This past Tuesday, molybdenum traded at $24/pound when a Chilean copper commission spokesperson forecasted that metal would drop to an average $20/pound this year. But on Thursday, Platts Metal Daily reported molybdenum oxide trading higher: $24.80 to $26/pound.
We’ve wondered about the price rallies of various metals we’ve been following, hoping to understand some of the emotions behind the excitement. Being skeptical, some of this begins to sound like mob hysteria. On the sunny side of the fence, one could call this exuberance. Cui bono is our question. Who benefits?
For the utilities hoping to obtain nuclear fuel for their reactors, a rising uranium price and lessened available SWU capacity to meet their needs exacerbate the worry about whether or not the nuclear renaissance can be realistically sustained. For molybdenum, soaring stainless steel and super alloy demand helps keep the silvery metal well above the actual production costs to mine it. Plans for building more pipelines with stronger anti-corrosive properties adds a sexy energy twist, spicing up what Raymond James mining analyst Bart Jaworski calls a boring story.
With uranium, there is excitement because a very small number of new near-term producers recently signed contracts to sell future U3O8 production with escalating floor price protection, or simply sold production at/near the record uranium price. Obviously, they benefit, and so do their shareholders. For uranium companies hoping to produce within the next five to six years, higher prices are likely to attract deep-pocket joint venture partners to bring their mines into production, or to further their development activities. Or simply to raise more cash for their treasury by selling shares at a price they might never have imagined possible two years ago. To the physical uranium speculator, it has provided a double-, triple-, or higher-digit ‘paper return’ on an investment.
The point of rising metals prices was to encourage new production in the respective sector. In the case of molybdenum, the metal’s price is pretty much dictated by a relatively small number of western hemisphere copper producers, such as Phelps Dodge (PD), BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP), Teck Cominco (TCK) and Chilean-state-owned Codelco. And of course, the eastern hemisphere wild card: China. Molybdenum can be a copper mine’s byproduct, which is basically produced for little or no cost. Aside from a very small number of new near-term primary molybdenum producers, where is the excitement in this sector?
It’s not in the price. In a previous interview with Michael Magyar, USGS molybdenum specialist, he told us:
“The price is now trending anywhere. It’s just drifting around $25/pound.”
Another industry expert agreed the price is likely to stagnate at this new level for a while.
Despite the ranting of some, molybdenum oxide is unlikely to soon return to the May to July 2005 highs circa $40/pound. The price anomaly was just that – an industry caught off guard too quickly and producing too little. And which within a six-month period caught up with itself. Similar to those projects we have been investigating in the uranium sector, those hoping and praying for another supersonic price rise in molybdenum are those backing the more marginal mining projects. After all, if you don’t have economic grades, a parabolic price rise is just the right shade of lipstick for the pig some companies hope to pawn off on the unwary.
Last month, we published “In the Case of Uranium Stocks, Smaller May Be Better". Part of the problem impacting the larger uranium companies, such as Cameco Corp (NYSE:CCJ) and ERA (Australia) are the legacy contracts whereupon utilities continue to get uranium for less than $30/pound, and in some cases for less than $20/pound. After ERA recently announced record fourth quarter U3O8 production, the Australian media highlighted the Down Under miner had mostly missed out on the record price of uranium because of those long-term contracts.
With molybdenum, the smaller projects may be better with regards to the opportunities investors must choose from. In early November in a two-part series, we interviewed William G. Cook, the North American representative for Derek Raphael & Company – currently the world’s largest molybdenum trader. He advised us:
“I do not believe we will see any of the moly mega deposits developed in the foreseeable future.”
Cook warned of the considerable capital costs, reclamation liabilities and operating costs for the behemoth projects. Instead, he pointed to the smaller, higher grade primary molybdenum deposits. It’s where he sees the future of moly production as a complement to byproduct and Chinese production. His emphasis was on “higher” grade deposits. As with other industry experts we interviewed, it is those lower grade deposits which raise the experts’ eyebrows.
Where Does the Price Hysteria Come From?
Molybdenum strongly depends upon stainless steel production. According to the recently published U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodities Summaries, producers of iron, steel and superalloys consumed 74 percent of the molybdenum mined in 2006. Movements in stainless steel demand can impact the moly price.
