In decades past, we have seen that any commodity China really wants goes through the roof. We saw it in copper. We saw it in oil. We saw it in liquefied natural gas. If China starts mandating a 5% blend of ethanol to gasoline, ethanol should trade on par with gasoline. So says Chen Lin, author of the widely read newsletter What is Chen Buying? What is Chen Selling? But there's more to the story: because China produces no ethanol, U.S. ethanol producers could be looking at a massive new market, not to mention a spike in profit margins. In this interview with The Energy Report, Chen discloses his favorite ethanol picks, as well as some compelling fracking names.
The Energy Report: In your newsletter, What Is Chen Buying/Selling?, you make the argument that China is a potentially important market for ethanol. Why is that?
Chen Lin: On my visit to China last summer, I experienced the air pollution problem firsthand. The No. 1 concern of the Chinese people is the huge blanket of smog covering major parts of China. How would you like to breathe smog every day? The good news is that because ethanol contains oxygen, it can significantly reduce smog from car emissions. In the U.S., it is very common to blend 10% ethanol into gasoline to reduce pollution.
In the U.S., ethanol is priced much cheaper than gasoline. In the futures market, gasoline is trading at $2.80, while ethanol is at $1.80. These prices change every day, but right now, that is a spread of $1. The truth of the matter is that it is much cheaper to run cars on ethanol than gasoline.
But there is a shortage of ethanol in China, and only a few places sell blended gasoline. There is great potential for China to massively import ethanol from the U.S. in order to reduce pollution and cheapen motorists' gasoline.
TER: Does China have the potential to produce its own ethanol?
CL: China is a food importer. China imports corn; it imports soy beans. Inside China, food costs are much higher than in the U.S. It is not at all economic to use corn in China to make ethanol.
TER: How can junior firms developing ethanol resources benefit from the increased use in ethanol in China and around the globe?
CL: Corn is the main cost for the junior ethanol producers. And the corn price is at a historical low, thanks to the huge harvest last year. We know that corn runs in multiyear cycles. Inventories build up. As a result of this large supply, ethanol producers' margins are at historical highs. If China's imports pick up, the ethanol price will go even higher. In conclusion, the margin for ethanol producers will be very high for at least a year or two. China is a big wild card. If China starts to import a large quantity of ethanol, we could see a multiyear bull market.
TER: Do you think the government would put any barriers on the import of ethanol, or would it encourage it?
CL: The main concern of the Chinese government and the Chinese people is pollution—not the gross domestic product. Smog sickness overrides almost anything. In November of last year, for the first time in many years, China started to import a significant amount of ethanol from the U.S. This could be the start of a trend of ever-increasing imports of U.S. ethanol.