Ground Breakers: The lithium price rut hits home as Core sinks on Finniss update
The NT’s only spodumene producer Core Lithium (ASX:CXO) has paused work on a new underground deposit and could curtail mining operations altogether in the strongest hint yet tumbling lithium prices are hurting local producers.
First, some context.
Lithium prices have vastly underperformed in 2023, falling from upwards of US$8000/t to US$1100/t in around 12 months.
That’s extraordinary, far eclipsing the magnitude of the fall in the 2018-2020 Lithium Winter although prices remain upwards of double the chilling lows that saw producers like Alita Resources and Altura Mining hit the wall.
While there have been a couple of price dives in 2023 amid a situation of sudden oversupply for the Chinese conversion market — with lithium raw materials supply outpacing still solid EV sales growth — a number of industry players have thought chemical prices would bottom at between US$20,000-25,000/t.
That would be because low grade lepidolite conversion plays in China — many of them high up on a rapidly steepening cost curve — have been loss-making for a while. As have non-integrated companies processing third party Australian spodumene.
But prices have kept trending lower. The latest Benchmark Mineral Intelligence assessment lithium price assessment saw its index — incorporating prices for lithium carbonate in China, Asia and North America, lithium hydroxide and spodumene on contract and spot sales — down a whopping 17.3% between November 29 and December 13.
The largest fall was in spodumene concentrate out of WA, off 22% as the lagging raw material finally caught up to the price drops of its downstream cousins.
“Several buyers have cancelled their orders from battery cell manufacturers during December under subdued downstream demand,” Benchmark’s analysts said.
“Lithium producers in the ex-Asia market continue to shift notable volumes of material at discounted rates, in a bid to achieve their annual sales targets before the end of the year.
“Contract prices for spodumene concentrate sustain their notable decline, in a delayed response to the downturn in lithium chemicals prices.”
According to Benchmark spodumene prices are down 79.7% YTD.
Oh yes, Core Lithium opened the Finniss mine earlier this year with a production forecast amended to be a little over half of the original 175,000tpa capacity envisaged in a previous feasibility study.
As with many lithium producers, recoveries have been a challenge early on and low grade fines it can’t process through a dense media separation circuit have been sold to end users for processing on their end.
With prices as they are now, that’s not feasible, and MD Gareth Manderson’s bullishness about getting the mine up and running quicker at a lower production rate at Diggers in August is looking less impressive.
“I think the speed to market in a reasonable pricing environment is a reasonable offset for working through some of these issues,” Manderson said in August when spodumene prices remained around US$3450/t.
“And I think it’ll actually start to pave the way for the business moving forward as well. So, you know, that really does set us up well for (underground deposit) BP33, the second mine.”
It has now paused early works at BP33 — expected to cost around $50 million — and flagged the “temporary curtailment of mining operations, commercial solutions and reductions in exploration and other discretionary expenditures” as part of a strategic review of its operations near Darwin.
It noted the price of spodumene concentrate had cratered 80% this year and 40% since the end of October.
Core delivered maiden NPAT of $10.8 million for FY23 but still had to dip into the market in August for $111 million in fresh funds via a placement and share purchase plan.
It had $202.1m in cash as of September 30, a decent buffer if Core does have to curtail operations or even shut down, but had cash operating unit costs of $1889/t (currently US$1284) in the first quarter of FY24.
The wet season can be a complicating factor for miners in the north of the country, though Core says it has seen operations steady despite above average rainfall in November, shipping 20,538t of concentrate and 32,260t of fines in October and November.
But the fall in lithium prices means it will need to tighten the belt, with fines shipments held in current market conditions.
“The Company has now been producing concentrates for 10 months and has seen improvement in mine productivity and plant performance over that period,” Core said.
“However, the current decline in the spodumene price has caused the Company to investigate a range of options to lower costs and increase productivity.
“Over recent months, the Company has built a significant ROM (run-of-mine) stockpile and will continue processing ore and making spodumene concentrate during the wet season.
“The review will prioritise preserving business value and future options. Given the difficulties associated with mining and construction in the wet season and the focus on reducing expenditure, BP33 early works have been suspended.”
Core shares were down over 22% with upwards of 50 million shares changing hand, sinking the price of its stock to 25.7c. It is now down around 75% YTD, and ~85% from its all time high of $1.67 in November last year.
Goldman Sachs analysts led by Hugo Nicolaci — who had a 31c price target and sell rating on Core Lithium this morning — warned the decision to push back early works at BP33 could risk Core’s outlook from FY25, with the underground development intended to make up for depletion in the Grants open pit.
“We have highlighted an increased risk that funding from existing cash/operating cash flows may be insufficient to fund BP33 development, and that possible external funding may take time and be at high rates,” they said in a note this morning.
“We also note that deferring exploration and pre-stripping spend may be insufficient to keep the business in positive FCF (after the equity raise) on our estimates in FY24, while deferring early works on BP33 development increases the risk of a gap in production in FY25.”
The full scope of cost savings is expected to be delivered in its December quarter update in January after discussions with contractors and suppliers are completed.
Core sells spodumene via offtake deals to Chinese converters Yahua and Ganfeng but decided not to pursue a separate supply deal with Tesla.
The timid positivity around other lithium producers — in the hope the market has found some sort of bottom — has continued, with Pilbara Minerals (ASX:PLS), Mineral Resources (ASX:MIN) and IGO (ASX:IGO) all in the green this morning.
Iron ore futures rose 0.47% to over US$138/t.