China's Rare Earths Monopoly - Peril or Opportunity?
The prosperity of China's "authoritarian capitalism" is increasingly rewriting the ground-rules worldwide on the capitalist principles that have dominated the West's economy for nearly two centuries.
Nowhere is this shadow war more between the two systems more pronounced than in the global arena of production of rare earths elements (RREs), where China currently holds a de facto monopoly, raising concerns from Washington through London to Tokyo about what China might do with its hand across the throat of high-end western technology.
In the capitalist West, as so convincingly dissected by Karl Marx, such a commanding position is a supreme and unique opportunity to squeeze the markets to maximize profits.
Except China apparently has a different agenda, poking yet another hole in Marx's ironclad dictums about capitalism and monopolies, further refined by Lenin's screeds after his Bolsheviks inadvertently acceded to power in 1917 in the debacle of Russia's disastrous involvement in World War One. Far from squeezing its degenerate capitalist customers for maximum profit (and it's relevant here to call Lenin's dictum that if you want to hang a capitalist, he'll sell you the rope to do it), Beijing has apparently adopted a "soft landing" approach on rare earths production, gradually constricting supplies whilst inveigling Western (and particularly Japanese) high tech companies to relocate production lines to China to ensure continued access to the essential commodities.
REEs are found in everyday products, from laptops to iPods to flat screen televisions and hybrid cars, which use more than 20 pounds of REEs per car. Other RRE uses include phosphors in television displays, PDAs, lasers, green engine technology, fiber optics, magnets, catalytic converters, fluorescent lamps, rechargeable batteries, magnetic refrigeration, wind turbines, and, of most interest to the Pentagon, strategic military weaponry, including cruise missiles.
Technology transfer is the essential overlooked component in China's economic rise, and Beijing played Western greed on the subject like a Stradivarius, promising future access to China's massive market in return, an opium dream that rarely occurred for most companies. You want unimpeded access to Chinese RREs? Fine - relocate a portion on your production lines here, or...
Which brings us back to today's topic.
Rare earths and investment - where to go?
China is riding a profitable wave, which depending on what figures you read, produces 95-97 percent of current global supply, and unprocessed raw earth earths ores are currently going for more than $100,000 a ton, or $50 a pound, which some of the exotica fetching far more (niobium prices has increase an astounding 1,000 percent over the last year). Rare earth elements like dysprosium, terbium and europium come mainly from southern China.
According to a United States Energy Department report, dysprosium, crucial for clean energy products rose to $132 a pound in 2010 from $6.50 a pound in 2003.
The soaring prices however have also invigorated many countries and producers to begin looking in their own back yards, for both new deposits and former mining sites that were shuttered when production cost made them uneconomic before prices went through the ceiling.
However, a number of unknown factors play into developing alternative sources to current Chinese RRE production. These include first prospecting possible sites, secondly, their purity and third, initial production costs, where modest Chinese labor costs are a clear factor.
The 17 RRE elements on the Periodic Table are actually not rare, with the two least abundant of the group 200 times more abundant than gold. They are, however, hard to find in large enough concentrations to support costs of extraction, and are frequently found in conjunction with radioactive thorium, leading to significant waste problems.
At hearings last week before U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Molycorp, Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Mark A. Smith stated that his company was positioned to fulfill American rare earth needs, currently estimated at 15,000-18,000 tons per year, by the end of 2012 if it can ramp up production at its Mountain Pass, California facility.
Which brings us back to foreign producers. A year ago Molycorp announced that it was reopening its former RRE mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., which years ago used to be the world's main mine for rare earth elements, filing with the SEC for an initial public offering to help raise the nearly $500 million needed to reopen and expand the mine. Low prices caused by Chinese competition caused the Mountain Pass mine to be shuttered in 2002.
Mountain Pass was discovered in 1949 by uranium prospectors who noticed radioactivity and its output dominated rare earth element production through the 1980s; Mountain Pass Europium made the world's first color televisions possible.
Molycorp plans to increase its capacity to mine and refine neodymium for rare earth magnets, which are extremely lightweight and are used in many high-tech applications and intends to resume production of lower-value rare earth elements like cerium, used in industrial processes like polishing glass and water filtration.
In one of those historic economic ironies, China was able to increase its RRE production in the 1980s by initially hiring American advisers who formerly worked at Mountain Pass.
The record-high RRE prices are also underwriting exploration activities worldwide by more than six dozen other companies in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia and Central Asia to open new RRE mines, but with each start-up typically raising $10 million to $30 million, not all will succeed. That said, the future is bright, as almost two-thirds of the world's supply of REEs exists outside of China and accordingly, China's current monopoly of REE production will not last.
So where do investors look to cash in on the RRE boom?
First, do your homework.
Exhibit A is Moylcorp, which would seem to be in unassailable position as regards U.S. production, but which nevertheless on 20 September after JPMorgan Chase & Co. lowered its rating of the company, citing declines in rare-earth prices, causing its stock to plummet 22 percent in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, despite being the best-performing U.S. IPO in 2010 after beginning trading in July, more than tripling after rare-earth prices soared as China cut export quotas.
Is there money to be made in RREs?
Undoubtedly - but the homework for the canny investor needs to extend beyond spreadsheets to geopolitics, mining lore, chemistry and Wall Street puffery. That said, it seems likely that whatever U.S.-based company can cover the Pentagon's RRE requirements is likely to see more than a minor boost in its bottom line.
Gentlemen, place your bets - but do your homework first.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oil Price