Critical Reading for Rare Earth Metals Investors
Source: The Critical Metals Report Editors (12/27/11)
Rare earth element coverage has exploded since The Gold Report started covering this sector in early 2009. At that point, the REE junior mining market was a $2 billion industry. Today, REE juniors are a $10 billion+ industry—give or take a one-day market fluctuation, and Streetwise Reports now has a dedicated newsletter to cover the sector: The Critical Metals Report. Let's look back at how far we have come.
Reality soon set in as investors realized that this was not a simple supply and demand industry. First, demand was still vague, subject to change and very specific about the type and purity of the product being delivered. Second, the ramp-up period for companies exploring, getting approval for development, mining, processing efficiently and delivering to an end-user was very, very long. Some became discouraged. That is why this year, the consumer finance site, The Daily Markets ran an article with the headline: "Why You Shouldn't Give Up on the Rare Earth Element Minerals" by Gold Stock Trades Newsletter Writer Jeb Handwerger.
Through it all, Streetwise Reports has focused on cutting through the hype to explain what is really driving demand, how the economy and geopolitics shape supplies going forward and which few of the hundreds of companies adding REE to their company descriptions actually had a chance of making a profit.
Back in June of 2009, in an interview titled "The Race to Rare Earths," we ran an interview with Kaiser Research Online Editor John Kaiser that concluded "China's export-based economy, once dependent on American greed, is now but a fading memory. While the U.S. was busy printing and preening, the Chinese were long-range planning. But America wasn't the only country caught off guard by China's strategic, if surreptitious, supply procurement." Even while other analysts were panicking, Kaiser was pointing out how investors could be part of the solution–and make a profit in the process.
"For the juniors, the opportunity right now is to source these projects. They get title to them, and when these end users want to develop them, they're going to have to pay a premium to have these projects developed," Kaiser said. "So it will not be economic logic that results in these companies getting bought out and having their deposits developed. It'll be a strategic logic linked to long-term security-of-supply and redundancy concerns. And we're seeing that sort of psychology at work in this market. It's a bit of a niche in this market. Not as big as gold, but it is an interesting one because of the long-term real economy link implications."
After years of covering the space by interviewing the growing chorus of analysts and newsletter writers singing the praises of rare earth elements, in June of 2011, we launched The Critical Metals Report to give exclusive coverage to the entire space, including rare earth elements, strategic metals and specialty metals. One of the first experts interviewed was Emerging Trends Report Managing Editor Richard Karn in an article called "50 Specialty Metals under Supply Threat." He warned that investing in the space is not as simple as some other mining operations. "The market is just starting to become aware of the difficulty involved with processing these metals, which, in many cases, more closely resemble sophisticated industrial chemistry than traditional onsite brute processing. Putting flow sheets together that process these metals and elements economically is no mean feat."
In this early article, Karn busted the myth that manufacturers would find substitutions, engineer out or use recycled supplies for hard-to-access materials. "The advances we have seen especially in consumer electronics over the last decade and a half have not been driven by lone inventors or college kids tinkering in their parents' garages, but rather by very large, well-equipped and well-staffed research arms of powerful corporations. The stakes are high and if a certain metal is critical in an application, they will buy it regardless of the price," he said.
Similarly, a July 2011 article for The Critical Metals Report featured Energy and Scarcity Editor Byron King sharing "The Real REE Demand Opportunity" driven by the automobile industry and beyond. He was one of the first to point out that not all rare earths are the same with Heavy Rare Earth Elements demanding big premiums.
"Going forward, the serious money will be in HREEs, which have a lot of uses other than EVs," King said. "For example, yttrium is used in high-temperature refractory products. There's no substitute for yttrium. Without it, you can't make the refractory molds needed to make jet-engine turbine blades. If you can't make jet-engine turbine blades, you don't have jet engines or power turbines. The price points for these HREEs will reflect true scarcity and unalterable demand. People will bite the bullet and pay what they have to in order to get the yttrium."
