Lifton: The Global Rare Earths Industry from the Chinese Perspective
I think that a specter is haunting global capitalism; the specter of the success of a uniquely malleable Capitalism with Chinese characteristics. China is a one party state, and that party, the Communist party of China, the CCP, has been ironically experimenting with capitalism as a means to rapidly create wealth across the board for 35 years to advance China on the road to socialism and then communism. Chinese industry has until now been and is still mostly dominated by huge State Owned Enterprises, SOEs, controlling the production and supply of natural resources; the processing of those resources into downstream products; and the manufacturing of the goods made from them. All of these activities are primarily and selectively financed by the People’s Bank of China, PBOC, and an arm of the State. All of these centers of production and finance have been all along also centers of waste, mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption just as in the failed Soviet experiment. Yet, even so, and very distinctly from the Soviet failure the Chinese economy, utilizing its own version of Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, has now grown to be the second largest in the world and some even hold that on a Purchasing Power Parity, PPP, basis China’s is the world’s largest economy.
The CCP leadership has now come to the conclusion that just eliminating massive overcapacity, corruption, mismanagement, waste, and outright theft in China’s resource and manufacturing economy can itself add significantly to China’s gross domestic product. This would help immensely to counter the natural slowdown in GDP growth that is occurring in China as its annual GDP has become world-class, second only to the USA. It’s been accepted by the Chinese that 10% annual GDP growth is a thing of the past, and that even the official target of 7% for this year will be difficult to attain. The Chinese leadership seems to believe, however, that a 4-6% growth in GDP indefinitely is not a fanciful target. They note that in the USA a 4% rate of growth of the GDP would be considered ideal and robust.
I think that the Chinese rare earths’ industry has been a microcosm of the development of capitalism with Chinese characteristics, and now that China under President Xi Jinping has undertaken the massive reform of SOEs in general and of the natural resource sector in particular the very small size of the Chinese rare earth industry as a component of the Chinese natural resources industry means that its reorganization can be effected more easily as there is less entrenched inertia resisting change from the local government officials, central government bureaucrats, because there are relatively small amounts of money to be sequestered and stolen.
To put the Chinese rare earths industry in perspective let’s compare it with the Chinese steel industry. In 2014 China produced 822.7 million tons of steel of all types (more than half of the world’s output!). The October 2015 price in China for hot rolled band (the benchmark steel product) was USD$261/ton ex works, so that the revenue from the sale of steel within China would be 214 billion dollars! In his presentation at the Shanghai conference of Argus Media Dr.. Chen Zhanheng stated that for the Chinese rare earth industry the comparable figure of total sales of the legally produced quota of individually separated rare earth oxides for 2015, priced on Sep 15, 2015 would be 1.3 billion dollars. In simple terms the revenues of the Chinese steel industry every two days equals that of the Chinese rare earths industry for a year. Which industry do you think that the Chinese government is most concerned about?
Chinese statistics are known to be unreliable and so statements of current demand and of future growth must be accepted only as direction vectors. The information on supply and demand coming from outside of China is also not reliable. Double counting is rampant among national customs’ data. For example, the USGS lists France as the largest source of rare earths for the U.S. market when in fact France produces no rare earth minerals whatsoever and never has. The imports from France come mostly from Chinese mixed concentrates and some also are produced from process leach concentrates from Australia pre-processed in Malaysia. It is the same for so-called Estonian exports of rare earths to Japan. Silimae as part of Molycorp was processing mixed concentrates from California for Japanese customers. No European mined rare earths were processed in Estonia. Most rare earth trade is by private treaty so that prices and actual quantities therefore are obscured.
The Chinese rare earth industry according to Dr. Chen will finish a mandatory restructuring into 6 groups each under the control of a large resource based SOE by the end of this year. The six will then each tackle the vast overcapacity in separation, metal/alloy making, and magnet manufacturing in its assigned segment.
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In the USA such a “consolidation” would result in only the lowest cost, most efficient operations, surviving. There is no reason that the Chinese result will be different. The wild card in all of this is the illegal mining AND refining sector in China and in nearby countries such as Viet Nam, Thailand, and most likely North Korea. There is unlikely to be any rare earth mining by the Chinese outside of China other than perhaps in North Korea. Again according to Dr. Chen since 2011 the Chinese government has cracked down on illegal rare earth mining, refining, and trading and made considerable progress.
Finally, Dr. Chen predicts that China will demand domestically more than a third more rare earths in 2020 than it does in 2015. If illegal mining is curtailed this will mean a substantial increase in legal mining and refining, but if the industry is to be profitable then it will not only have to consolidate as it is doing now but also raise prices across the board.
China’s domestic economy is being redirected to consumption from its current emphasis on savings and (over) investment. If the Chinese Communist Party is successful in reorganizing the resource sector, then Chinese domestic demand will of course take precedence over exports in all categories.
Japanese end-users and trading companies currently China’s largest export customers for rare earths (about 50% of the total exports) have invested between 500 million and two billion dollars in developing non-Chinese resources of rare earths and non-Chinese refining and fabricating facilities for the rare earths in just the last couple of years. These investments have been in property, plant, and equipment in places like Viet Nam, Malaysia, India, and Brazil. North Americans have only “invested” in the shares of junior mining ventures and Molycorp. It is time for far-sighted North American investors to invest in property, plant, and equipment to bring domestic mines into production. This can only be of any value if a North American domestic total rare earth supply chain is reconstructed simultaneously.
The Chinese rare earth industry’s perspective does not really go beyond China’s growing internal demand. If we do not establish an independent total supply chain, there is no point in developing any mines here. We need to emulate the Japanese not the Chinese.
Publisher’s Note: Jack Lifton will be a speaker at the upcoming Global Technology Metals Market Summit on Wednesday, October 14. For more information, go to TechnologyMetals.com or email Sue@InvestorIntel.com.
Jack Lifton is the CEO for Jack Lifton, LLC and is a consultant, author, and lecturer on the market fundamentals of technology metals. Technology metals ... <Read more about Jack Lifton>