Before the holidays, the highly respected MEPS consulting firm forecast higher movement in stainless steel prices. Increasing nickel prices on the London Metal Exchange [LME] during December were cited for the likely higher transaction values for stainless steel into the second quarter of this year.
As of this week, the nickel division of the world’s fourth largest copper miner, Swiss-based mining giant Xstrata [XSRAF], faces a mining strike in Sudbury, Ontario if the company doesn’t come to terms with a union of 1,000 workers, which voted on Tuesday to strike by the end of the month. In a similar type of strike nearly two years ago, copper production dropped by 9.6 percent in a quarter at a Falconbridge processing plant (Xstrata acquired Falconbridge since then).
On Thursday, nickel touched a record $36,050/tonne because of those strike concerns. About two-thirds of the world’s nickel mining is used to make stainless steel. Some analysts forecast stainless steel production to grow by 7.5 percent this year. Concern in the trading markets is the 87 percent drop in available nickel stocks in LME warehouses from a year ago. A bit more than one day’s global consumption is now warehoused by the LME. Clearly, a short squeeze is roiling the nickel market. And that impact could spread as a price panic perception moves into other alloys required by the stainless steel production markets.
But where does one find the substance with regards to molybdenum pricing? The market has tightened up in January because of China’s new export licensing system. That may just be a temporary blip in the trader’s food chain.
In a July 2005 article written for Colorado Central Magazine, author and former molybdenum miner Steve Voynick wrote:
“… there is always concern about the economic validity of price spikes, those sudden, short-term jumps that stand apart from long-term price rises.”
In his article, Voynick argued for the re-opening of the primary moly mine Climax, but he warned about price stability for this metal:
“Historically, moly-market price spikes have shown little stability. Unlike long-term price trends, they are not based so much on true supply and demand as they are on fears of a moly shortage that spur speculative buying.”
During the last moly price boom, primary molybdenum mines produced 75 percent of the world’s supply. Because of the rise of copper prices, the majority of moly production comes as a byproduct of the world’s leading copper mines. Primary producers are now the swing producers, filling the supply gaps when there is increased demand for molybdenum.
We would imagine companies planning to bring molybdenum mines online by the end of this decade carefully study the price trend of copper as well as molybdenum. Australia’s Olympic Dam faces a similar dilemma with their massive uranium forecasts. Should the price of copper not sustain above a certain level, the low-grade uranium might not be economically mined. In this case, BHP could likely spend $5 billion in construction costs to expand the company’s uranium production.
Part of the fidgeting we’ve heard from the emerging moly companies about the metal’s price is not about how much higher molybdenum’s price will rise. Their twitches are accompanied by the anxiety over how economic their projects will remain should moly dive as it has in the past. Previous moly price rallies were sharp spikes followed by mercurial descents. Breathtaking on an historical chart, but not the slap-on-the-knee kind of laugh if one was mining during that era. Jobs were lost, mines closed and assets gobbled up by those less dependent upon the moly price.
Why should molybdenum’s price sustain this time, and why should this chart later look different from the one of the past three decades? Yes, yes, yes, of course we are in a commodity super cycle. But even during a secular bull market there are catastrophic plunges washing out the weaker management teams, the less-well-financed and those with more dubious projects.
Should Molybdenum Sustain at Current Levels?
Current developments in the molybdenum and energy markets may offer strong hope for many of the primary producers proposing or planning projects through 2010. Part of the breakdown during the molybdenum production cycle could come from roasting capacity. We covered those concerns in a previous article. Another comes from more recent research, although we concentrated upon the high-maintenance energy sector in our inaugural molybdenum article, this past July.
Every year, about $37 billion worth of natural gas goes up in smoke or pumped underground to drive more crude to the surface, mostly because of the lack of gas pipelines. According to Hart Energy Publishing’s Pipeline and Gas Technology information center:
“Operators are constructing, planning or studying the feasibility of building some 72,924 miles of crude oil, natural gas and refined products pipelines throughout the world to meet growing energy demand.”
Almost 77 percent of worldwide pipeline construction is to transport natural gas – more than 55,000 miles planned or underway. Under construction or being planned are nearly 14,000 miles of crude oil pipelines.