House Mountain Partners Founder Chris Berry also addressed the impact of electric vehicle demand on vanadium, a popular steel alloy strengthener now being used in lithium-ion batteries in the interview "Can Electric Vehicles Drive Vanadium Demand? "
"The use of vanadium in LIBs for EVs is not significant yet, but could eventually become important as the transportation sector electrifies. One of the real challenges surrounding LIBs is settling on the most effective battery chemistry. In other words, what battery chemistry allows for the greatest number of charge recycles, depletes its charge the slowest and allows us to recharge the fastest? Today, based on my research, lithium-vanadium-phosphate batteries appear to offer the highest charge and the fastest recharge cycle. It seems that the lithium-vanadium-phosphate battery holds a great deal of promise, offering a blend of substantial power and reliability. I am watching for advances in battery chemistry here with great interest," Berry said.
In September, Technology Metals Research Founding Principal Jack Lifton shared his insights on why some junior REE companies are prospering while others wither and die. In the article, "Profit from Really Critical Rare Earth Elements," he said: "Rare earth junior miners are now being culled by their inability to raise enough capital to carry their projects forward to a place where either the product produced directly or the value to be gained from the company's development to that point by a buyer can be more profitable than a less risky investment. The majority of the rare earth junior miners do not understand the supply chain through which the critical rare earth metals become industrial or consumer products. Additionally, they do not seem to recognize the value chain issue, which can be stated as 'How far downstream in the supply chain do I need to take my rare earths in order to be able to sell them at a profit?'"
Then Lifton made this important point for Critical Metals Report readers. "It is very important for the small investor to understand that the share market does not directly benefit the listed company unless the company either sells more of its ownership or pledges future production for present, almost always sharply discounted, revenue." As always, Lifton encouraged investors to follow the money to a specific end rather than the general market demand often envisioned by investors accustomed to the more defined gold market.
In October, JF Zhang Associates' Principal Consultant and Chief China Strategist J. Peter Zhang shared his insights on "U.S. Manganese Supply as a Strategic Necessity."
Manganese is now largely used largely in the production of low quality stainless steel, but is being incorporated into lithium-ion batteries. That increased demand is focusing attention on the limited supply outside China. "There really is no electrolytic manganese metals production in the U.S. or anywhere outside China except for a small percentage from South Africa. We don't produce even a single ounce in North America. Relying on other countries to supply essential commodities (like oil for instance) is always a problem. If China suddenly decided to reduce production, or in the likely event that its domestic demand increases, the world would be out of options. Policymakers need to understand this risk and Congress needs to take action to minimize the potential impacts," he said. "From the end of 2008 to 2009, China tied things up. Since then, the price has doubled, tripled and quadrupled. That should be a wakeup call. North America needs to either establish a strategic reserve system for critical metals or build production capacity to mitigate supply risk. I think there is some sense of urgency right now, but a lot more needs to be done."
Picking the right junior is the trick. In the November article "Navigating the Rare Earth Metals Landscape" Technology Metals Research Founding Principal Gareth Hatch outlined the odds. "TMR is tracking well over 390 different rare earth projects at present; I can't see more than 8-10 coming onstream in the next 5-7 years. Projects already well past exploration and into the development and engineering stage, and beyond, clearly have first-mover advantage."
Just this month, in an interview entitled, "The Age of Rare Earth Metals" Jacob Securities Analyst Luisa Moreno compared the impact REEs will have on our daily lives with the transformation in the Bronze Age.
"There is an economic war over the rare earths, with China on one side and other industrialized nations on the other—Japan, the United States and the E.U. China is probably winning. It has decreased exports in the last few years and increased protection. It has attracted a great deal of the downstream business and it is positioning itself well. At this point, it produces most of the world's rare earths, and prices are at record highs. Japan and the other countries have been left with few options, and those options are more expensive, such as substitution, recycling and adapting production lines to use less efficient materials." Moreno then pointed to the seven companies that could come to the world's rescue and usher in a miraculous new world of smaller, stronger, more powerful gadgets based on a steady supply of REE materials from reliable sources.
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