Critical Commodities with Jack Lifton: A Uranium Boom?

We’re inaugurating a new feature this week. Every Monday morning InvestorIntel will bring you a brief commentary on what news’ events drove critical commodity prices during the preceding week. Keep in mind that “news” in the mainstream media is not proof either of new resource discovery or of market demand. It does, however, often drive demand for shares in related mining ventures and in commodity metal exchange prices for the “metals of the week.”

Uranium is the winner of the commodity news cycle for last week not because of any new discoveries or unusual rise in end-user demand, but because a credible, well-financed Canadian fund manager, Sprott, announced that it had raised more than a billion dollars for the purpose of acquiring physical uranium on the spot market. By mid-week, Sprott’s Physical Uranium Trust, an ETF, (TSX: U.UN), reported that it held 27,000,000 lbs of uranium (in the form of “yellowcake,” the oxide form of uranium produced by miners and traded in the markets). Many articles noted that the annual U.S. demand for uranium for its 100+ civilian power reactors is 43,000,000 lbs., and that essentially 100% of this is imported from just three countries, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Australia.

The quoted (reported) spot prices of uranium rapidly rose as the chart below shows:

As these events, the rise in the price of uranium and a sharp increase and decrease in the share price of uranium producers/processors, such as Energy Fuels Inc. (NYSE American: UUUU | TSX: EFR) unfolded. I reached out to InvestorIntel uranium expert and frequent contributor, Dean Bristow, with a question, “Is Sprott trying to corner the physical uranium market?” [A market “corner” is an operation that attempts to control so much of a commodity that the operator controls the price.] Dean responded:

“…I don’t think Sprott is trying to corner the market so much as opportunistically force the market’s hand. The majority of uranium is contracted long-term and very little transacts in the spot market. Apparently, China has a lot of 10-year contracts rolling over so they will be back in the market but if Sprott can crank up the spot price with a relatively small amount of cash (realistically totally screwing with the price dynamic for an entire commodity for $2 billion is pretty inexpensive) then it should be good for all uranium producers across the board.

Not to say that Sprott is trying to be benevolent to the uranium industry. I’m sure their fund is making a pretty good return raising $1.3 billion in a span of 2 months. But the big picture is that if the long-term contractors have to pay up then it could become a new higher threshold for uranium prices. Advantage Cameco and Kazatomprom who are the lowest-cost producers.

However, I’m still on the fence as to how high uranium prices can go given I have to think at some price threshold Kazatomprom (the national uranium company of Kazakhstan, the world’s largest uranium producer), who pulled an OPEC move and shut-in 20% of its production, will start ramping things back up to protect market share. Likely just before the price reaches the point of others firing up their inactive mines. I’m not nearly as bullish as many of the talking heads on the financial networks but I wouldn’t rule out another leg up in uranium stocks before the bloom comes off just like it has for lumber, iron ore, copper, aluminum, etc….”

As far as the effect of Sprott’s operations on the share prices of uranium producers and juniors please look every day at Investorintels’s daily Uranium Investorchannel for that day’s closing prices and percentage valuation changes. I am singling out Sprott’s Physical Uranium Trust as the prime mover in the current uranium boom(let), because it is an excellent example of how one actor can influence the price of a scarce commodity. It is estimated that in 2020 just 124,000,000 pounds of uranium (in the form of  U3O8) was produced worldwide. By contrast, world coal production in 2019 was 17,000,000,000,000 pounds! Yes you read that correctly. Coal production was 10,000 times as large as uranium production. This should give you a feel for the relative energy content recoverable from uranium as compared to coal!

Note that share prices are influenced also by factors such as liquidity (How many shares are typically traded), short-term profit-taking, short selling, and on which exchange(s) the shares are listed. Uranium related shares yo-yo’ed last week mainly for these reasons not just because of the posted price for uranium.

By the way, world demand for uranium in 2020 was estimated at 181,000,000 pounds. Imagine what could happen to the price of uranium if environmentalists ever figure out how much carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by substituting nuclear for coal as the heat source for the steam needed to turn turbines in electricity generation plants.