Xiang Guangda: the “Big Shot” who broke the nickel market

The founder of the world’s largest producer of stainless steel recently found himself on the painful end of a wrong-way bet on the nickel price. The “Nickel King” has always loved a punt, says Jane Lewis

Caricature of Xiang Guangda
(Image credit: © Joe Cummings/FT 2022)

He’s known as “Big Shot” in China for the towering position he commands in the metal industry. But it took a huge wrong-way bet on the price of nickel to catapult Xiang Guangda to global fame, says Bloomberg. The founder of Tsingshan – the world’s largest producer of stainless steel and nickel – has secured his place in the annals of investment as the central actor in “one of the most dramatic weeks in metals-market history” following an epic short squeeze that “plunged the entire industry into chaos, briefly brought a handful of brokerages to the brink of failure, and raised existential questions about the future of the London Metal Exchange”.

Following a week-long hiatus, the exchange has now reopened after Tsingshan, which sustained potentially ruinous paper losses of $8bn, reached a “standstill agreement” with its banks that they will not make margin calls or close out its nickel positions, says Breakingviews. They’d been directed to co-operate by the Chinese government, indicating that Xiang continues to enjoy the support of Beijing – albeit at “arm’s length”.

The first bucket of gold

Born in 1958, into a working-class family, Xiang was fortunate to hail from Wenzhou – “a buzzing city in the coastal Zhejiang province renowned for turning out some of the country’s most famous entrepreneurs”, says the Financial Times. According to Chinese media reports, he got his first job fixing machinery at a state-run fishery where he was guaranteed work under China’s “iron rice bowl” employment system – later swept away by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. In the late 1980s, Xiang joined millions quitting their state jobs to start up businesses, earning his “first bucket of gold” making doors and windows for China’s state-run carmakers. A trip to Europe in 1992 – where he noted that BMW and Mercedes-Benz were making their own windows – persuaded him that the clock was ticking on his central business, so he pivoted to stainless steel after spotting an opportunity to “wean China off its dependence” on imported metal.

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The switch to stainless steel meant focusing on a crucial ingredient – nickel, says Fortune. Xiang began pouring cash into countries with big nickel reserves, notably Indonesia. The decision to invest just before the country announced plans to ban exports of nickel-bearing ore was slammed as over-risky by some traders, says the FT. But not for the first time Xiang “proved them wrong”. His good relationship with a politically influential army general smoothed the way for securing his place in a critical 21st-century industry (nickel is essential in electric car batteries and the like). In the mid-2000s, Tsingshan was just a small stainless steel producer in Wenzhou. Now it’s responsible for almost a quarter of global production. It has gone from nothing to being by far the biggest player in just ten to 15 years. He has been hailed as “a visionary” and described as the “Steve Jobs of metals”.

A force to be reckoned with

Acquaintances say that Xiang’s “Achilles heel” is that “he loves to punt”. Indeed, despite the carnage he has wreaked on metal markets, he remains committed to his “wager” that nickel prices are set to fall – thanks to a technological breakthrough in making nickel matte, an intermediate product which, once purified, can be used in EV batteries, thus “drastically” increasing output and driving prices down, says Breakingviews. Regardless of recent ructions, China’s “Nickel King” is still a force to be reckoned with.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.