* Tianqi narrows net losses for 2020, Q1 2021 from year earlier
* Lower H1 2021 loss forecast implies Tianqi may turn profit in Q2
* Reducing debt is company’s ‘top priority’ as lithium prices soar (Adds graphic)
April 27 (Reuters) - China’s Tianqi Lithium Corp , one of the world’s top lithium producers, indicated on Tuesday that it could return to profit in the second quarter as prices for the metal used in electric-vehicle batteries surge.
Its outlook came as it reported losses for the final quarter of last year and the first quarter of 2021.
The heavily indebted company, which has been in the red since the third quarter of 2019, said in a filing that its “top priority” was to reduce debt and leverage this year.
It said it made a net loss of 247.9 million yuan ($38.23 million) in the first quarter of 2021, roughly halving its loss a year earlier.
It now expects a net loss of 130 million-250 million yuan in the first half, implying it could make a net profit of as much as 117.9 million in the second quarter.
Chengdu-based Tianqi started losing money in the third quarter of 2019 as lithium prices tanked amid oversupply. Prices bottomed out last August but Tianqi said on Tuesday that it notched up an annual loss of 1.834 billion yuan for 2020, and a fourth-quarter loss of about 730.5 million yuan.
The company, which also has around a 25% stake in Chilean miner SQM, has also been hit by problems with the commissioning of its Kwinana lithium processing plant in Australia, which it says it is now working to launch as soon as possible.
Late last year Tianqi secured a $1.4 billion lifeline investment in its Australian operations from IGO Ltd and has received another timely boost from a rally in lithium prices after a three-year downturn.
Prices for battery-grade lithium carbonate in China AM-995C-LTCB, as assessed by Asian Meal, rose 67.6% over the first quarter and are currently at 89,000 yuan per tonne, the highest since August 2018, amid resurgent demand from the electric-vehicle sector. ($1 = 6.4842 Chinese yuan renminbi)
Reporting by Tom Daly; Editing by Susan Fenton Editing by Marguerita Choy