Rare Earth Supply Deficit Peaking

May 5, 2011 (Source: WSJ) — A global supply deficit of rare earth elements that has driven up prices more than tenfold since 2009 is likely to peak this year and swing into a surplus by 2013, as Western companies start up new mines to compete with the Chinese firms that dominate the market now, Goldman Sachs analysts said Thursday. 

The forecast calls into question the sustainability of the current boom in rare earths and the valuations of companies seeking to produce them, whose share prices have soared in tandem with prices of the metals.

Prices of rare earths, a suite of 17 elements with diverse applications in products such as high-powered magnets, fuel refining, energy-efficient light bulbs and mobile phone screens, hovered between $5 a kilogram and $20/kg from the early 1990s until 2010.

But a 40% cut in export quotas by China, which accounts for 90% of global rare earth production, has sent prices soaring. The basket price of rare earths held in Lynas Corp. Ltd.’s Mount Weld deposit—the largest non-Chinese mine, due to come to production in the next few years—has jumped to an average of $162.66/kg from just $10.32/kg in 2009.

The leap, and associated fears that China was using its control of the market for strategic advantage over trading partners such as Japan—the world’s biggest rare earths importer—caused share prices of companies developing mines outside China to rocket.

Lynas shares have risen four-fold, to 2.20 Australian dollars (US$2.36) Thursday from 54.5 Australian cents on the eve of China’s announcement of quota cuts in July 2010, while Molycorp Inc., which is planning to restart production next year from its disused Mountain Pass mine in California’s Mojave desert, has risen nearly six-fold, to $72.01 Wednesday, since its stock market debut in late July.

Lynas Corp. Chief Executive Nicholas Curtis says China is on the verge of becoming a net importer of the elements, a transformation that would be similar to those that drove major shifts in global markets for coal in 2009 and oil in the mid-1990s, and could accentuate the current price spike.

“China will become a net importer because its consumption for its own domestic value-added industry is going to drive very high (demand) growth for these resources. They’ve explored every inch of China for what’s available and if they had more rare earths deposits of any size it would be being developed now,” he said in a recent interview.

However, in a research note Thursday, Goldman Sachs analyst Malcolm Southwood said the boom is already nearing its peak. The global deficit of rare earths—the extent to which worldwide demand outstrips current supply—will top out at 18,734 tons this year, equivalent to 13.2% of a forecast 141,524 tons of demand, before the market slips into a slight surplus in 2013. The surplus will rise to 5,860 tons or 3.2% of projected demand in the following year, the report said.

But prices will likely continue to rise, the bank said, with the Mount Weld basket price climbing to $227 a kilogram next year. Prices may moderate to an average $82 a kilogram eventually, but that will happen only in 2015, the third consecutive year of a global surplus, the report said.

“We envisage a closely balanced market in 2013, and modest surpluses thereafter—at least, for some of the more abundant light rare earths—with some price softening in the 2013-2015 period,” the bank said.

That view conflicts with analysis from miners. In a presentation last month, Lynas forecast a 35,000-ton deficit this year and in 2012, and shortfalls of around 20,000 tons each in 2013 and 2014. It predicted long-term prices in the $120/kg-to-$180/kg range.

But Goldman’s view matches the outlook of many other market participants who believe the current boom is overdone. “For (the rare earths such as) cerium and lanthanum, there will certainly be some surplus,” said a major European rare earths trader, who didn’t want to be named because of the sensitivity of trading relationships.

“When you have these high prices, people immediately start to look for substitutes, and it takes one to two years, but people can switch out of rare earths.”

He cited the glass industry, which has replaced its consumption of cerium with selenium over the past year as prices of the rare earth rose to $135/kg currently from just $3.88/kg in 2009.

Other analysts see prices falling much closer to historic averages as new projects come onstream, particularly if continued high prices encourage the development of major deposits such as Greenland Minerals & Energy Ltd.’s Kvanefjeld site, which is more than twice the size of Mountain Pass and Mount Weld combined, but located on an isolated mountainside just south of the Arctic circle.

“Lynas has said their production costs are $10/kg. If they think they can sell their material at $150 a kilogram, a markup of 15 times, I don’t know customers are going to be prepared to pay for it,” said Dudley Kingsnorth, executive director of Industrial Minerals Company of Australia, a rare earths analysis house.

“Once these new mines come onstream, there will be a fall in price, and if miners insist on multiples of 15-20, they’re going to face more competitors. They’re going to have to face a little bit of reality.”

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