Are ASX lithium shares staging a comeback in 2021?

Why 2021 could be the comeback year for ASX lithium shares on the back of higher prices and expanding production.

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asx share price increase represented by golden dollar sign rocketing out from white domes of lithium

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ASX lithium shares have truly tested the resolve of long-term shareholders after more than two years of negative returns.

The industry has been in survival mode since lithium prices spiralled lower after spot prices peaked in 2018. This was driven by an influx of producers and supply, on dwindling demand. 

In recent months, the Galaxy Resources Limited (ASX: GXY), Orocobre Limited (ASX: ORE) and Pilbara Minerals Ltd (ASX: PLS) share prices have staged epic recoveries, delivering triple digit returns from their lows late last year. 

But taking a look at the bigger picture, the Orocobre and Galaxy share prices are still down a respective 30% and 27% from their 2018 highs. Pilbara is the only player to be eyeing a record all-time high after surging more than 250% since October. 

Lithium prices hit a 14-month high

Fastmarkets cites that China's battery-grade lithium carbonate prices have hit a 14-month high due to continued tight supply and producers hiking up prices further. 

The turning point for lithium prices is significant following more than two years of tumbling prices. Since 2018, lithium carbonate and hydroxide prices slumped by more than 50%, slashing the once highly profitable ASX lithium shares. 

In the case of Galaxy, the company has previously traded at a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of just 10. But in the company's half-year ended 30 June 2020 results, it delivered a net loss of US$22 million. 

Back in FY18, the company was selling lithium concentrate for an average of US$927 per dry metric tonne (dmt). These prices fell to an average of US$502/dmt in FY19. And US$398/dmt in the most recent 30 June 2020 results. 

Pilbara is the latest ASX lithium share to update the market about improving prices. Its December quarter shipments update cited improved spodumene concentrate demand conditions, with lithium carbonate pricing up 35% to date from its lows in August 2020. 

ASX lithium shares positioned for the future 

ASX lithium shares have wasted no time in gearing up for higher lithium prices in the medium-long term. 

Galaxy holds three lithium assets. Two of which are aimed to start construction and commissioning in 2022. Galaxy moderated production settings on its flagship resource, Mt Cattlin, to 50-55% of capacity to adapt to market conditions. However, the miner is examining the potential to ramp up Mt Cattlin production to full capacity, subject to inventory levels and prices.

Similarly, Pilbara also has the ability to rapidly increase production in response to rising prices. 

Motley Fool contributor Lina Lim has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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