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China's demand in multiple sectors exceeding 2019 levels

Supply restrictions necessary to assist in industry's recovery

Pittsburgh — Aluminum demand is expected to pick up in the second half of the year as China's economy begins to lead global recovery following a market downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but overcapacity will continue to pose challenges to the industry, Alcoa CFO William Oplinger said June 8.

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"China is leading the recovery, and we are seeing some sectors in China reporting growth higher than 2019 levels in areas like industrial production, vehicle production, commercial starts and food and drink sales," Oplinger told participants during a virtual presentation for the Deutsche Bank Global Industrials & Materials Summit.

"On top of that was the recently announced Chinese stimulus plan that makes provisions for investments in traditional and new infrastructure areas, so China is leading the way on a V-shaped recovery," he added.

Oplinger said the aluminum industry's recovery ex-China was lagging slightly behind China, but orders for the second half of the year represented a positive sign for near-term aluminum demand.

"As we look around the rest of the world, the rest of the world has been a little bit slower to recover on the demand side, but we do believe there are potential green shoots out there," he said.

"As we look at our order books, the June order books are as expected. ... However, we are starting to see orders pick up in the July time frame in slab and foundry markets as we see the pace of the auto restarts starting, so that's a positive on the demand side."

Despite growing demand in the coming months, Oplinger said the aluminum industry still needs to address operational overcapacity and rising global inventories in order to support a full recovery

"To rectify that, it will be a combination of both higher demand and supply restrictions," Oplinger said.

"We have seen a drawdown in Chinese inventories as the strength of the demand comes back, so that's a positive, but offsetting that is the growth in inventories in the rest of world."

Oplinger said about one-third of the world's aluminum smelting capacity is expected to be currently operating at a profit loss.

NO DECISION YET ON SPAIN SMELTER

Oplinger said no final determination has been made regarding Alcoa's San Ciprian smelter in Spain, but the company has continued to meet with labor representatives in an informal consultation process to discuss the future of the operations.

"We are consulting with the workers' unions and getting them to understand what the situation is at that smelting facility," he said. "We acknowledge that the industry participants all have to make their decisions on their own, so they need to be looking at what makes sense for their facilities."

Alcoa said May 28 high-energy costs, low aluminum prices and global oversupply, among other complications, have caused "significant recurring losses" at San Ciprian.

The review of the San Ciprian smelter is the latest development in Alcoa's company-wide asset review announced in 2019.

As part of the review, Alcoa said in April it would idle the remaining 230,000 mt of capacity at its Intalco aluminum smelter in Ferndale, Washington, by the end of July.