File picture: Michael Buholzer/Reuters

London - Rocketing ferrochrome prices are expected to accelerate consolidation among producers in South Africa, increasing the global stainless steel industry's reliance on mining group Glencore and chrome ore company Samancor.

Nearly 60 percent of the world's production of global chrome ore - used to make stainless steel raw material ferrochrome - comes from South Africa, where Glencore and Samancor are casting an acquisitive eye over smaller rival Hernic Ferrochrome.

Four Sources in the stainless steel and ferrochrome industries told Reuters that Glencore is looking to reinforce its dominant position with the purchase of Hernic, which is majority owned by Japan's Mitsubishi.

Swiss-based Glencore expects to produce 1.57 million tonnes of ferrochrome this year but has capacity for nearly two million tonnes. Hernic would give it a further 420 000 tonnes.

“Hernic would be a good fit for Glencore ... and (Glencore) won't want to see new players in South Africa's chrome industry,” said Mark Beveridge, of commodities consultancy CRU.

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“Glencore has invested a lot of money in South Africa and is a driving force behind consolidation. It's not good news for stainless steel producers.”

Glencore declined to comment.

The industry sources said that Mitsubishu is considering a sale, given that current ferrochrome prices are likely to push up Hernic's value. The sources gave no valuation estimates for the company, which describes itself as the world's fourth-largest integrated ferrochrome producer.

Macquarie analysts estimate global ferrochrome output at 10.7 million tonnes this year against demand above 11 million tonnes, which has helped to lift prices by more than 70 percent since September to about $1.10 per lb.

A Mitsubishi spokesman in Tokyo, when asked whether the Japanese trading house is looking to sell its 50.1 percent stake, would only say that “Mitsubishi Corp is considering all possible ways to support sustainable operations of Hernic Ferrochrome”.

Rival suitor?

Two of the sources said that South Africa's Samancor is also interested but that Glencore is in a stronger position to fund acquisitions than at the start of 2016, with group revenues rising on the back of the recent rally in commodities prices.

A Samancor representative was not immediately available for comment.

Samancor is Glencore's biggest rival in ferrochrome, with CRU's Beveridge putting its capacity at 1.4 million tonnes a year, rising to 2 million tonnes including joint ventures.

“Glencore isn't going to let someone else move on Hernic,” one chrome industry source said, though he added that the company may want to wait to see where prices settle and that China's role in the market will be important.

Ferrochrome importer China also has the ability to produce its own supplies, having built large amounts of capacity over the past 10 year, with the potential to stabilise prices.

China's chrome ore stocks are running low, but restocking may not be difficult, sources say, because smaller producers in South Africa, India and Turkey have restarted or likely to restart mothballed capacity.

“If the Chinese can get the ore, they can make money by producing ferrochrome,” CRU's Beveridge said.

Recent data from the International Stainless Steel Forum showed Chinese output at 11.73 million tonnes between January and June, up 7.9 percent from the first six months of last year.