Glencore’s revamped GEM deal could leave electric vehicle makers short of sustainable cobalt

Today, Glencore announced a revamped deal with the world’s largest precursor producer, GEM Co Ltd, for cobalt hydroxide that equates to 61,200 tonnes of contained cobalt for a five year period between 2020 and 2024.

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence estimates that the deal is for 25% of Glencore’s forecasted cobalt hydroxide production in the contracted time period, and it comes on the back of the commodity group’s closure of one of its Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) mines, Mutanda, amid a depressed cobalt price environment.

This renewed deal trumps the previous contract that China-based GEM walked away from in 2018 and rekindles the long-term strategic relationship between the two groups.

As with any deal of significance in the EV supply chain, understanding the context is key.

Here, Benchmark Minerals presents the most critical implications of this latest Glencore and GEM deal for the cobalt industry.

Industry short of traceable cobalt

Benchmark Minerals estimates that the deal will account for 25% of Glencore’s total cobalt hydroxide output in that time frame locking up a significant portion of ‘sustainable’ or traceable cobalt that is not associated with artisanal or illegal sources within the DRC.

Glencore is the world’s largest cobalt producer and we forecast that it will account for 31% of total supply in 2019.

Having such a large proportion of its supply base being used by one customer will get the attention of those battery and automakers that are not locked into the Glencore-GEM supply chain.

Glencore’s Mutanda and Katanga Mining operations in the DRC are expected to produce 37,000 tonnes of cobalt hydroxide in 2019.  In recent years, the cobalt industry has put much emphasis on having sustainable supply chains to give automakers confidence that its cobalt is not linked to child labour in the DRC.

Despite child labour-linked cobalt affecting fractions of actual cobalt supply, the reputation is particularly damaging to automakers EV brands.

This is compounded by the fact that Umicore – which is set to be the new owner of the Kokkola cobalt refinery in Finland after the acquisition from Freeport Cobalt completes later this year – will receive up to 12,000 tonnes a year of this material, Benchmark Minerals estimates.

This means over 50% of Glencore’s cobalt production is tied up in long term contracts with two major customers.

GEM could handle up to 20% of cobalt used in lithium ion batteries in 2020

The 61,200 tonne cobalt deal will run over a 5 year period and in 2020 Benchmark Minerals expects GEM could handle up to 20% of all cobalt consumed in lithium ion batteries in 2020.

Benchmark Minerals forecasts cobalt demand in lithium ion batteries to increase from 75,000 tonnes in 2019 to 152,000 tonnes in 2024, with a total market size of 213,000 tonnes.

As a result of rapidly changing supply and demand dynamics in the cobalt to EV supply chain, Benchmark Minerals publishes its Cobalt Forecast each quarter.

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Cobalt prices jump, undersupply beckons, stockpiles to soften blow 

While the industry has watched with curiosity how Glencore closed its Mutanda cobalt mine in August only to then sign the new GEM deal, the reality is that Glencore is by far still the most influential factor in the cobalt industry, at least until EV demand and battery technology enters a new gear in the mid-2020s.

The announcement of the Mutanda closure caused a upward price reaction and saw the Benchmark Minerals’ Cobalt Hydroxide CIF Asia Assessed Price increase by 17% in August and a further 20% in September.

Mid-point cobalt hydroxide prices as of July 2019 rose from $17,050/tonne to $24,175 in September, a significant increase after 15 straight months of declining prices.

It also had a significant impact on Benchmark Minerals’ Cobalt Forecast, shifting the market into structural undersupply by as early as 2020, three years sooner than expected such is the size of the Mutanda operation.

Over the past 18 months, however, Benchmark Minerals has seen significant cobalt stockpiles grow in the DRC and elsewhere in Africa which will be sufficient to feed the market in 2020 and soften the short term blow.

Doubts still remain over whether cobalt’s ex-Glencore supply base can or is  willing to expand supply in time for 2021 onwards, especially considering how difficult the industry finds predicting the leading producer’s strategy.

Subscribe or trial to our Cobalt Price Assessments at get access to current and historical price data bases for Cobalt Metal, Cobalt Hydroxide, and Cobalt Sulphate / Sulfate. 

Long term contracts are king as LME does not gain liquidity 

This development also continues the trend of large long-term contracts in the cobalt industry as the precursor, cathode and lithium ion battery cell manufacturers ramp up significantly to supply Auto OEMs.

The structure of these contracts and relationships becomes even more critical as volumes increase and purchasers have limited financial instruments to hedge their exposure.

Present-day financial instruments such the London Metal Exchange (LME) physical cobalt contract have not gained any liquidity within cobalt and the EV supply chain continues to look to other mechanisms and exchanges for options.

Understanding the nuances of each link in this supply chain is key to forecasting.

Considering it takes 12-15 months to extract cobalt out of the ground and make its way into an electric vehicle, understanding the stock-in-process (cobalt locked up within the supply chain) and the consumer ramp up is crucial to our forecasting services at Benchmark Minerals.

There is little doubt that in times of a tight market, Glencore will look more favourable towards long term contracted customers than the smaller volume spot market.

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Our research is supported by constant contact with the market in assessing our in-house cobalt sulphate and hydroxide prices, along with primary research from mine to lithium ion cell production.

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