Intrinsic to the future and more lasting success of these pipeline projects is the emerging trend toward the replacement of Stainless Steel Type 316 with a higher moly content stainless steel product called 6Mo Grade, or 6-percent Molybdenum Stainless Steels. Because of the increased construction of offshore and sour gas pipelines, great resistance to chloride-induced corrosion is required. Stainless steels are basically iron-chromium alloys; the brunt of the protective film comes from sufficient chromium. Type 316 Stainless Steel contains 16 percent chromium and 10 percent nickel and two percent molybdenum.
Increasing the molybdenum content in pipelines might help reduce the number of pipeline catastrophes and minimize the disruption of energy supplies. [Photo courtesy: International Molybdenum Association]
Type 316 has broken down when exposed to saline water, seawater or brackish water. Sour gas can have high halide levels (excess benzyl halide and alkyl halide) which can accelerate the corrosion of ferrous metals. The 6Mo grade is 50 percent stronger than the 300-series and has very high resistance to stress corrosion cracking, pitting and crevice corrosion. The higher moly grade is generally found in desalination equipment, flue gas desulphurization scrubbers, chemical processing equipment and oil/gas production equipment.
Here’s the key point with this chemistry lesson. Because of the high nickel price, which is now approaching precious metals status, the authentic structure of the stainless steel alloy can still be maintained, but with lesser nickel and more molybdenum. In other words, because of the tight nickel inventories, manufacturers have begun hunting for substitutes for this metal. In multiple energy-related situations, moly could find its way as a ‘substitution metal’ for nickel in stainless steel production.
Molybdenum strengthens the nickel matrix and extends service temperatures. In the extreme case, the nickel-based Alloy C-276® contains 15 to 17 percent molybdenum and is used for the construction of seawater-based flue-gas desulphurization plants. The higher moly content offsets the highly corrosive combination of seawater and sulfur-laden flue gases. As the major energy companies delve into the crummier fossil fuels, the sulfur content rises, thereby ultimately demanding a greater percentage of the molybdenum component.
From this aspect, there may be merit the molybdenum price can provide some excitement through the end of the decade and perhaps some promise for some, if not all, of the junior molybdenum exploration and development companies. Coupled with the roasting capacity problem, as we discussed in the previously referenced article, this molybdenum cycle offers more hope of longevity than the two previous spikes.
Overview of Potential Primary Molybdenum Producers
A few junior molybdenum developers were brought to our attention during our research in the molybdenum market over the past six months. Not all were included in this overview. We reviewed each and are reporting them alphabetically, not according to their merits.
The principal project of the Adanac Molybdenum Corporation [CVE:AUA] is a low grade bulk molybdenum deposit located less than 100 miles southeast of Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Since the early 1970s, the Ruby Creek property has shown promise of, but only of an historical (Non 43-101 compliant) resource of more than 100 million tons with an average grade of 0.16 percent MoS2. The Adanac website boasts of 220 million pounds of Molybdenum, but no mining has taken place since a 1971 feasibility report was submitted on the property.
Various mining companies have proposed mining and milling operations on the property, including Kerr Adison, Climax Molybdenum of BC, Placer Development Ltd and the original Adanac Mining and Exploration company. In a May 2005 NI 43-101 report, using a cut-off grade of greater than 0.10 percent moly, the company reported a measured and indicated resource of 24.2 million pounds of moly.
Adanac Chairman Larry Reaugh optimistically reported in a CBC News interview on January 17th:
“I would estimate that somewhere between 12 and 15 million pounds of moly a year would be produced from that mine for the first five years."
The company is hoping for a partner to put up about $400 million to bring this project into production. Adanac offers a copy of its bankable feasibilities on the company website.
In an email from Ken Reser, a highly respected molybdenum commentator, we were told Larry Reaugh has discussed the company’s Ruby Creek project with at least five major corporations, which Reser reported have approached Reaugh about bringing the project online. Several newsletters have praised this company’s efforts. Reser also consults for Adanac. He also told us the Ruby Creek project is a short while away from permitting.
