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Bags filled with lithium ore are seen on the grounds of Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe’s processing plant in Goromonzi about 80 kilometers southeast of the capital Harare. Photo: AP

Chinese demand outlook pressures lithium prices to 2-year lows as battery makers still have plenty of inventory to draw down

  • Lithium carbonate prices in China fall to almost half from June peak ahead of the Golden Week holidays
  • Meaningful restocking has yet to materialise, as battery makers have plenty of inventory to draw down in the fourth quarter when demand typically rises

Lithium prices are spiralling down toward the lowest level in two years on concerns over the strength of Chinese demand for the material, a key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries.

Prices of lithium carbonate in China fell to 166,500 yuan (US$22,814) a tonne last Wednesday, ahead of the Golden Week holidays, a loss of almost half from the recent peak in early June. The decline has been precipitous. Less than a year ago, the metal reached a record of 598,000 yuan a tonne.

The slump has hammered lithium producers too, with the Sprott Lithium Miners ETF tumbling to the weakest since its inception in February, and Global X Lithium & Battery Tech ETF plunging to the lowest since 2020.

Demand for lithium typically picks up in the fourth quarter in China – the world’s largest EV market – because of strong battery cell production and installation, and manufacturers usually replenish their feedstock ahead of that.

Trucks and machinery are seen on the grounds of Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe’s processing plant in Goromonzi about 80 kilometres southeast of the capital Harare. A Chinese mining company on Wednesday commissioned a $300 million lithium processing plant in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has one of the world’s largest reserves of the metal. Photo: AP

But this year, that has not happened. Sizeable restocking has yet to materialise, said Susan Zou, an analyst with researcher Rystad Energy. Battery makers still have plenty of inventory to draw down, she said.

While the drop in prices may curb supply, especially from lepidolite mines in China, the pace of the decline in demand means they could go lower, said Wanyi Shao, an analyst at Guotai Junan Futures Co. “Car and battery manufacturers have been cautious when it comes to restocking” because consumer demand is weaker than expected, she said.

Chinese petchem makers shift to chemicals used in solar panels, EV batteries

In China, carmakers are struggling to defend their market share amid economic uncertainty. EV sales growth in the Asian nation slowed to 37 per cent in the second quarter from a year earlier, versus a global average of 50 per cent, according to consultancy Counterpoint Research.

Goldman Sachs analysts including Aditi Rai see lithium carbonate prices falling further over the next 12 months. “For the rest of the year, the fundamental focus appears to be on a seasonal uptick in Chinese EV sales, and we think any disappointment relative to historical norms could put accelerated downward pressure on prices,” they wrote in a note dated September 21.

Still, the current pullback provides a good buying opportunity for lithium stocks as demand growth over the next decade should support long-term prices, according to Wilsons Advisory. BloombergNEF expects global demand for lithium to grow nearly five times by the end of the decade.