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--Clyde Russell is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own.--
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Anybody looking at China’s vast aluminium sector may be struck by a sense of deja vu, as the issues of last year appear set for a repeat performance in 2015.
The sector is still plagued by overcapacity and poor profitability, but perhaps the biggest concern is the apparent lack of any willingness to deal with the issues.
China produced about 27.5 million tonnes of aluminium last year, according to consultants AZ China, a figure above the official 24.4 million tonnes, which AZ China says doesn’t include some privately-owned smelters.
This represents roughly half of global output, but is still some way short of China’s capacity to produce 36 million tonnes per annum.
China will add as much as 3.5 million tonnes of new production this year, but not all of this will be fully utilised, AZ China said in a Jan. 9 briefing note.
With some additional capacity at existing plants, some planned closure of older smelters and the new plants, AZ China expects total Chinese aluminium output to reach 29 million tonnes in 2015, a gain of almost 5.5 percent on the 2014 figure.
The risk to this forecast is whether low prices for aluminium, and rising costs of inputs such as alumina, will force smelters to close down.
And if some smelters are forced to close, will the pattern of 2014 repeat?
What happened last year was that as Shanghai aluminium prices declined in the first quarter, some plants were idled.
But increased subsidies from local governments concerned by the loss of employment and taxes resulted in capacity returning in the second half, helping to end a rally in prices.
The most active aluminium contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange dropped about 8.5 percent in the first three months of last year, before rebounding almost 15 percent by the beginning of September.
It then fell sharply, ending the year at 13,140 yuan ($2,106) a tonne, some 13.4 percent below its September peak and 9.2 percent weaker over the year.
While Chinese aluminium prices were dragged lower in the second half by the general malaise of commodities, this was exacerbated by the re-commissioning of idled smelters.
As of the fourth quarter of last year, only 11 smelters, or 32 percent of China’s capacity, were profitable, according to an AZ China report on Jan. 26.
This sets the stage for another year of tug-of-war as local authorities in China juggle supporting loss-making smelters against the jobs and taxes the plants provide.
If history is a guide, some smelters may be idled, but they can resume output rather quickly should prices improve.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a report released Wednesday that closing smelters would be difficult, due to the loss of revenues, layoffs and debts of local governments.
The ministry’s solution of encouraging smelters to merge with local power plants to cut electricity costs sounds workable, but even if this idea is pursued with vigour it’s unlikely to change the dynamics much this year.
This means that China’s aluminium output is likely to rise and probably faster than its demand, putting further pressure on prices.
Exports are unlikely to provide much of an avenue for surplus metal to leave, with the 15 percent export tax on raw aluminium unlikely to be lifted.
Exports of semi-finished products did increase in 2014, with shipments of bars, rods and profiles jumping almost 40 percent to 854,682 tonnes, while plates, sheets and strips gained 11.9 percent to 1.74 million tonnes and foil by 15 percent to 867,652 tonnes.
But these are small numbers relative to the total output of aluminium, and exports are unlikely to increase at a pace equal to the capacity additions.
A further problem for Chinese smelters is sourcing the intermediate products alumina and bauxite.
While China has boosted domestic bauxite mining, it will likely need to source more from overseas and may have to pay higher prices, given the ongoing ban on exports from Indonesia, which used to produce about 12 percent of the world output.
China’s bauxite imports dropped 48 percent last year to 36 million tonnes, reflecting the loss of Indonesian shipments but also an adjustment from 2013, when smelters built up stockpiles ahead of the Indonesian ban.
Those stockpiles are being used up, meaning China’s bauxite imports are likely to rise in 2015, and this year there will likely be no supply from Indonesia.
The Southeast Asia nation provided 8.5 million tonnes of bauxite to China in the early part of 2014, before its export ban took full effect, representing 23 percent of China’s total imports.
Replacing this supply may well be possible, but at a higher cost as miners take advantage of a tighter market.
Editing by Joseph Radford