SHANGHAI, Jan 15 (SMM)—China’s lithium carbonate imports are expected to reach 19,407 mt in Q4 2020, an increase of 94.3% quarter-on-quarter and 142% year-on-year. Imports were mostly from Chile. According to SMM survey, imported lithium carbonate mainly flowed to lithium salt traders, battery material factories and some battery factories that stock up low-cost raw materials. Therefore, the supply of lithium carbonate in the spot market was tight and could not meet strong demand, accelerating price increase of lithium carbonate significantly.
The increase in the price of lithium carbonate was driven by rigid demand, stockpiling at the end of the year and excess purchase amid bullish sentiment. By the end of December 2020, some cathode material producers have booked raw materials for delivery through April 2021. Some lithium salt plants will undertake maintenance in the first quarter. Downstream producers mostly stockpiled for the Chinese New Year in late December and early January as logistics will be suspended in the Chinese New Year holiday period. Inquiry prices for battery-grade lithium carbonate stood at 55,000-60,000 yuan/mt recently, and traded prices are expected to climb further in January.
On the supply side, lithium salt capacity remained in a surplus following rapid expansions, even as lithium prices fell below costs in 2018-2020. According to SMM statistics, China's lithium carbonate capacity is expected to be 399,000 mt in 2020, an increase of 7.3% year-on-year, and China's lithium carbonate production is expected to be 166,000 mt in 2020, an increase of 4.4% year-on-year. Domestic lithium carbonate production fell 10% in Q4 2020 from the previous quarter due to colder weather and energy restrictions in Qinghai and raw material shortages or maintenance at some smelters. Demand for lithium carbonate has exceeded supply since October 2020.
On the raw material side, spodumene inventories in China have been falling since the second quarter of 2020 and overseas mines gradually increased their quotations. Some producers that were short of raw materials raised spodumene purchase prices. Prices of spodumene climbed along with lithium carbonate prices, leading to higher costs and smaller profits at lithium salt plants.
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