Lithium bulls are enjoying a rare but welcome two-day rally in ASX lithium stocks. There’s little news flow to justify the move, however, with lithium minerals prices still very subdued and hovering around 30-month lows. A preceding rise in US lithium stocks likely sparked the local rally, potentially due to investors making bets a restocking phase among Chinese battery and battery component manufacturers will commence following Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations which are due to kick off later this week.
It's a crucial time for many local lithium developers and producers as spot prices for a range of lithium minerals have fallen to, or in some cases below, their costs of production. According to a major broker’s commodity research team, there could be more pain to come. Morgan Stanley has released an update on where it thinks lithium prices are headed, and what this means for several key ASX lithium stocks in its coverage.
Morgan Stanley’s base case for lithium carbonate is US$13,500/t, but the spot price has just slipped below US$12,000/t. The broker blames ongoing weakness in the price of lithium carbonate on what they describe as “elevated inventories across the chain”. Inventories are rising as production ramps up at several projects that commenced within the last 12 months, as well as continued strong supply from Chinese lepidolite producers.
Making things worse, on the demand side, the market for lithium minerals has been undermined by resolute destocking by Chinese cathode makers as the domestic EV market has seen a slowing of sales growth, and pricing has tightened considerably. According to Morgan Stanley, Chinese cathode production has tumbled 28% since August 2023.
Together, these factors have led Morgan Stanley’s commodity team to “see Li downside to somewhere between our base and bear case”. I should mention here the broker’s bear case price target for lithium carbonate is US$8,000/t. Whilst a target range of US$8,000/t to US$13,500/t is a broad canvas, it does imply Morgan Stanley sees that a further 33% decline in lithium carbonate prices is possible.
Many lithium bulls have pegged their hopes on a fresh restocking phase following the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, which begins this week, with public holidays all next week, and business not really getting back into full swing until Monday 26 February. It could be a long wait, suggests Morgan Stanley, who warns post-New Year restocking could “potentially disappoint”, and that this increases the risk of prices falling further.
Morgan Stanley has just three lithium stocks within its ASX mining sector coverage – none of them rated any higher than “Equal-weight”. The broker is cautious on the wider lithium sector noting “downside risks to consensus expectations for FY24”. See below for Morgan Stanley’s latest views on the three stocks they cover, Mineral Resources (MIN), IGO, and Pilbara Minerals (PLS).
“MIN benefits from production ramping up at lithium operations…Leverage levels in FY24 remain a key focus/concern for us. We believe the positives are priced in.”
Broker’s “preferred Li stock”
FY24 dividend could disappoint vs consensus due to lower payout ratio
Rating: “EQUAL-WEIGHT”; Price Target cut to $62.50 from $63.00
“We like IGO’s mix of clean energy metals, however see most headwinds priced in at current stock price levels.”
IGO represents the highest free cash flow yield among the ASX lithium cohort
The broker is “cautious” due to “limited mine life” of nickel assets and minority ownership of Greenbushes
Rating: “EQUAL-WEIGHT”; Price Target $7.25
“Limited LCE growth vs peers over the next few years. We remain wary of further capex/cost increases as the P1000 expansion project ramps up.”
No dividend expected in FY24
Expects “significant remaining capex” will compress free cash flow generation
Rating: “UNDERWEIGHT”; Price Target $3.00
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