Nickel prices climbed to an all-time high and could further increase the cost of electric vehicles (EV) and force automakers to cut earnings forecasts. Ride-hailing giant Didi became the latest Chinese tech company to enter consumer EV space; it plans to deliver an entry-level sedan next year. Shares of Nio closed flat in the company’s Hong Kong trading debut. Its listing follows the steps of Xpeng Motors and Li Auto. All hope to attract more investors in China amid growing financial market tensions between China and the US.

Soaring nickel prices cast shadow over Chinese EV players

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As the price of nickel jumped to an all-time high since early March, auto industry insiders expressed concerns that an escalating Russia–Ukraine conflict could disrupt supplies of the metal, a key component of EV batteries. While watchers have differing views about the impact on EV adoption, most expect battery prices to remain high and to weigh on the margins of Chinese EV makers for the rest of the year.

Nickel craze: Nickel markets had a wild ride early this month. On March 8, the price of three-month nickel on the London Metal Exchange (LME) more than doubled in a short period, reaching an all-time high of $101,365. The unusual surge prompted LME to halt trading for seven days, set new price limits, and adjust prices. When it reopened, the price dropped back down to around $80,000, yet still about 300% higher than the $20,000 price in late February. 

  • China’s nickel producer Tsingshan Holding Group was caught on the wrong side of the market, having built the biggest short position in the metal and betting the price would fall since last year. Tsingshan on March 14 said it reached a deal with its banks to backstop its short position after struggling to pay margin calls on its position during the nickel price surge a week earlier. The company faced an $8 billion paper loss based on nickel’s price of $48,002 on March 14, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • The unprecedented price surge was partly due to concerns from Russia. Western nations imposed sanctions on Russia after it started a war with Ukraine in late February. Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of nickel, prompting buyers to worry that Russian nickel suppliers could be hit by sanctions and transport disruptions.
  • The already tight supply of high-purity nickel, fueled by the rising sales of EVs, contributed to the highs in the metal’s price. Nickel is increasingly used in EV batteries as it ensures high-energy density that allows the vehicle to travel further.

Higher cost for EVs: Nickel’s price surge is magnifying the current supply chain woes that have dramatically pushed up automakers’ production costs. The global semiconductor shortage and a boom in the prices of other metals have been the principal factors. 

  • The input cost of an EV equipped with a 60 kilowatt hour (kWh) battery pack will increase RMB 9,000 ($1,418) due to nickel’s price growing from about $20,000 early this year to the recent price point of around $50,000, according to estimates from China International Capital Corporation (CICC). Nickel’s price will probably stay high over the short term, partly thanks to low inventories in the country, but the high price may be hard to maintain long-term, CICC wrote in a March 9 report.
  • Many experts anticipate an accelerated shift towards lithium phosphate (LFP) batteries from the current mainstream types that use nickel and cobalt as core materials. Nickel-free LFP batteries generally provide a lower driving range and cost less to produce than its counterparts, and yet are now also under price pressure thanks to rising lithium prices, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Average prices of lithium-ion battery packs are expected to slightly grow to $135 per kWh this year from $132 a year ago, ending nearly a decade of price declines, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated in a report published on Nov. 30, 2021.

Impact on EVs: Predictions vary among experts of how nickel’s price hikes could affect the EV supply chain and affordability for customers.

  • Morgan Stanley automotive analyst Adam Jonas, one of the leading voices warning investors of massive earnings drops for automakers, expects at least a $1,000 increase this year in the input cost of an average EV in the US. If sanctions against Russia are extended to nickel, it’s “probably time for investors to take auto company earnings forecasts down,” Jonas wrote in a March 7 note.
  • Other experts say the overall impact will be limited. The high price of nickel is likely to prove a temporary phenomenon since the metal has long seen high output, Cui Dongshu, secretary general of the China Passenger Car Association (CPCA), told reporters during an online conference on March 8. There are currently few signs of risks to output from other major nickel producers such as Indonesia, Cui added.

Didi’s first consumer EV could hit the roads in 2023

News: China’s red-hot EV market just added another competitor as struggling ride-hailing platform Didi reportedly plans to develop its first consumer car in-house. The compact EV could begin mass delivery as early as next June, according to a local media report on March 15. With an estimated price tag of RMB 150,000 ($23,580), the new model will be an entry-level compact sedan competing with existing offerings such as BYD’s popular Qin EV, the report said. The company is said to have more than 1,700 staff dedicated to the project at its Beijing headquarters. In addition, it is considering a deal to buy Zhijun Auto, a little-known EV manufacturer with a plant in central Jiangxi province.

Insights: The launch of a consumer car might create a new revenue stream for Didi as its core business falters. The project can also cover the high cost of developing autonomous driving technology, an initiative the company has undertaken since 2016. The move would also see the Chinese mobility giant lining itself up to compete with big auto names such as BYD, which is also its manufacturing partner.

Didi had a rocky start in its first attempt to produce an EV with BYD. The D1 was a purpose-built electric crossover for ride-hailing services developed by the two companies. It entered into production in late 2020, six months later than expected, the report said. 

Didi’s ride-hailing volume reportedly declined to 20 million trips per day in January, a 20% plunge from daily figures in the first quarter of 2021. Over the same period, the company’s ride-hailing market share in China has shrunk from nearly 90% to 70% due to Beijing’s ongoing cybersecurity review of the company that began last July. 

Nio shares debut in Hong Kong secondary listing

News: Chinese EV maker Nio made a weak debut in Hong Kong on March 10, closing down 0.69%. The listing took place after a long and winding journey. Already listed on the New York Stock Exchange, Nio has followed in the steps of rivals Xpeng Motors and Li Auto by tapping into Hong Kong’s capital markets. However, Nio did not sell new shares or raise money, and it chose to list by introduction. Xpeng and Li Auto, on the other hand, raised HK$14 billion and HK$11.8 billion, respectively, by selling shares in Hong Kong in the summer of 2021.  

Insights: Nio explained the move by saying it hopes to attract more investors by enabling more listing locations and flexible trading hours. A Singapore listing may be another possibility. The Hong Kong locale does bring the Shanghai-based EV maker closer to mainland investors and provides the automaker insurance against the risk of delisting in the US. But Nio said it had “a sufficient pool of working capital,” according to financial media Caixin (our translation), and did not have an urgent need to raise additional funds. 

Plagued by a shortage of semiconductor chips and batteries, among other supply-chain headaches, Nio has posted lackluster monthly sales volumes for several months. Sales of Nio’s existing three models have been slow. Its first sedan, the ET7, is scheduled for delivery later this month. The company hopes to catch up: It plans to begin delivering its second sedan, the ET5, in September and to launch a sports utility vehicle (SUV), its fourth, by year-end.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen