Goldman Sachs weighs in on potash, Cerium remains as most in demand rare earth element

JP Morgan Chase signPotash producers will maintain their discipline and good margins despite falling crop prices. And, as for rare earths, the greatest market will — notwithstanding patterns of growth — still be in the lights but it will be the heavies that make more money. These are among the predictions in a new report from Goldman Sachs, Mining Commodities: The focus shifts to the supply side.

The overall message in the report is that, as demand growth remains lacklustre, and several commodity markets move into surplus, the timing and scale of future supply response becomes the main decider as to when prices make their recovery. On the other hand, Goldman thinks the present cycle is near its bottom and some prices will have overshot on the downside. This report also contains comments on potash and rare earths.

POTASH: In the short term, Goldman expects attempts by producers to exercise their bargaining power to try and secure higher prices will be met with strong push-back from buyers against a backdrop of a strong harvest, rising grain stocks and soft crop prices.

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Looking beyond the current crop cycle, the analysts expect prices to average $520/tonne over 2015-17, equivalent to a ~70% premium over the estimated $300/tonne estimate of marginal production costs. Longer term, the emergence of new players is seen as driving prices to converge around $475/tonne.

But potash has done not too badly.

Historically, as Goldman points out, food prices have been strongly correlated with fertilizer prices Yet, since 2000, the IMF Food Index has risen by 177% while potash prices rose by 273%. The index surged at the beginning of 2008, helping to spark the big rally in potash prices that year. Then the GFC saw food prices come off, with potash following back down.

However, it’s the discipline of the industry which has brought about such high potash margins in recent years and Goldman believes that will hold until 2020. After all, the potash industry has high barriers to entry with high capital costs at about $1,000/tonne for new production capacity; also just three countries account for 60% of global production.

As for demand, emerging markets increasingly dominate the scene. China uses 20% of the world’s output of potash, followed by Brazil with 15% and India 8%. By contrast, the U.S. consumes 15%, the European Union 11%, and with the remainder split among the rest of the world.

RARE EARTHS: In 2016, cerium will remain as the most in demand rare earth element, with 43% per cent of sales. Lanthanum follows with a 21% share, neodymium 19%, yttrium 8%, and the rest divided up the remainder.

Goldman charts the fall in REE prices that began in the third quarter of 2011, and prices for both heavies and lights fell again in the six months to June 2013. The analysts expect limited upside in the next few years and some producers will have to operate below capacity for a period of time in order to prevent a growing surplus. “We also believe that the respective basket prices will diverge over time, with light REE trading close to cost support and heavy REE benefiting from scarcity prices,” the report continues.

In 2011, the light REE basket averaged $706/kg. In 2012 that came back to $463/kg and Goldman estimates the average for 2013 will be $232/kg. But 2014, 2015 and 2016 will not be much better, with forecasts of $243/kg over those three years. The LREE basket comprises lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium and europium.

As for the heavy REE, the basket hit $1,027/kg in 2011, came back to $785/kg last year and will be an estimated $432/kg this year. But gradual improvement is seen: $475/kg for 2014, $499/kg in 2015 and $524/kg in 2016.Incidentally, the HREE basket is based on only gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium; lack of pricing data meant Goldman had to exclude holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium.

As for the HREE, Goldman Sachs believes that the high prices of these elements “will induce (a) additional demand destruction via thrifting and substitution in applications such as magnets and/or (b) new production capacity to come on line, assuming project developers can develop the appropriate technologies to process heavy REE deposits on a commercial basis.”


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Robin Bromby

About Robin Bromby

Robin Bromby is a journalist, author and sometime publisher who has had titles issued by mainstream publishers, including Doubleday, Simon & Schuster and Lothian Books. Robin began as a cadet journalist in 1962 with The Dominion, the morning paper in Wellington, New Zealand. He also worked for the NZ Broadcasting Corporation, TV1, the South China Morning Post, The Herald (Melbourne), the Sunday Times (Wellington), The National Times (Sydney) and, since 1988, he has been first a staff reporter and now columnist for The Australian and has been a Senior Editor for InvestorIntel since the onset.
  1. Lynas research, supported by JPM, paints a very different picture as at 2020 with NdPr clearly the largest demand segment at 54ktpa followed by La 38ktpa then Ce at 36ktpa.

    Highlights the problem facing Baotou, Lynas & Moly in balancing ROM to market demand, and the barrier to entry for other LRE hopefuls.
    Moly/Univar could well be on the right track seeking another volume app for Ce in Sorbx, will be interesting to see any update in their Q2 report.

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