Lithium Market Update: Q1 2024 in Review

Lithium prices remained subdued in the first quarter of 2024, well below highs set in late 2022 and 2023. Various factors, including oversupply and weak electric vehicle (EV) demand, kept prices muted over the 90 day period.

Even as a market glut weighs on prices, Fastmarkets is forecasting that lithium supply will increase by 30 percent by the end of the year. The firm notes in a January report that some new supply is being ramped up, while some high-cost output is being cut — it remains to be seen how the current price environment will impact these plans.

"Market participants expect downstream lithium demand to remain relatively weak and with no imminent concerns about supply shortages, we forecast a tentatively balanced market in 2024," Fastmarkets explains.

With a market bottom potentially approaching, what other factors were at play in the lithium sector during Q1? Read on for a look at key events during the quarter and what experts see coming heading further into the year.

January: Lithium market calm amid inventory saturation

Lithium oversupply from 2023 continued to saturate the market at the beginning of 2024, dampening prices. Production in 2023 came in at 180,000 metric tons (MT) of contained lithium, 34,000 MT higher than 2022’s output.

“Indications were that inventory was quite strong both at the finished cell level and upstream with miners/brine producers,” Adam Megginson, analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told the Investing News Network. “As such, procurement activity on the spot market was fairly subdued. Buyers in Japan and South Korea opted to draw from inventory or volumes already being procured under contract rather than procure additional on the spot market.”

Trading activity was also muted in January as market participants anticipated China's Spring Festival.

“Expectations were that demand and in turn prices would pick up afterwards,” explained Megginson. “This restocking activity didn't immediately materialize after the Spring Festival, which led to some gloomier sentiment in China.”

Notable lithium deals from the first month of the year include two transactions by Chinese chemical and battery manufacturer Ganfeng Lithium (OTC Pink:GNENF,SZSE:002460,HKEX:1772).

The first, between Ganfeng and Australia’s Pilbara Minerals (ASX:PLS,OTC Pink:PILBF), amended an existing offtake agreement, increasing short- and medium-term supply of spodumene concentrate. The revised agreement will see Pilbara supply Ganfeng with up to 310,000 MT annually in 2024, 2025 and 2026, compared to the previous 160,000 MT.

“The long-term outlook for the industry remains incredibly exciting. Both Ganfeng and Pilbara Minerals remain focused on extending our respective positions as major, low-cost producers in the burgeoning lithium market,” said Dale Henderson, Pilbara's managing director and CEO, in the announcement.

Subsequently, Ganfeng penned a supply agreement with South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group (KRX:005380). The deal — which is effective from January 1, 2024, through December 31, 2027 — will see Ganfeng supply an undisclosed amount of battery-grade lithium hydroxide to Hyundai.

February: Lithium producers react to market pressure

As downstream players sought deals amid low prices, producers began revising production tallies.

“We also began to see some supply response to the persistent lower price environment, with the announcement of delays to expansion plans and layoffs at some lithium producers or aspirants,” Megginson said. “I only expect this to palpably impact the supply picture in 12 to 18 months, as that is when these expansions were planned to ramp.”

In mid-January, Albemarle (NYSE:ALB) announced it was trimming capital expenditures by US$500 million year-over-year.

"The actions we are taking allow us to advance near-term growth and preserve future opportunities as we navigate the dynamics of our key end-markets," CEO Kent Masters said. "The long-term fundamentals for our business are strong and we remain committed to operating in a safe and sustainable manner. As a market leader, Albemarle has access to world-class resources and industry-leading technology, along with a suite of organic projects to capture growth."

A few weeks later, the US-based company entered into a long-term partnership with BMW Group (ETR:BMW) to provide the automaker with battery-grade lithium for its high-performance EVs.

ASX-listed Liontown Resources (ASX:LTR,OTC Pink:LINRF), which plans to open its Kathleen Valley lithium project mid-year, noted the precarious lithium market in a January update.

“The recent material decline in spodumene prices has triggered significant reductions in short and medium-term lithium price forecasts,” it reads. “As a result, we have commenced a review of the planned expansion and associated ramp-up of Kathleen Valley to preserve capital and reduce the near-term funding requirements of the project.”

While the company is reviewing potential ways to cut overall costs, it did note that there will not be any changes to its plant design, which has a planned capacity of 3 million MT per year and is currently under construction.

Given this environment, some market watchers are calling for consolidation in the lithium sector.

“As lithium projects struggle to stay above water, analysts also expect M&A activity to increase as major producers with positive cash flow try to find deals in the market while junior companies try to sell projects in a market where private capitals are scarcer than previous years," a February 12 report from S&P Global states.

