Christopher Ecclestone is a principal and mining strategist at Hallgarten & Company in New York. He is also a director of Mediterranean Resources, a gold mining company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, with properties in Turkey. Prior to founding Hallgarten & Company in 2003, he was the head of research at an economic think tank in New Jersey, which he had joined in 2001. Before moving to the U.S., he was the founder and head of research at the esteemed Argentine equity research firm, Buenos Aires Trust Company, from 1991 until 2001. Prior to his arrival in Argentina, he worked in London beginning in 1985 as a corporate finance and equities analyst and as a freelance consultant on the restructuring of the securities industry. He holds a degree from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
The rare earth elements (REE) sector is smaller than it was a few years ago, and Chris Ecclestone, mining strategist with Hallgarten & Co., thinks it needs to get smaller still. The only way to succeed, he tells The Gold Report, is by finding the right-sized project with the right REEs. He also shares his theories on China's manipulation of REE prices and touts the mineral wealth of Spain and Portugal.
The Gold Report: In a March Hallgarten & Co. research report, you noted that rare earth elements (REEs) had "come out of hibernation." Did they wake up happy or grumpy?
Chris Ecclestone: The REEs have run hot and cold since 2009. They had a run for about a year, went off the boil, then had another run.
At the peak, Molycorp Inc. (MCP:NYSE) had launched and everyone was excited about Lynas Corp. (LYC:ASX). Both had market caps in excess of $1 billion ($1B). An array of midtier stories, like Avalon Rare Earth Metals (AVL:TSX; AVL:NYSE; AVARF:OTCQX) and Rare Elements Resources Ltd. (RES:TSX; REE:NYSE.MKT), had market caps in the high hundreds of millions of dollars. Juniors proliferated. In total, there were 50–100 REE stocks listed on the TSX and TSX.V. That's a big group considering the size of the total universe of specialty metals stocks.
Then, the sector was scorched. The price of REEs plummeted. Molycorp and Lynas both encountered cost overruns and Lynas had environmental issues in Malaysia, where it was building its processing plant. These two bellwether stocks became damaged goods. Investors began to think, if the two big ones can't make money in REEs, who can?
This all coincided with the worst overall mining equity market in 10–15 years. Thus, REE stocks were doubly out of favor.
Beginning this year, there's been a better vibe in the mining markets in general. REEs have started to pick themselves up off the floor. They look like a viable investment alternative again. However, I believe that we need at most 20 REE stories. Right now, two are in production. Another four or five will get into production over the next few years. We probably don't need the rest. There will be a race to get into production. If you can't win that race, you might as well pack up your tent and go home.
TGR: Do you see higher REE prices? Has the sector bottomed?
CE: Prices have bottomed, yes. Some people remain bearish on lanthanum and cerium, which are in massive oversupply. Those prices may go lower. However, I believe it's not in the Chinese interest to see those two metals go lower. Lanthanum and cerium make up the bulk of what China produces in the REE space, but they're not the value-added metals. Metals like europium may enjoy better prices, but they're a small part of the whole REE complex.
China's bread and butter comes from Bayan Obo, which is not a rare earth mine at all. It's an iron ore mine that produces REEs as a byproduct. The Chinese can't stop producing REEs at Bayan Obo because they'd have to stop producing the iron ore as well.
One of the intriguing things about REEs is that you can't just take the ones you want and leave the others behind. You have to go through the whole chemical extraction process to get those with the biggest market or the best price. You can't send a metal into the tailings pond because it doesn't have a good price today. You have to do them all.
You're stuck in a reverse economy of scale; the more you process, the more unprofitable it could be.
TGR: Given the margins on producing a concentrate or even an oxide, is vertical integration the only way to make money in the REE space?
CE: The ideal scenario is to be vertically integrated. That is a bit of a challenge for some of the juniors. Molycorp is the only company that has the REE soup-to-nuts combo. Molycorp put that together by buying Silmet, an Estonian-based processor. The company then bought Neo Material for its factories around the world and its distribution system. Putting that together cost Molycorp a lot of money and a lot of dilution.
Like silicon technology, the mining is not the sexy part of the REE business. No one would say that digging silica out of the ground is the quality end of the tech business. The quality is at Intel's factory, where the silicon chip is put on the circuit board. The mere insertion of the word "rare" in the name was a marketer's dream and has ended up being an investor's nightmare. They're not rare; they're as common as dirt.
TGR: The World Trade Organization (WTO) recently ruled in favor of the U.S. in a trade dispute over Chinese exports of REEs, tungsten and molybdenum. Does that change the playing field for junior REE development companies?
CE: No, because it won't have much effect on the REE market. I recently attended an antimony conference, where we heard about China's quota on antimony exports and the fact that it never reaches its quota. Yet, according to the official statistics of individual European countries, their individual imports of antimony from China are higher than the entire Chinese export quota. Chinese export quotas do not affect daily life in the REE sector. They will be smuggled out; they will be walked across the border and become Vietnamese REEs.
I think the Chinese are more interested in controlling the prices of REEs than the supply. Call me conspiratorial, but I think that the Chinese sunk the REE prices in 2011 after having pumped it up. They did that because there was a sudden proliferation of REE properties out of nowhere in the west. The Chinese thought, oops, we've shot ourselves in the foot here by attracting all these additional mines. If we let them run down the track with these high prices, five years from now there will be massive overproduction. At that point, the Chinese sunk the prices.
The REE market is easy for the Chinese to manipulate because they have the stockpiles. In 2011, the Chinese released a deluge of product. That sank the price and 75% of the listed REE equities into oblivion. I think the Chinese want to see the prices rise again, but only when they can be confident higher prices won't trigger another surge of new REE companies.