The announcement that Rio Tinto is to close its alumina refinery at Gove struck me for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that members of my family are affected by it. First up it’s worth noticing what’s mentioned (the high dollar and low aluminium price, which flows through to bauxite and alumina) and what isn’t (the carbon tax and legislation for its removal). Having claimed that he was going to save industries like alumina and aluminium smelting from the carbon tax “wrecking ball”, Abbott is now shown up, once again, as a fraud.
In the short run, the obvious policy implication is that the RBA needs to be firmer in pushing the dollar down. It was, I think, a mistake to hose down talk of direct intervention, as was done recently. Given our declining terms of trade, we should be closer to $US0.80 than $US0.90 now, and heading down further.
The bigger question of interest, though, is the future of aluminium. The big story of the past 10-20 years has been the massive growth of production in China, driven by cheap coal-fired power and lots of subsidies. That’s driven prices down to historically low levels (inflation-adjusted, probably record lows). Production in Australia is now clearly uneconomic, but even the Chinese are losing billions.
Declining prices have driven steady growth in demand for aluminium. Since the supply of recycled aluminium is dependent on past production, there has been a multiplied effect on demand for primary aluminium, which is the big driver of greenhouse gas production in this industry.
The general assumption (as with most trends) has been that these trends will continue indefinitely. But it’s clear that prices have to rise just to cover costs, and will rise further as China starts to price the local and carbon costs of coal-fired electricity. Moreover, in technological terms, aluminium is definitely a 20th century commodity. Its inherent properties of lightness and strength gave it great advantages, but it is now being displaced in advanced uses by carbon fibre and in some basic uses by lightweight steels.
So, it seems to me quite plausible that aluminium demand could stabilise over the next decade or two, with the result that most demand can be met by recycling rather than energy-intensive production of primary aluminium from bauxite (via alumina).
Note: I topic-banned regular commenter Hermit from talking about aluminium smelters, as it become an idee fixe. The ban is lifted for this post.
fn1. Has any new PM ever been shown up so comprehensively in such a short time? Not in my memory, which goes back to Harold Holt, and includes some shockers.