Afghan Lithium and Other Mineral Nonsense

by: Jack Lifton

Set your stop (common sense) watches!

I'll bet that there is an Afghan Minerals, Inc (or Ltd) or an Afghan Minerals Fund (or "trust") by the end of the week if not sooner listed on an American secondary exchange and surely in Toronto, Vancouver, Sydney, and Frankfurt...

The New York Times delivered on Monday, June 14, 2010 (Flag day), a piece of first-class political theater. Afghanistan is one of the most primitive societies in the world. Its cash crop is opium, its actual government is tribal, fragmented, religiously fundamentalist and hostile to western values in general. We are supposed to believe that it is going to suddenly realize that the very little value its people get by being at the bottom of both the supply and value chain for narcotics, is going to be now supplanted by the very little value they will get from being at the very bottom of the supply and value chains for minerals needed by every other culture but the Afghanis? Even the warlords (read "local officials") would get less from mining companies than they get today from illegal drug distributors. So they'll sign on, of course.

The New York Times is either acting as the agent of the U.S. Department of State or just as the agent of the absurd. Afghanistan is not the Saudi Arabia of lithium; it is the Saudi Arabia of ladies' fashion. Afghans know as much about the one as the Saudis know about the other.

The development of natural resources requires that there is in place:

  1. Logistics, i.e., roads, vehicles, vehicle fueling and repair stations, railroads, railroad fueling, repair, and maintenance services, etc.,

  2. Huge quantities of flowing or pumpable water and systems to clean it before returning it to any other use or even to the aquifer, and

  3. Enormous quantities of reliable electricity

Mining ventures in remote places usually fail, no matter how good their resource, due to the fact that they cannot afford to have the above necessary and critical resources put in place. In developed countries they can share the resources of logistics, water, and energy already in place, the costs for which are distributed among the population (i.e., government) and local industries of a similar type.

China's national government recognizes this full well; the U.S. Government, for one, does not.

China will "gift" the Afghan people with roads, railroads (coincidentally just a part of a larger network China happens to be trying to get the right of way for), power plants, and water resource development. Then, and only then, will a Chinese miner begin to develop an Afghan resource, the ore concentrates from which, dug most likely by contract workers from China, will go by Chinese-built trains to Chinese smelters in (you guessed it!) China.

The U.S. Government wishes to slap Bolivia's socialist ruler, Evo Morales, in the face, so just coincidentally there is a story in its current house organ (I didn't say which "organ"), The New York Times, about the fact that some day no one will even need Bolivia for any lithium.

The U.S. Government wishes its people to have a reason for losing American lives in Afghanistan other than protecting the poppy growers, so it invents Afghanistan as a mineral treasure trove (for the 22d century?)

North America probably has tens of trillions of dollars of undeveloped natural resources, and it has the world's premier developed infrastructure, flowing water resources, and produces 25% of the world's electricity. Environmentalists however will not allow the development of North American resources. So, of course, these same enviornmentalists will simply roll over and pant for the destruction of the Afghan way of life so that their Blackberrys, lights, TVs, and cars can keep running and keep coming off of the assembly lines on the backs of injured, disabled, and dead Afghans working in primitive conditions for low wages.

By the way did you know that if a material is produced so that its supply exceeds its demand then the price falls? So, if the minerals in Afghanistan were all in production now their net value would be in the low hundreds of millions at best, not a trillion or more. Do any of the economic pundits at The New York Times (or in Washington) care that such development would cost a trillion dollars-but, of course they don't, because they don't know that or anything else about real world costs...

There is no present demand for lithium not met by present supply and then some, and no foreseeable demand that cannot be met by increasing the production of lithium from existing, already capitalized, sources such as those in Chile, the U.S.A., China, and Argentina. Such increases would be the most economical way to deploy capital. That is how the free market will do it.

I'm already bored by this "play." Is Act Three worth waiting for? I don't know, but I'll bet it's going to be copper.

Disclosure: None