase, from which the supply is expected to come.) That’s very small. Contrast that with copper production which was about 19.4 million tonnes in 2016 . Such a small market is very vulnerable to supply shocks, and this mass consumption of cobalt is a supply shock.

As with almost anything involving China, there are puzzles wrapped inside conundrums buried inside unreliable data. But this we do know. The world needs cobalt for the high-tech magic that is the cathode in a lithium-ion battery. If it’s rapid charge / discharge, that battery has cobalt in it. That includes cell phones, rechargeable smart devices, laptops, toothbrushes, power tools, Bluetooth headphones and, most pointedly, electric vehicles. Hello, Tesla.

This agreement is another example of China looking far ahead – here, it’s the pollution issues being solved by mandating electric vehicles. Cobalt is needed for the batteries in those vehicles. That cobalt going over the Big Red Wall through Gem will be consumed in China, and the rest of the world will have to fend for itself.

We’ve recently seen news that end user manufacturers like Apple, Tesla, Volkswagen and Samsung have been looking to secure long-term supplies of cobalt. You snooze, you lose. Gem pulled the trigger on a strategically critical purchase for a strategically critical metal. Panasonic and LG are back to playing catch-up. And since Panasonic supplies Tesla, expect continued production woes from that marketing machine.

The Congo hasn’t helped this market tightness. Remember that the 2016 presidential elections are scheduled to be held sometime this year. Making things worse is the new tax and royalty regime introduced last week, creating a disincentive to produce the element falling as #27 on the periodic table.

Expect the multiyear bull market in cobalt to continue. Expect to see similar but smaller announcements from other multinationals. Expect the interest in northern Ontario (a geologically bizarre region shockingly rich in cobalt) to continue.


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8 responses

  1. Herb Avatar

    LIT might be the better play

    1. Hugh Sharman Avatar
      Hugh Sharman

      ‘@herb, that was a bit cryptic! Who/what is LIT? Thanks in advance!

  2. Hugh Sharman Avatar
    Hugh Sharman

    As regards those quantities,

    Glencore is increasing its output from the DRC from 39,000 tonnes this year to 65,000 tonnes in 2019 and then reducing slightly to 63,000 tonnes in 2020.

    Under terms of the deal, GEM said it would get 13,800 tonnes this year, 18,000 tonnes in 2019 and 21,000 in 2020.

    The $4.6bn company, which is China’s largest recycler of batteries, said supply of recycled metal could no longer meet its needs.

  3. STEVE LAKE Avatar

    Check out American Manganese Inc. They have a answer that all EV factories are seriously looking at!

  4. dr.mike.hirschberger. Avatar

    Watch the other hand–Tesla will start to fill a hot air balloon by hyping alternative battery configurations (solid state anyone?) .. and, yes, talk is cheap, but new origins of Co away from the wonderful workers paradise in the DRC also have not unnoticed by Chinese buyers. So, while Co dances in the sun, whither those cute little oligarchs of Li supply that have been smiling like a cheshire cat? WIll they get caught with nowhere to go as Co prices spike to $100/lbs. Too bad really, such a nice bunch of banditos.

  5. Dan Avatar

    How much will the rest of the industrial world need?

  6. Peter Clausi Avatar
    Peter Clausi

    Consumption for 2018 is projected around 105,000 tonnes. If Gem is taking 13,800 tonnes of that, that leaves about 90,000 tonnes for ROW. Roughly half of that goes into industrial uses like paint, alloys, medical, magnets …. There isn’t much left for the other battery manufacturers.

  7. Peter Clausi Avatar
    Peter Clausi

    LFP (lithium iron phosphate) is a technically sound solution but lacks widespread adoption.Manufacturers lacks incentive to go this route.

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