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The nickel market just shut down again as Putin’s war in Ukraine sends commodities into turmoil

March 16, 2022, 9:26 PM UTC

The London Metal Exchange (LME) was forced to shut down nickel trading for the second time in under two weeks on Wednesday, in an embarrassing false start for the 145-year-old metals exchange.  

But Nickel isn’t the only commodity having trouble these days.  

The effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine have been widespread, causing instability in European energy markets, pushing global agriculture producers to their limits, and leaving Americans paying record-high prices for gasoline.

The LME saw a computer glitch halt nickel trading for several hours on Wednesday, as the exchange said it would cancel a “small number” of trades that occurred below its newly instated 5% change in daily price limit

Nickel’s price tumbled from around $48,000 to $45,590 per ton when the market opened and remained at that level in limited trading when the market reopened at 2 p.m. London time.

“What a debacle,” Ole Hansen, head of commodities strategy at Saxo Bank A/s told Bloomberg. “The LME is not doing itself any favors.”

The LME was already facing pressure from metals traders after canceling $3.9 billion in trades last week when rising metal prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a short squeeze on traders, including Chinese metals tycoon Xiang Guangda.

The squeeze pushed nickel’s price up roughly 250% to over $100,000 per ton in a matter of hours, as short-sellers sought to cover their trades by buying nickel.

To justify the shutdown last week, the LME said in a statement the short squeeze cascade caused “a systemic risk to the market.”

And while the systemic risk may have been significant, the shutdown has angered many metals traders. Now, some are threatening to leave the London-based metals market altogether if the LME doesn’t stabilize trading. 

“I don’t think this is a market problem. I think it’s an existential problem for the LME,” Keith Wildie, head of trading at Romco Metals told Bloomberg

Energy and agriculture are in turmoil

Nickel isn’t the only commodity market facing some serious turbulence as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Energy and agriculture markets are also in dire straits.

The European Energy Trade Federation, Europe’s largest energy trade federation, which includes companies like BP and Shell, has called for “emergency” assistance from central banks to support wholesale gas and power markets throughout Europe.

The EETF wrote in a letter to sent to market participants and regulators that it would require “time-limited emergency liquidity support to ensure that wholesale gas and power markets continue to function,” Risk magazine first reported.

The call for support comes after rising prices and sharp swings triggered by the Ukraine crisis caused a cash crunch for European energy traders and producers.

Oil prices also neared record highs earlier this month before a mild retreat, with Brent Crude oil, the international benchmark, moving as high as $139.13 per barrel after the U.S. banned Russian energy imports.

While prices for the critical commodity have since retreated, the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in the U.S., which typically trades in lockstep with oil, remains near all-time highs, according to the Automobile Association of America

Agricultural commodities are also facing sharp price moves as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is threatening harvests, and preventing free trade in eastern Europe.

Together, food produced in Ukraine and Russia represents roughly 10% of all calories consumed globally, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. As a result, the UN warned that record-high food prices may jump an additional 22% this year, putting pressure on billions of families worldwide and pushing the global number of undernourished people up by 13 million.

Ukraine is famously known as the breadbasket of Europe, and the loss of the country’s wheat exports has already wreaked havoc globally. The price of wheat reached all-time highs in late February, and despite a recent pullback, the commodity has still seen a roughly 50% jump over the last six months.

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