Prices on aluminum relate directly to supply and demand drivers. The main questions to ask are, how much aluminum can be produced and who is willing to buy it? Producers, traders, speculators, and industrial end-users will generally exchange aluminum at a price reflective of supply and demand. But, as you’ll see below, aluminum pricing is not so straight-forward. There are many factors affecting aluminum pricing to consider.
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In the 1970s, aluminum became an exchange commodity. This means that aluminum is purchased and sold in an organized and regulated market via standardized commodity contracts. This legal framework ensures that sellers will deliver the commodity and buyers will accept its delivery. Today, these exchanges happen all around the world, including in the Commodity Exchange (COMEX), London Metal Exchange (LME), and the Tokyo Commodity Exchange (TOCOM).
Demand for aluminum is generally high and it’s produced more than any other non-ferrous metal. This makes sense, given it’s such an effective material for vehicle parts, beverage cans, appliances, airplanes, structures, and much more, all combined with larger trends toward lighter, stronger material. But, aluminum also undergoes an energy-intensive production process, and many factors from processing to end product affect its price.
Factors Affecting Aluminum Pricing
Economic conditions, political, and social situations play a major role in determining prices on aluminum by directly impacting supply and demand. Notably, this spans the entire aluminum process, from sourcing to production and distribution.
Aluminum Mining and Material Processing
Aluminum is referred to as an energy-intensive base metal since it requires a significant amount of energy to produce. Because aluminum does not exist in a pure form it must be sourced from bauxite ore and transformed. First it must be chemically refined into alumina (aluminum oxide) and then smelted into aluminum through the Hall–Héroult electrolytic reduction process. This impacts the overall price of aluminum because electricity is a variable subject to its own number of supply and demand factors.
The Cost of Electricity
The price of aluminum is strongly dependent on the price and availability of electricity. The U.S. Aluminum Trade Groups estimate that the cost of electricity accounts for 30% of the total price of aluminum. In China, electricity consumption is closer to 45% of the price of aluminum. The cost of electricity used to produce aluminum accounts for nearly 2% of energy production worldwide.
But why? On average, it takes 3 tons of bauxite to produce 1 ton of aluminum. This requires approximately 15,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity. Compare this to the fact that the average home in the U.S. consumes 11,000 kWh per year. In April, 2020, approximately 92,000 metric tons of aluminum were produced domestically. That adds up to 1.38 million kWh for just one month of aluminum production.
Commodity Specific Events
When bauxite mines and aluminum mills experience openings, closings, or strikes, the supply of aluminum may be impacted. Both increases and decreases in supply will affect the price on aluminum. Typically, when there is supply surplus, prices are lower, and when supply is low, prices tend to be higher.
As noted above, aluminum goes into an impressive range of industries and applications. This includes the automotive, aerospace, construction, refrigeration, packaging and machinery industries. Technologic developments within any of these industries could impact prices on aluminum. For example, as green energy becomes a higher priority in transportation, it’s likely that demand for aluminum, as a strong but lightweight alternative to steel, increases.
Technological advancements within the production process could have a similar impact. The Aluminum Association notes that since being introduced, the primary production process has grown more efficient. It has improved by 20% over the past 20 years. A more efficient process would lower the percentage of energy related production costs that play such a huge role in the overall price on aluminum.
The raw materials industry does not operate in isolation. Globalization plays a key factor because several countries influence metal production and consumption.
Countries are a source of demand when they build stockpiles, and a source of supply when they dispose of them. Events in any country could affect price. This is particularly relevant when one country accounts for a large share of production or consumption, which suggests that the country, or events in that country, could have a significant impact on the commodity price.
Global demand for aluminum is concentrated. The World Bureau of Metal Statistics reported that between 2002 and 2006 there were 22 producers of bauxite and 67 consumers. The top 3 producers—Australia, China, Brazil—and top 4 consumers—China, US, Japan, Germany—account for 50%.
Iron ore, copper, aluminum and nickel function as the lifeblood for global industrial production and construction. Shifts in supply and demand act as a weathervane, signaling change in the world economy. A number of changes could disrupt supply and demand. A few examples include: deflation of the U.S. dollar, economic recessions, rapid growth of the Chinese economy, and trade restrictions.
Economic growth becomes a factor when considering that as societies develop, the demand for metals depends on their current economic position. For instance, investment in the form of road, rail, public utility, and building infrastructure in a lesser developed country would increase demand at a greater percentage than that of a more developed country with adequate transportation, housing, and basic services.
One example, combining the effects of concentrated production and a shifting economic landscape, occurred during the mid-2000s. Aluminum production costs were increasing, the United States dollar was weakening, and the Chinese yuan was strengthening. Consequently, Chinese aluminum was relatively cheap.
International trade agreements set the rules for resource extraction. Governments then set trade policies which affect supply by regulating material flow. This could look like the implementation or suspension of taxes, penalties, and quotas which could either restrict or encourage flow. As described above, any events—like changing the currency exchange rates between countries—could change the price. Additionally, armed conflicts and other geopolitical events could disrupt supply and demand and change prices.
Prices on Aluminum Impacted by Climate Change or Weather Disturbances
Climate change disturbances disrupt transportation of product, and also disrupt energy required to produce new material. Exchange aluminum prices include both the energy costs for production as well as the transportation costs getting the metal to its destination.
So, what happens when a devastating hurricane causes flooding and power outages? Or, when particularly cold weather leads to more energy consumed, thus increasing production costs? Prices typically shift up in relation to these supply and demand factors.
Current Trends for Prices on Aluminum
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collects mineral commodity information about production, consumption, stocks, trade, prices, and industry issues. This includes capacity, cost of production, material use, and any environmental issues. Then, the USGS uses that information to quantify consumption, price trends, and material flows.
Their reports are accessible and provide a data-supported explanation to questions like, “What happened to aluminum prices at the beginning of the pandemic?”
In the case of COVID-19, global shutdowns, uncertainty, and changed consumer behavior led to a precipitous drop in demand. Prices and stocks for aluminum in April 2020 were nearly 35% less than just 2 years ago, and over 10% less than they were just a month prior. The USGS’s April report describes how COVID-19 exposure led to a major U.S. plant closure, affecting market flow. Now, one year later, mills are unable to meet demand driven by a recovery in the automotive, packaging, and construction sectors. Aluminum prices are rising as a result.
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