Monday, March 26, 2012

Alfidi Capital Lessons From TREM12

My more inquisitive readers may know that I was invited to be an expert panelist at the IAGS Technology and Rare Earth Metals Center "TREM12" conference this month in Washington, D.C.  I never miss a chance to show off my knowledge and feed my ego.

I can't recap the entire two-day knowledge fest but I'll offer some highlights.  Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) gave an impressive talk on Congress' efforts to streamline permitting regulations for mining and the need for more aerial hyperspectral imaging surveys of unexplored properties in the U.S.  David Sandalow, an Assistant Secretary at the U.S. DOE, acknowledged that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was the natural choice to lead the "whole of government" interagency effort on critical metal supply security.  DOE's Innovation Hubs are fully funded, but IMHO they should focus on business incubation and license out the tech they're developing.  One panelist said something ignorant about wind energy, that its cost is essentially free once you amortize away the initial capital costs (IMHO this is stupid because it ignores the cost of regular maintenance, inspections, blade failure, etc.).  

The panel on automotive tech and grid storage made it clear that there will be no shortage of lithium to meet the world's needs, which is one reason why the Li-Ion battery market is expected to consolidate into a smaller number of manufacturers.  The automotive panel also emphasized that the U.S. will need to update its transmission grid to accommodate a growing hybrid/electric vehicle market, and the demands of energy storage at grid level will help drive smart grid build-outs that will optimize charging times for vehicles.  The graphite panel noted the many applications for this material but some have no synthetic alternative.  Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki of Japan discussed how Japan, the EU, and the U.S. have coordinated their WTO complaint about China's REE policy; they've learned lessons from past oil supply shocks and know that Japan's increasing reliance on renewable energy (especially after the Fukushima meltdown) will make REEs critical.

The final speaker, Dr. Si Jinsong from the Chinese Embassy, restated the PRC's official view on why they are curtailing rare earth exports.  Environmental damage is IMHO a red herring.  China can always dial back its domestic industrial use of REEs or get more aggressive about enforcing environmental regulations to mitigate damage from REE production.  His claims that China has exported too much already and is facing resource exhaustion mean little to me.  REEs are typically found in conjunction with base metals and China still has plenty of those.  The real money quote came late in his presentation when he said the U.S. and China should work together to expand high-value manufacturing.  That is as transparent a statement of intent as the West will ever see from China.  The PRC's longstanding policy is to attract the onshoring of high-tech manufacturing supported by foreign direct investment so Chinese engineers can capture technical knowledge and Chinese industry can build a high-tech export base.  U.S. policymakers need a thorough education in China's grand strategy, and they should start by reading Unrestricted Warfare to see recommendations straight from the People's Liberation Army.  

The fun part for me was my participation on the panel "Supply and Demand: In Balance or Imbalance?" moderated by Clint Cox of The Anchor House.  We had some pretty lively discussions of the structure of the REE market, with Dr. Michael Berry contributing his macroeconomic perspective and Michael Silver from American Elements speaking as an operator within the sector. I'll restate some of my own points from the panel below.

I led off with my assessment of the massive imbalance in the critical metal market and forecast for a future balanced market. Any market where 97% of supply and 100% of alloy processing must originate in China is the definition of a market far out of balance. I argue that a balanced market in strategic metals will eventually look like today's energy market. A power plant doesn't care if the feedstock is natural gas or coal because you don't have to change a turbine's physical structure to use either one. A transmission grid doesn't care whether electrons come from hydropower, geothermal, solar, nuclear, or fossil fuels so long as those electrons can get to your home appliances. Eventually the metals markets will balance when diverse supply sources, efficient technologies, and synthetic substitutes can arbitrage away single sources of supply. U.S. GDP has grown for the past several decades even though per capita energy use has declined. We can use the same energy metrics for the metals market.

I noted that Molycorp's acquisition of Neo Materials changed the game for REE producers by creating a true vertical business model. The deal was cash-heavy rather than stock-heavy, which I thought odd given the strength of MCP shares trading at 23 times earnings. I wondered out loud whether Molycorp thought that the balance sheet risk of assuming a half billion dollars in debt outweighed the avoidance of shareholder dilution. Molycorp is the only REE producer than has the financial and operational strength to initiate M&A; all other REE producers are still young and are thus more likely to be bought themselves (like by an oil supermajor seeking lanthanum or cerium for fluid cracking) than to be buyers of alloy processors.

I threw several policy prescriptions at the audience, starting with a big one for federal government policy. Several other panelists had noted that DOD seemed to be the weak link in the interagency effort to secure critical metal supplies. I think I know why. DOD's weapon system procurement program managers are selected from career warfighting officers, which makes sense if you want people who can dream up future capabilities for armored vehicles and fighter aircraft. The weakness of this approach is that warfighters don't think like logisticians. They don't know how to reach down three or four levels worth of subcontractors to find supply chain vulnerabilities. I would like to see DOD's Defense Acquisition University incorporate supply chain security into its curriculum so program managers get the insight they need. I would also like those professional logisticians who do join the acquisition workforce to think more like intelligence officers when they screen contract sources for components and raw materials. The intelligence community has plenty of data on natural resource repositories in many countries; developing indicators and warnings of supply curtailments that procurement managers and logisticians can use should be a priority for the intelligence community.

I also had three other policy recommendations up my sleeve; these were more attuned to things that will help the markets for critical metals become more transparent and liquid. First, I argued that some exchange (preferably the Chicago Mercantile Exchangeshould create a futures market for rare earth metals. Producers and end users of both base metals and precious metals can hedge their needs with future contracts in gold, copper, and steel. Agribusiness can do the same with contracts in rice and soybeans. Creating contracts for rare earth metals seems like a decent thing to do for manufacturers who can't mitigate single-source supply risk with contracts for guaranteed delivery from miners. Second, I believe the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission should adopt some version of Canada's National Instrument 43-101 resource reporting convention that accommodates nuances in ore deposit volumes and grade quality. This will accelerate mining investment in the U.S. by allowing miners to identify more exploration projects that show some early promise. Finally, I suggested that the U.S. government fund an estimate of the production cost curves for REE mining projects worldwide. Investment banks publish costs curves for base metals, precious metals, and oil/gas wells because the thousands of those sources worldwide are well-known. The small number of rare earth mines operating worldwide are so early in production that their costs are only estimates, or they are in semi-transparent economies like China where state subsidies can mask true cash costs. The U.S. intelligence community has enough analytic horsepower and data to publish initial estimates of the world's REE mining costs. Uncle Sam should do this in the spirit of the CIA's World Factbook as an open-source, unclassified academic reference for the entire world, and the best place to publish it is on the U.S. Geological Survey website.  

That just about completes the wonderful time I had at TREM12. I made plenty of contacts from the Defense Logistics Agency, the Institute for Defense Analyses, and other government agencies that will have to carry the ball on policy execution for critical metal security. I even got some free entertainment when I saw a junior executive from a mining company try to flirt with a hot babe from an executive branch office. I'll conclude by saying that I'll definitely return in the future, because I can never get enough lunch buffets, fruit smoothies, and house recipe cannolis from the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City.  It's nice that TREM holds its annual conference someplace swanky.