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Comprehensive Analysis of the Impact of Indonesia's Nickel Export Ban

Following months of uncertainty surrounding Indonesia's export ban on raw material exports, on January 12th the country defied the cynics by implementing its controversial policy, with nickel and bauxite exports most affected. Despite previous speculation that the Indonesian government would consent to transitional arrangements, only the two largest copper producers in the country - Freeport McMoran and NewMont Mining Corporation - received any such relief.

Owing to a parallel planned increase in the export tax on copper concentrates from 20% to 60% by the second half of 2016, even these companies will find their competitiveness sorely tested.

In the first week of trading following the ban, nickel prices rallied from US$13,680/t to US$14,595/t an increase of 6.7%. Given that Indonesia accounted for 17% of mined nickel in 2013, by Roskill estimates, this market response may best be described as subdued, with the price increase thus far representing a mere blip in nickel's long-term price charts. A further increase appears likely, but may come in the form of a gradual climb as stockpiles are rundown, with prices expected to increase to US$16,000/t or beyond in 2014.

This increase will, however, depend on the future evolution of Indonesia's export policy, as Roskill considers the ban's coming into effect to represent merely another step in an on-going debate. Domestically, a legal challenge to the ban has been raised in Indonesia's two highest courts, while early reports of lay-offs and protests in response to the ban are likely to prove fertile ground for opposition candidates in the April 9th legislative and July 9th presidential elections. As Indonesia's current President is nearing the end of his two terms in office, a change in political leadership is inevitable, and the succeeding government's stance on the export ban remains impossible to predict.

International pressures may also conspire to effect a change in the policy. The Philippines is expected to the main winner in the upheaval of the nickel market, with the country representing the only other large-scale source of lateritic ore. Volumes of nickel ore exports from the Philippines are expected to increase, but the low-grade of ore from the Philippines is ill-suited for use in China's modern rotary kiln electric furnaces . The use of the ore could increase production costs by as much as 30%, rendering the process economically unattractive to new producers even at prices as high as US$17,000/t, although existing producers may maintain production to minimise losses and honour supply agreements.

On the flip-side, therefore, China's nickel pig iron and stainless steel industries are likely to emerge as the ban's biggest losers, aside from Indonesia's own treasury (in the near term). As such, the Chinese government may enter the political fray surrounding the nickel ban and attempt to effectuate an exemption for some of its companies, through diplomatic back-channels. Chinese-Indonesian relationships were normalised in 1990 and China has since grown to become Indonesia's second-largest trading partner, behind Japan, with bilateral trade expected to reach US$80 billion by 2015. Chinese companies also remain heavily invested in infrastructural development, and although it may wait to see the outcome of the Indonesia's presidential elections, Roskill expects that China may leverage its influence to secure the interests of its metal industries by securing additional transitional arrangements.

Despite the effects of Indonesia's nickel export ban, Roskill remains sceptical that a supply deficit is likely to emerge anywhere prior to 2017/2018. Compared to other metal products, the price elasticity of nickel supply is relatively high, and any increase in nickel prices - particularly from the lows of 2013 - is expected to result in increased output. Based on estimated industry costs, for instance, an increase in nickel prices from US$14,000/t to US$16,000/t will restore profitability to approximately 200ktpy of nickel capacity, compounded by parallel price-related demand destruction.

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