Lead shortages loom on record demand for batteries

Stocks dropped 9.3% from all-time high

Lead ore Lead ore

May 15 (Bloomberg) -- Lead is poised to rally after erasing this year’s gains with the market returning to shortages following a five-year glut as miners fail to keep pace with record demand for batteries.

Stockpiles monitored by the London Metal Exchange dropped 9.3 percent from the all-time high reached in October. Demand will exceed supply by 150,000 metric tons next year, equal to about six months of U.S. mine production, Macquarie Group Ltd. estimates. Prices will average $2,273 a ton in the fourth quarter, 12 percent more than now, according to the median of 18 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Consumption is being driven by industrialization and new technology, with lead usage in batteries for everything from fork-lift trucks to mobile phone towers growing at more than twice the speed of overall demand, BNP Paribas SA estimates. Mine supply will expand at the slowest pace in three years in 2012 as producers fail to develop new deposits, Macquarie predicts. Xstrata Plc will shut a Canadian mine next year after a half-century of digging exhausted all profitable ores.

“If you’re adding demand you need new supply,” said Duncan Hobbs, an analyst at Macquarie in London. “In the next two, three years at least, on the supply side, there is no new primary mine lead supply coming to the market anywhere in the world outside China.”

First Quarter

Lead is little changed this year at $2,036 on the LME, compared with a 1.6 percent gain in the LME Index of six industrial metals. The Standard & Poor’s GSCI gauge of 24 commodities dropped 1.7 percent since the start of January and the MSCI All-Country World Index of equities advanced 3.9 percent. Treasuries returned 0.7 percent, a Bank of America Corp. index shows.

Mine output will advance 1.8 percent to 4.7 million tons this year, compared with 9.8 percent growth in each of the preceding two years, according to Morgan Stanley. Recycling will add another 5.49 million tons, 2.8 percent less than in 2011, the bank estimates. The supply glut will shrink to 13,000 tons, from 156,000 tons in 2011, before flipping into a 154,000-ton shortfall in 2013, Morgan Stanley predicts. Macquarie says next year’s shortage would be the first since 2007.

Global lead consumption will reach 10.56 million tons this year, valued at $22.2 billion based on the average price so far this year, Morgan Stanley estimates.

Demand for lead from manufacturers of industrial batteries will jump about 10 percent this year, compared with growth of 4.5 percent across all applications, BNP Paribas estimates. The products now account for about 33 percent of all consumption, twice as much value as in 2005, the Lisbon-based International Lead and Zinc Study Group estimates.

Switching Stations

Industrial batteries contain 80 pounds (36 kilograms) to 140 pounds of lead, according to Thomas O’Neill, the treasurer of EnerSys, the world’s largest manufacturer of the devices. They are used as backup power for mobile-phone towers, at switching stations for land-line phones and in data centers. The Reading, Pennsylvania-based company buys 500 million pounds of lead a year, O’Neill said.

Any gain in lead prices may be curbed by mounting investor concern about the pace of economic recovery, with recessions re- emerging across Europe and China expanding at the slowest pace in almost three years. The metal advanced as much as 14 percent through the end of January before reversing as a 12 percent jump in LME stockpiles in two weeks suggested weakening demand. World growth will slow to 3.5 percent this year, from 3.9 percent in 2011, the International Monetary Fund predicts.

United Nations

Batteries account for 85 percent of lead demand, compared with 27 percent in 1960, according to the International Lead Association in London, whose members include Xstrata and BHP Billiton Ltd. Vehicles make up 60 percent of battery consumption, according to the ILZSG, created by the United Nations in 1959. Demand is also coming from sales of electric bicycles, each of which requires 12 to 55 kilograms of lead, and there are about 157 million of them on China’s roads.

China’s passenger-vehicle sales had their worst two-month start to a year since 2005, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Growth may not even reach 5 percent in 2012, compared with 33 percent in 2010, Gu Xianghua, a deputy to the secretary general of the association, told a conference in Qingdao on March 20. China will account for 45 percent of lead demand this year, Barclays Plc estimates.

Demand for replacement batteries slowed over the northern hemisphere’s winter because of milder temperatures, according to Brook Hunt, a research unit of Wood Mackenzie Ltd. The average temperature in Beijing in December through February was minus 1.9 degrees Celsius (28.6 degrees Fahrenheit), or 0.6 degrees Celsius above normal, AccuWeather.com estimates. Temperatures were also above normal in New York City and London.

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