As technology continues to advance, more uses for rare earths are being discovered by industry. In recent years, rare earth applications are gradually expanding into the field of magnetic materials, luminescent materials, hydrogen storage materials, etc. Great prospects for the industry have brought great investment opportunities. “Without rare earth metals, we cannot have a digitally driven, cleantech-powered economy.” says Rani Jarkas, a well-recognized lead investor in the industry. He recently attended the 9th Annual International Rare Earths Conference in Hong Kong together with other 200 delegates from all over the world, and across various parts of the industry. The following is a summary of Rani’s findings from the gathering after spending time with industry experts and his profound insights of the current state of the rare earth market.
Rare Earth Elements (REE) are playing an increasing role in technology, which is attracting mounting interest from investors worldwide. However, the market for REE is increasingly volatile due to the increased demand coupled with controlled supply.
On the demand side, REE materials are becoming increasingly critical elements in many newly emerging and rapidly growing industries including electric vehicles, rechargeable batteries and cleantechnology.
On the supply side, the sources of REE materials are limited and geographically distributed in a ways that often makes political factors as relevant to the equation as economic factors. China controlled 95% of the rare earths market in 2011, and its government was limiting exports and placing restrictive taxes on their sale, causing prices to soar. This policy triggered supply fears and a subsequent price surge of certain REE materials, some skyrocketing 10 times in the past two years, before plummeting by as much as four times in the last three months as some of these fears have subsided.
The market has responded and increases in supply have been achieved through smuggling (the quantity of smuggled material may be larger than the quota limits), increased efforts to source alternatives to REE materials including nanotechnology approaches, identifying new (and more expensive) sources and operations, improving materials processing yields and recycling.
Although the gigantic REE commodity price increases in 2009 – 2011 created enormous profits for producers and some investors, there have been huge swings in valuation and market cap of companies with REE assets or pending REE production. 2011 was especially dramatic with huge mid-year prices increases driven by panic buying and fear of another quota cut announcement from China, which was followed by erosion as those fears relaxed, decimating prices. This is exacerbated by the significant internal/external price differences present because the quotas do not apply to production manufactured goods inside China.
In response, the large global REE consumers such as Toyota, Siemens, Seagate Technology and others are starting to support REE production outside of China through strategic investments, with a view to guaranteeing supply stability for their long-term product development activities. This is a capital and time- intensive proposition.
Dominated by artificial factors, the REE market is very difficult to predict and further fluctuations in REE commodity prices should be expected. Fortunes can be made and lost in REE commodities trading in this market. That said, special opportunities with inherent value do exist for new resources that are rich in heavy REE and located in areas where political manipulation and local factors will be manageable.