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Record-high EU antimony prices in 'uncharted territory'

  • : Metals
  • 24/05/23

European antimony prices hit fresh record highs this week after a prolonged period of supply constraints, and the latest hikes are drawing concern from even the most experienced traders as they navigate an increasingly opaque and speculative spot market.

Prices for regulus grade II and trioxide in Europe were assessed at $18,500-19,500/t today, up by 14pc from a week ago and 55pc higher than this time last year, when prices were $12,000-12,400/t. Higher price indications are emerging daily, with some offers heard as high as $20,000/t in Rotterdam this week.

The upswing has gathered pace significantly since 9 April, underpinned by depleting domestic resources in China and limited concentrate coming into Europe from various parts of the world. The continuing war in Myanmar (Burma) — a major source of antimony ore, most of which is exported to China — is exacerbating the supply tightness.

Meanwhile, Oman-based strategic and precious metals firm SPMP suspended production at its Oman Antimony Roaster plant at the start of 2024 and is still not offering material, chief executive Joel Montgomery told Argus this week. The reasons for the suspension have not been disclosed.

The status of Russian producer Polyus remains unclear, but the firm is not delivering as much raw material as in the past, Argus understands. And Tajikstan is currently producing more antimony ingot and selling less ore, according to market participants.

"The market is becoming more opaque, with less information on the largest players," consultancy firm Hallgarten's principal and mining strategist, Christopher Ecclestone, told Argus. He added that supply of ore — or concentrate — is inelastic, as artisanal producers are currently operating at maximum capacity. On the demand side, China is directing significant volumes of antimony trioxide and antimony selenide toward its manufacturers of solar photovoltaic glass.

With a container to Europe now costing around half a million dollars, traders have largely stepped back from the spot market, waiting for the current volatility to ease, and minimal stocks are available in Rotterdam for spot bookings.

A significant volume of antimony arrived in Rotterdam recently and has already been locked into long-term contracts, but this has not stunted the rally, a market source told Argus.

"Antimony is becoming a crazy dangerous market," a trader told Argus. It is hurting the industry, causing irreparable damage," he added, noting that consumers are getting hit by the higher prices and reduced availability.

Antimony is largely used as a flame retardant in electrical and electronic equipment and textiles, alloys (lead-acid batteries), wires and cables, ceramics, and glass.

With prices at record highs, market participants are looking for ways to ease the supply crunch or their consumption rates, but there are no easy options available.

On the supply side, recycling streams are already heavily utilised after a major push in 2011, when prices hit their previous record high of around $17,100/t. Around a quarter of global antimony supply is currently produced through the recycling of antimony-bearing metal alloys.

On the consumption side, demand from the flame-retardant sector fell by around 20pc in 2023 because of the weak macroeconomic environment, according to one buyer.

It is difficult to develop alternative materials that can act as a substitute. Zinc borates and zinc stannates can sometimes substitute antimony trioxide, but only in specific formulations. Antimony substitutes can run into performance issues in various applications, especially in flame retardants because of the weakening of the polymer, sources said.

"Antimony could be replaced in solar uses, but that is still a small portion of the market, even though it is growing," Ecclestone said.

For now, speculation remains rife as to how high prices are likely to go before hitting a ceiling. "When the increase is supply driven, there is a moment when it falls [...] It cannot stick for too much longer," a trader said.

Some sources expect the price rally to run out of steam in July-August because of the summer demand lull. Producers of flame-retardant products typically pause operations in June-July, and there could be a two-week period of maintenance, Argus understands. "The bubble is going to burst once it reaches $20,000/t," another trader estimated.

Antimony trioxide Europe vs China $/t

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