Aluminium price surge to put pressure on manufacturers and downstream

The price of aluminium has recently surged to US$3 000 (about R43 800.00) per ton, breaking a 13-year record, with a knock-on effect on some South African manufacturers who felt the impact in higher production costs.

The increase was driven, in part, by a rise in commodity prices, sparked by supply concerns after a coup in Guinea, which is a major producer of bauxite, one of the main raw materials in aluminium, as well low Chinese input.

The US’s reporting record high inflation led to worry that its Federal Reserve would have to tighten monetary policy, which also contributed to the surge.

Supply-chain snags that have roiled commodity markets and helped push aluminium prices to the 13-year high are unlikely to ease any time soon.

That’s the message coming from producers, consumers, traders and shippers at North America’s largest aluminium conference, which ended recently.

Aluminium has jumped 48% this year on surging demand, shipping bottlenecks and production curbs in China, stoking inflation concerns and causing a major headache for consumer-goods producers facing worsening material shortages alongside the sharp rise in costs. Snarled supplies will continue to dog the industry through most of 2022, many conference participants said, with some projecting it could take as long as five years to resolve the issues.

Global supply chains, with container shipping as their backbone, are struggling to keep pace with the demand for goods and overcome labour disruptions caused by COVID outbreaks. Compounding matters in the aluminium industry are worker shortages at plants and a lack of truck drivers to deliver the metal that is available.

In South Africa, Nampak, the country’s largest packaging company, which manufactures aluminium beverage cans, said it had felt the pinch of high aluminium prices. The group said the price hike had influenced the cost of its inventories and required a “substantial” working capital increase.

“The pass through of the additional cost means that aluminium beverage cans will become less price competitive in the short-term versus other beverage packaging formats, but only before the net benefits of recycling are considered,” said Nampak.

The package maker explained that in the circular economy, the higher aluminium price would result in the increased value of used beverage cans, which would benefit informal scrap collectors.

“Given that aluminium cans are infinitely recyclable, this additional incentive is expected to further increase its recycling rate and potentially boost its status as the most recycled beverage packaging format,” Nampak said.

CEO of Hulamin, Richard Jacob, explained that since the company manufactures aluminium products for its customers, it will be able to pass the increased costs to them. But the two cents to three cents increase is unlikely to affect consumers, since the brand owners will absorb the costs.

Although the current price is the highest it has been in a while, Jacob said it has been higher in the early 2000s.

Some customers may switch to products made from other materials like plastic and wood, said Jacob, but in many cases there is no substitute.