Car manufacturers are facing soaring costs and supply issues after the price of nickel doubled to record levels in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prices passed $100,000 (£76,000) a tonne – driven up by buyers racing to cover short positions – before the London Metal Exchange (LME) suspended trading in nickel for the day.
Nickel is a crucial element in the production of electric vehicle batteries, as well as of stainless steel, and about 10% of the world’s nickel comes from Russia.
While the export of metals has not yet been the target of western sanctions, uncertainty over future supply has also helped push up the cost of aluminium, needed in the bodywork of cars, and palladium, used in catalytic converters, to record levels.
The LME, one of the major commodity exchanges worldwide, said it had taken the decision to stop nickel trading “on orderly market grounds” as panic ensued, and said the suspension could last several days.
Nickel prices quadrupled in the past week as traders digested the impact of the crisis on metal supplies. The Moscow-headquartered Nornickel, which mines metals in northern Siberia, is the world’s largest supplier of refined nickel suitable for batteries, as well as of palladium.
The commodity prices threaten to drive up the price of electric vehicles, with affordability already an issue for consumers, at a time when the running cost of EVs is also rising steeply due to energy bills inflating faster even than pump prices.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said the “immediate future was unclear” and it was working with the government and its members to understand and address the long-term impacts of the situation. The SMMT’s chief executive, Mike Hawes, said: “Russia and Ukraine produce some key raw materials for the European automotive supply chain, including aluminium, palladium and nickel, which is used in battery manufacturing.
“Rising metal costs add further risk into global supply chains already impacted by inflationary pressures, component shortages and energy price rises. UK vehicle makers are highly adaptable, but commodity prices are often set on international markets and volatility is expected for some time.”
Last week the Stellantis boss, Carlos Tavares, warned of “an escalation of cost that comes from raw materials and energy, that is going to put more pressure on the business model”.
A VW spokesperson said it had hedging contracts in place that would give some protection against short-term surges in raw material prices.
The price of nickel had already hit what were then record levels at the start of the year – albeit only 15% of the latest peak – as surging demand for electric cars left manufacturers vying for raw materials.
A year ago, Tesla’s Elon Musk highlighted the potential scarcity of metals for electric car manufacturing, tweeting: “Nickel is our biggest concern for scaling lithium-ion cell production.”
The crisis has escalated manufacturer’s issues after a year in which shortages of chips, or semiconductors, hit production. Disruption to the Ukrainian automotive industry, which employs about 60,000 people and is a key supplier of certain parts to German companies, could exacerbate the shortages, some analysts warned.