Meet the nickel king of China, who froze a 145-year-old metal exchange

March 11, 2022, 7:43 PM UTC

The historic London Metal Exchange has been on hold since Tuesday, after a sensational short squeeze sent nickel prices soaring to over $100,000 per tonne.

For context, that was double the metal’s previous record value.

Even more extraordinary, the squeeze was linked to enormous short positions held by just one man: Chinese metal tycoon Xiang Guangda.

He’s known in China as “Big Shot” for his towering position in the metal industry and the enormous weight he carries in global markets. But his latest play may cause billions of dollars’ worth of losses for investors around the world. It’s already made the American nickel worth more melted than it is in solid form, since the five cent coin now costs around 16 cents to mint.

Here’s how we got here.

China’s nickel king

Xiang Guangda started his career as a mechanic in a fishery company, then went into business with a relative making automotive doors, according to Finews Asia, a financial news site based in Singapore. In 1988, he got into the metal-making game and founded Tsingshan Holding Group, which went from being a local maker of automotive doors to one of the world’s largest producers of crude stainless steel and nickel. The company, where Xiang currently acts as chairman, reported an annual revenue of over $28 billion in 2018, according to Forbes.

Xiang’s company is also a big player in the global nickel market, having invested billions in countries with big nickel reserves such as Indonesia, extracting and refining huge amounts of the metal critical to manufacturing modern necessities like electric car batteries.

Xiang and his company were early pioneers in the global nickel trade, and his actions can be highly influential in the way the market moves. In 2019, Tsingshan singlehandedly sent nickel prices soaring after buying up massive inventories of the metal ahead of a forthcoming ban on raw nickel exports from Indonesia, where Xiang’s nickel extraction industry is headquartered.

But Xiang’s latest move has turned out to be a spectacular flop.

Xiang’s short squeeze

In the last few months of 2021, nickel prices hit a seven-year high, trading at around $21,000 per tonne, the result of relatively low inventory combining with growing demand for the metal as investors worldwide sought more for its applications in EV battery and stainless steel manufacturing.

As prices for nickel continued to rise, Xiang began shorting the metal, according to Bloomberg. When investors short stocks, they are betting that a commodity will lose value soon, while borrowing from brokers to sell on the open market. Once the value of the commodity falls, investors can buy the stock back at a profit before returning their loan to the broker.

But if investors make a wrong bet, and the value of a commodity rises, they will need to cover themselves by buying back the stock at a higher price. This is called a “short squeeze,” and it can make things even more expensive for a short-seller, as buying back the stock makes the value of the asset go even higher.

That’s exactly what happened with Xiang. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine upended markets trading stock and commodities worldwide, and the consequential sanctions the West placed on Russia directly impacted the nickel industry, dramatically raising the price of the commodity. Xiang bet that prices would fall, and he was wrong.  

What happens next

Xiang is still convinced nickel prices will fall, and he is readying assets held by Tsingshan to be put up as collateral for his debtors, according to reporting from Bloomberg

This may be a bluff, as the Financial Times reports the Chinese government is considering bailing Xiang out, with one option being to swap the company’s low-grade nickel reserves, which do not meet the London Metal Exchange’s quality standards, for high-grade metal held in China’s State Reserves Bureau. Tsingshan would then be able to use this metal to pay off brokers.

That will need to be a lot of metal, because the losses for Tsingshan in nickel trading reportedly stand at $8 billion

Fortune was not able to reach Tsingshan or Xiang for comment.

The London Metal Exchange canceled almost $4 billion worth of trades on Tuesday as it froze activity, in an ongoing halt that is set to continue into next week.

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