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[United Kingdom]
Posted on : Oct 11, 2012

The outlook for the lead market remains positive, with good demand growth expected from the industrial battery sector and for sealed lead-acid batteries (SLA), which are used to power e-bikes.

We are less bullish on battery demand for larger vehicles - demand from first-time owners in emerging markets that increase the overall global vehicle population and therefore the number of batteries in circulation at any one time are growing more slowly. Vehicle sales in China in the first eight months of the year were up just 3.3 percent, well down from the double-digit rates of recent years.

In addition, with other BRIC countries seeing a marked slowdown in GDP, vehicle sales are expected to grow at a slower rate. Silver-zinc vehicle SLI batteries, which have 45 percent more power and a 30-percent longer life, are also commercially available and competitively priced.

ILZSG demand data for the first seven months of 2012 show growth of 2.5 percent, which supports our view that demand is holding up well overall but not booming. Mine output increased 11.2 percent in 2011 and in the January-July period jumped 21.8 percent, mainly on a reported 30-percent increase in China’s mine output.

Refined output grew just one percent during this period, with Chinese output up 0.5 percent and non-Chinese output up 1.4 percent. So, like zinc, mine output has increased but refined output has not. On closer inspection, refined production using concentrates climbed 1.3 percent but output from secondary sources dropped 0.3 percent. This highlights the shortage of battery scrap after the mild winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

Given that 57 percent of global refined production comes from recycled lead, the shortage in battery scrap has tightened the lead market considerably. This could lead to a greater need to draw down LME stocks although, with metal locked up in financing deals and stuck behind warehouse queues, further tightness could result.

The pick-up in mine output and the probable restart of the 115,000-tonne-per-year La Oroya smelter in Peru and the 80,000-tonne-per-year Portovesme smelter in Italy will lead to more primary refined production, which should help alleviate the current bout of tightness brought about by the scrap shortage.

While China seems to be able to build industrial capacity in double-quick time, there is great potential for secondary lead production in China to grow. The proportion of secondary production in China’s refined output was 35 percent in 2011. It is 60 percent in Japan, 68 percent in Germany and 91 percent in the US.

Overall, we feel demand growth for batteries will remain robust but will not be as strong as it has been in recent years and is unlikely to become as strong again until GDP growth in the BRIC countries accelerates. Supply seems likely to keep up with demand. The scrap shortage and restricted availability are medium-term bullish factors but, with prices already up 33 percent from the summer lows, it looks as though much of the tightness is already discounted in the price.

Our forecast for 2013 is for prices to trade in a $1,900-2,500 range and to average around $2,100.


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