LONDON (Reuters) - Which metal stands to gain most from the coming electric vehicle and energy storage revolution?
Lithium? Cobalt? Nickel?
All have strong claims to future fame in the evolving battery technology race that is driving the first phase of what might be called the “technology supercycle”.
The answer, though, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is actually tin.
MIT’s analysis, originally commissioned by Rio Tinto, is based on the fact that tin is the glue, quite literally in the form of solder, that binds circuit boards together. That puts it centre stage as the world moves beyond electric vehicles to advanced robotics and the internet of things.
The findings are surprising. Even the International Tin Association (ITA) seems to have been caught off guard and is now researching further tin’s potential applications in the next wave of technological innovation.
Moreover, no-one seems to have told the tin market, which at a current $18,700 per tonne on the London Metal Exchange (LME) is close to July’s two-year low of $18,300.
Apathy has been the defining feature of tin so far this year, which has at least cushioned the market from the macro selling that has hit the rest of the LME complex.
That may be about to change, however.
Not because of any potential future step-change in usage but because of two very immediate supply events.
One of the reasons tin has been so becalmed this year is because of a relatively stable supply picture, particularly in Indonesia, the world’s largest exporter.
Indonesian exports in the first nine months of this year totalled 63,000 tonnes, up 13 percent on 2017.
October exports, however, slumped to 5,109 tonnes, the lowest monthly total since April, and could fall further over the remainder of 2018.
The cause has been a breakdown in the certification process used to ensure the cluster of independent miners and smelters operating from the tin-rich islands of Bangka and Belitung are adhering to environmental and permitting regulations.
State-owned PT Surveyor Indonesia is currently being investigated by the police for allegedly “accommodating, utilising, processing and refining, transporting (and) selling” minerals from sources without permits.
That in turn has led the Indonesia Commodity and Derivatives Exchange (ICDX) to suspend trading of any tin that has passed through Surveyor Indonesia’s books.
Since exports have to be pre-traded on the ICDX, the collapse in tin trading on the ICDX is a leading indicator of a hiatus in exports.
It’s a throwback to the past, when the Indonesian government’s attempts to tighten its grip on the country’s independent tin sector regularly disrupted export flows.
And, based on past experience, the impact will be a temporary dislocation of availability, several months of low exports followed by accelerated flows as and when the export registration logjam is cleared.
However, short-term hits to Indonesian supply are set to coincide with a significant downturn in production in China, the world’s other tin production powerhouse.
Here the issue is the supply of tin raw materials from Myanmar, which has emerged as a major source of concentrates for China’s tin smelters over the last five years.
Analysts have long cautioned about the sustainability of Myanmar tin supply, which originates from the Wa region of the country.
This year those warnings are being realised.
Imports of tin concentrates from Myanmar fell by 26 percent to 184,000 tonnes bulk weight in the first 10 months of this year.
The ITA estimates a smaller 6 percent decline in terms of the amount of tin contained in those concentrates, but that grade offset has been achieved by treating historic stocks of ore at the mines.
Stocks have fallen from around 1.9 million tonnes in early July last year to around 400,000 tonnes at present, with newly mined ore coming with declining grades, according to the ITA.
China’s smelters are expected to react by lifting domestic production of tin ore, but that will take time, not least because of the country’s ever tighter environmental controls on the mining sector.
In the short term, therefore, several leading producers such as Yunnan Tin are taking extended downtime for maintenance and repairs.
The ITA is expecting national refined tin production to slump by 30 percent in the fourth quarter, feeding into an eight percent slide in annual 2018 production.
The supply disruption in China is a major input into the ITA’s forecast that the tin market will be in supply deficit to the tune of 7,500 tonnes this year.
That doesn’t sound like much but is significant in the context of a 350,000-tonne global market.
But don’t expect that deficit automatically to translate into higher tin prices.
Relatively stable production in both China and Indonesia in the first part of this year has left the supply chain with a comfortable inventory cushion.
Immediate demand prospects, meanwhile, are poor. The ITA is expecting global usage growth to drop from four percent this year to flat next year.
The weakness is coming from China, also the world’s largest user, where already faltering growth in the electronics sector risks further deterioration as trade tensions escalate with the United States.
The ITA’s forecast of a 500-tonne surplus next year is hardly the stuff to whet the appetite of the world’s hedge funds.
And even if they were interested, the low liquidity of the LME tin contract prevents all but the bravest from getting involved.
But if MIT is right in its findings, there is a slow-burn bull fuse smoking away in the tiny tin market.
Electric vehicles are only the first potential demand kicker as researchers experiment with tin in lithium ion battery anodes.
The secondary and tertiary demand impulses will, according to MIT, come from advanced robotics, computation and the internet of things.
The changes will be far more incremental than those seen in markets such as cobalt, where the impact of EV battery demand has already roiled prices.
But they will serve to reinvigorate a market that has struggled to deal with largely static demand drivers in recent years.
For now, tin’s fortunes will, once again, be beholden to what happens in the world’s two largest producers.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
Editing by Louise Heavens