Lithium

Why Goldman Sachs would buy IGO and sell Mineral Resources

Wed 24 Apr 24, 2:31pm (AEST)
buy IGO and sell MIN says Goldman Sachs MI
Source: Shutterstock

Key Points

  • IGO (ASX: IGO) and Mineral Resources (ASX: MIN) are Australia’s two largest lithium producers
  • Each company’s shares have moved in opposite directions, IGO down and MIN up
  • Major broker Goldman Sachs has released a research report outlining reasons for its buy rating on IGO and its sell rating on MIN

In its latest research update on the ASX lithium sector, Goldman Sachs has considered the impact recent supply volume reductions and deferrals might have on Australia’s two largest lithium producers IGO (ASX: IGO) and Mineral Resources (ASX: MIN).

You’re no doubt aware that lithium minerals prices cratered through 2023, potentially bottoming out in February this year. Interestingly, notes Goldman Sachs, the bulk of the production tweaks from producers in response to the roughly 80% drop in prices has so far come from the lower end of the global lithium cost curve.

Lithium carbonate price chart 24 April 2024
Lithium prices cratered in 2023, above, the price of lithium carbonate

The broker suggests that this indicates there are “other considerations for lithium supply such as the downstream integration of larger players.” You don’t get players much larger than IGO, MIN, and their partners in their major projects, US chemicals giant Albemarle and Chinese lithium giant Tianqi Lithium Corporation.

Albemarle is the common denominator across the IGO and MIN equations because it owns 49% of the Greenbushes Lithium Operation with the remaining 51% jointly owned by IGO and Tianqi Lithium Corporation. It also owns an equal 50% interest with MIN in the Wodgina lithium mine. Both are in these projects to feed their growing downstream processing capabilities.

Albemarle is the lynchpin of IGO vs MIN fortunes

Albemarle’s management of its medium- and long-term downstream processing profile could be the limiting factor for the fortunes of both IGO and MIN. Goldman Sachs believes events may conspire to push Albemarle to favour expansion of volumes at Greenbushes over Wodgina, potentially derisking IGO as an investment proposition and increasing the risks for MIN.

Much of MIN’s lithium aspirations depend on its planned ramp up of Wodgina Train 4 which the company is targeting for early 2026. When delivered, it would increase Albemarle’s excess spodumene production from around 100kt to around 400kt, and above the company’s current midpoint outlook.

Goldman Sachs believes this degree of production increase is too rapid for Albemarle’s ability to process the feedstock it would create. On this point, the broker notes Albemarle’s January update in which it signalled a slower build out of downstream conversion capacity.

ALB’s downstream builds are now more prolonged. Source Company data, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research
ALB’s downstream builds are now more prolonged...ALB attributable hydroxide processing capacity (ktpa LiOH Eq) Source: Company data, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research

“We see this inferring ALB has no pressing need for Wodgina Train 4 volume in CY26, potentially indicating ALB may prefer a ~12-month delay to the build/ramp up”, notes Goldman Sachs. But it could get worse, because Mineral Resources is also targeting Wodgina Trains 5 & 6 to commence in FY28. Goldman Sachs notes, “we see this timing at a knock-on risk from the timing of Train 4”.

The potential of a delay to Train 4 is not factored into market consensus numbers for Mineral Resources, suggests Goldman Sachs. The broker believes consensus earnings estimates for Mineral Resources are above their own numbers through to 2026, implying there's potential downside to the company's share price.

Goldman Sachs believes that if Albemarle is found chasing alternative sources of additional spodumene to meet its incremental feed needs in the medium term, it may instead choose to target an extension of the Greenbushes tailings retreatment plant. This would work in IGO’s favour.

On the topic of Greenbushes, Goldman Sachs suggests IGO has another major advantage over MIN. The broker thinks there’s far less risk surrounding production expansion plans at Greenbushes. This is because unlike Albemarle, the other major partner in the project Tianqi, has a far stronger desire to press ahead with planned expansions so it can meet its own processing needs.

Tianqi’s China downstream projects remain on track. Source Company data, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research
Tianqi’s China downstream projects remain on track...Tianqi attributable/controlled chemical conversion processing capacity (ktpa LiOH Eq) Source: Company data, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research

Goldman Sachs 2024 lithium market outlook

Goldman Sachs believes “marginal costs versus the cost curve” will remain the driving force for lithium minerals prices this year. Essentially, they expect that the supply-side, not the demand-side, is going to determine momentum in the short term. “We continue to expect volumes to be a key focus for the lithium market in 2024”, they note.

As mentioned above, Goldman Sachs considers cuts and deferrals so far have come from producers at the lower end of the cost curve, while higher cost assets have curtailed relatively less capacity. Going forward, further curtailments are increasingly less likely as many low-cost producers are “reasonably well capitalised”.

This means they’re more likely to “wear weaker or negative margins for a longer period to avoid being among the first to curtail”, says Goldman Sachs. More generally, producers may also look to maintain supply by targeting lower cost sources such as processing stockpiles.

Combined with their demand outlook, Goldman Sachs suggests the result will be “lower spodumene prices in the medium term”. The broker expects spodumene 6% to average US$800/t in the back half of this year and through 2025, before rising to around US$1,333/t by 2028. To put this into perspective, the latest assessment of Australian spodumene 6% by S&P Global Platts is US$1,080/t.

Goldman Sachs lithium minerals forecasts. Source Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research
Goldman Sachs lithium minerals forecasts. Source: Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research

The final word from Goldman Sachs on ASX lithium stocks

Based upon all of the above considerations, Goldman Sachs rates IGO a BUY with a price target of $7.50, implying 4.2% upside from the last price at the time of writing. On the other hand, they rate Mineral Resources as a SELL with a price target of $48.00, implying a whopping 30% downside from the last price at the time of writing.

They reiterated their ratings and price targets for other Australian lithium stocks in their coverage:

  • Pilbara Minerals (ASX: PLS): SELL; Price Target $2.80 (implies 27% downside)

  • Liontown Resources (ASX: LTR): NEUTRAL; Price Target $1.35 (implies 20% upside)

  • Core Lithium (ASX: CXO): SELL; Price Target $0.12 (implies 17% downside)

 

Written By

Carl Capolingua

Content Editor

Carl has over 30-years investing experience, helping investors navigate several bull and bear markets over this time. He is a well respected markets commentator who specialises in how the global macro impacts Australian and US equities. Carl has a passion for technical analysis and has taught his unique brand of price-action trend following to thousands of Aussie investors.

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