March: Evolving supply and demand factors support lithium prices

The beginning of March brought some recovery in lithium prices as both carbonate and hydroxide made gains.

After starting the month at US$14,977.15 per MT, lithium carbonate prices registered a five month high of US$16,109.48 on March 14. Prices for lithium hydroxide also moved northward on the London Metal Exchange, hitting a high for the first quarter of US$13,425 per MT on March 11.

For Megginson, these moves were in line with a market that's coming back into equilibrium.

“We forecast a fairly balanced market in 2024,” the Benchmark price and data analyst said. “While the low price environment has caused some project expansions to be pushed back slightly and some of the marginal, higher-cost supply has come offline — this has been mostly counterbalanced with larger producers producing more.”

He went on to outline the factors that likely brought on the March price rallies.

“On the demand side, cathode producers in China announced that they would substantially increase production in March, some by as much as 30 percent month-over-month — albeit compared to a very low level in February as Spring Festival was taking place,” Megginson said. The drivers on the supply side are a little more nuanced.

“Environmental inspections at lepidolite producers in Jiangxi province led to some concerns about supply from the region,” he explained. “Transgressions were found in terms of the handling of lithium slag, and some participants thought that supply could become constricted. In the end, the impact of these inspections was relatively limited with two companies being told to take action, with the remainder recommencing normal production (as of April 5).”

Megginson went on to note that there are now “rumblings” that brine producers in the same region could undergo similar environmental inspections. “Although downstream demand is ticking up notably at the moment, ample supply overall is likely to limit the extent of price rises in the short term,” he concluded.

In addition to price spikes, March also brought major developments for US-focused Lithium Americas (TSX:LAC,NYSE:LAC). The company, which is developing its Thacker Pass project in Nevada, received conditional commitment for a US$2.26 billion loan from the US Department of Energy.

The loan is earmarked for the construction of the processing facilities at Thacker Pass, which Lithium Americas states has the largest-known measured and indicated lithium resource in North America.

The cash injection is designed to further strengthen the North American battery metals supply chain.

“The United States has an incredible opportunity to lead the next chapter of global electrification in a way that both strengthens our battery supply chains and ensures that the economic benefits are directed toward American workers, companies and communities,” Jonathan Evans, president and CEO of Lithium Americas, stated.

​What factors will move the lithium market in 2024?

Toward the end of Q1, there was more significant news for the lithium market.

Chile, a key player in the global lithium market, unveiled the full details of its comprehensive plan to enhance lithium production and attract investment. The country explained that operations and projects in its Atacama and Maricunga salt flats will need to be majority controlled by its state operators, which will hold a 50 percent plus one share stake.

Chile also announced that it has opened up over two dozen salt flats in the country for private investment.

The new lithium policy aims to promote sustainable development while ensuring fair participation among industry stakeholders. Chile intends to streamline the permitting process for lithium projects, encouraging greater investment and boosting production. Additionally, the government plans to establish a lithium consortium to oversee research and development initiatives, facilitating technological advancements in lithium extraction and processing.

“The goal of the national strategy is to boost Chile’s lithium production, which is currently expected to rise by 20 percent to 270,000 tonnes in 2024 from 225,000 tonnes in 2023,” Fastmarkets analyst Jordan Roberts wrote. “Low production costs in the country mean producers have been facing less pressure from the recent weakness in lithium prices.”

For his part, Megginson advised watching lithium output from Africa.

“Although the quality of material is more variable than comparable material from, for example Australia, and the continent still makes up a small proportion of overall global supply, supply of hard-rock lithium concentrates from Africa is growing rapidly, especially from Zimbabwe and Namibia,” he said. “Currently, Chinese converters are responsible for the majority of the projects that are at more advanced stages. It is worth noting that many of these projects are not economical when lithium chemicals prices are significantly below RMB 150 per kilogram.”

Lastly, Megginson is monitoring sales activity. “We have seen an increasing number of public auctions and pre-auctions for spodumene concentrate,” he said. “This is definitely something to look out for, and I expect to see more auctions for the remainder of the year, and some similar auctions taking place for lithium chemicals as well.”

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Securities Disclosure: I, Georgia Williams, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

Editorial Disclosure: The Investing News Network does not guarantee the accuracy or thoroughness of the information reported in the interviews it conducts. The opinions expressed in these interviews do not reflect the opinions of the Investing News Network and do not constitute investment advice. All readers are encouraged to perform their own due diligence.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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