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Albemarle to cut staff, pause expansions amid falling lithium prices

Albemarle, the world’s largest lithium producer, said on Wednesday it will cut jobs and defer spending on a U.S. refinery project as part of a wide-ranging plan to slash costs amid falling prices of the metal used to make electric vehicle batteries.

Shares of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company fell 2.8% to $122.44 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock has lost nearly half of its value in the past 52 weeks.

Oppenheimer & Co analysts cut their price target on Albemarle on Wednesday to $191 from $308.

Global supply of the ultralight metal over the past year has outpaced demand from the battery market, fuelling a glut that has dragged on pricing. While lithium prices can vary by region and type, an index of prices tracked by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, for instance, has dropped by 81% in the past year and nearly 11% in the past month alone.

Albemarle, which supplies Tesla and other automakers, sells most of its lithium on long-term contracts linked to market pricing. The company had flagged last November that a softening in lithium prices would dent 2023 sales, although executives described the market volatility as “road bumps” and not any erosion of long-term expectations for strong demand.

Albemarle said it now plans 2024 capital spending in the range of $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion, down from about $2.1 billion in 2023. The company also plans to defer spending on a massive U.S. lithium refining project in South Carolina that was designed to be one of the world’s largest processors of the battery metal.

Albemarle did say it would finish the commissioning of several lithium refineries in China and Australia for which construction is nearly finished. The company also said it would prioritise its permitting efforts to reopen a North Carolina lithium mine.

It was not immediately clear if the budget cuts would affect Albemarle’s plans to launch direct lithium extraction technology (DLE) in Arkansas, near where rivals Exxon Mobil , Tetra Technologies and others are working to deploy the novel filtration processes.

The company plans to cut staff, but did not say how many employees would be affected. In all, the moves are expected to save $95 million annually, with $50 million coming in 2024, Albemarle said.

The company said it would record a charge in the first quarter associated with severance and related benefit costs, exit and disposal activities, and asset write-downs.

Also on Wednesday, Albemarle said it would sell its stake in Australia’s Liontown Resources after Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, blocked its $4.3 billion bid for the lithium developer last year.

The budget come comes a week after protest in Chile’s Atacama salt flats, where Albemarle and rival SQM produce lithium, blocked access to key production facilities. Albemarle had said its operations “continue as usual” and that it was focused on employee safety.

Albemarle plans to release its fourth-quarter results and discuss its 2024 outlook on Feb. 15.

 

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