Tianqi Lithium, one of the world’s top producers of the commodity used in batteries for electric vehicles, expects to post a net loss in the first quarter of 2020, exacerbating a grim financial situation that may force it to sell off assets.
Tianqi said in a filing late on Tuesday that it expected to lose 450-510 million yuan in the March quarter this year, blaming low lithium prices, coronavirus-related disruption that hit sales, and foreign exchange factors.
It had in late February already flagged a provisional net loss of 2.8 billion yuan ($396.72 million) for 2019.
Moody’s, the rating agency, downgraded Tianqi to Caa1 from B2 on March 25, its fourth such downgrade since September. “The rating downgrade reflects Tianqi Lithium’s highly strained capital structure as a result of its high debt burden, elevated leverage and weak liquidity,” it said in a note on Tuesday.
Those factors had increased refinancing risks, in particular around the November 2020 maturity of $2.3 billion in borrowing associated with its acquisition of a stake in Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile S.A., Moody’s said.
Tianqi agreed to pay $4.1 billion for 23.8% of SQM in May 2018, building on its strong market position with a 51% stake in the world’s biggest and lowest cost lithium mine, Greenbushes in Western Australia.
Since then, exuberance for the EV revolution has fizzled and prices for lithium chemicals have been on a 2-1/2 year slide.
Prices of lithium carbonate AM-99C-LTCB, a battery-grade lithium chemical, have fallen by around two-thirds to 46,500 yuan a tonne since May 2018, according to Asian Metal.
The Australian Financial Review reported on Monday that Tianqi was contemplating the sale of some of its 51% stake in its Australian joint venture Talison Lithium.
Perth-based conglomerate Wesfarmers, which already has a lithium footprint and has raised $1.4 billion this year by selling down its stake in supermarkets firm Coles Group , is the frontrunner for the stake in Talison, Australian industry sources say.
Other local contenders include Rio Tinto, South 32 , Fortescue and Minereral Resources, they add. International suitors could be JV partner Albemarle, as well as Japan’s Sumitomo or Mitsui.
Tianqi’s partner in the joint venture that operates the Greenbushes lithium mine and Kwinana processing plant in Western Australia is U.S.-based Albemarle Corp. Albemarle declined to comment on whether it was interested in increasing its stake.
Tianqi, which had no immediate comment on the report, said last month it was postponing the commissioning of the first phase of the Kwinana plant, set to be the world’s largest, due to liquidity problems.
Underscoring the tough environment for lithium producers, Tianqi rival Ganfeng Lithium said in its own earnings alert late on Tuesday it sees its first-quarter net profit falling 96-97% year-on-year.
$1 = 7.0579 Chinese yuan renminbi