Blue Pearl Mining
The Blue Pearl Mining [TSE:BLE]company bills itself as “The World’s Largest Publicly Traded Pure Molybdenum Producer” on its website. No surprise there. In December, the company was chosen by Standard & Poor’s/Toronto Stock Exchange Composit Index to join its list of market benchmark companies. The Index accounts for about 70 percent of the market capitalization for companies listed on the TSX.
This past Wednesday, Blue Pearl increased its production estimates over the next three years. By 2009, the company hopes to produce 29 million pounds of molybdenum. Late last year, Blue Pearl bought Idaho’s Thompson Creek moly mine, a 75-percent interest in British Columbia’s Endako mine and the Langeloth Metallurgical Complex in Pennsylvania. This supplemented the company’s Davidson molybdenum deposit, which it also hopes to develop before the decade ends.
Idaho’s Thompson Creek mine is expected to produce more 148 million pounds of molybdenum over its ten-year mine life at an average operating cost of US$3.68/pound. Of particular interest to us is the company’s roasting capacity of 35 million pounds at the metallurgical complex in Pennsylvania, which converts the concentrates to molybdenum oxide. It houses six multiple-hearth roasters required for the conversion process. As the company approaches the 29 million-pound production level, other near-term molybdenum producers may need to look elsewhere to convert their concentrates.
In a Canadian Press interview, the company’s executive chairman Ian McDonald said:
“We think the price of moly looks good here for the next year or two at least - probably longer - because there's been an under-investment in the moly business for the last 20 years.”
We couldn’t agree more with Mr. McDonald, who is nobody’s fool.
Idaho General Mines (NYSEMKT:GMO)
According to the company’s website:
"[Idaho General Mines Inc.] plans to become a major world molybdenum producer with the beginning of mining of Mount Hope in 2009. Idaho General holds the Mount Hope Project in central Nevada which contains one of the largest molybdenum-porphyry deposits in the world, a nearly one-billion ton ore body that will produce approximately 1.3 billion pounds of recoverable molybdenum during its 53-year lifetime. A feasibility study has been completed and the project is now currently being permitted for operations in Nevada.”
This is probably the largest molybdenum property on our radar. We have wondered over the course of various email exchanges with the army of Idaho General Mines proponents (and possibly promoters) whether this property is too big. So far, it has held up to scrutiny. In an email exchange with David Michaud, a metallurgical engineer with whom we routinely consult (and who is also a technical advisor for United Bolero, a smaller molybdenum exploration company), we played devil’s advocate.
Michaud, who is intimately familiar with United Bolero’s property, explained the metallurgy for their Bald Butte moly property in Montana:
“At a flotation feed sizing of about 135µm K80, the liberation of the molybdenite, when assessed in two dimensions, was 56 percent. When compared to similar ores now being processed worldwide, this level of liberation is sufficient to allow successful flotation recovery of most of the molybdenite bearing particles into a rougher concentrate. There is some evidence from mineral fragmentation studies, which suggests that still coarser flotation feed sizings could be used to achieve much the same molybdenite liberation levels; and hence, very similar metallurgical performances.”
“Liberated grains of molybdenite were 91 percent captured into the final concentrate. Approximately 11 percent of the molybdenite bearing binary composites were captured – predictably these composites contained significant amounts of molybdenite, probably accounting for their enhanced floatability.”
When we questioned him about Idaho General’s property, Michaud gave the tentative thumbs up, stating, “I don’t think GMO will be much different.” He explained the closeology between Montana, where Bald Butte is located, and Idaho would likely carry over, metallurgically speaking. The one question Michaud had concerned the ‘grind size,” which was not found on the company’s website and in our preliminary research. Further investigation would require studying the drill cores. He said, “No drill samples, no DNA.” Which is fair.
In a recent email from someone knowledgeable about the property and its chemistry, he brought up was a conversion plant. He wrote to us:
“Other operations have insurmountable logistics and environmental hoops to overcome, Mt. Hope is located 65 miles to a rail head and proposes to have its own conversion plant, hence – its concentrate is not held hostage by outsourced conversion.”
This is the sticky point for us with respect to Idaho General. By the time the ambitious Mt. Hope project comes online, the Climax molybdenum mine may also be coming back online. If Idaho General proposes to annually mine along the lines of 35 million pounds, and Climax mines 20 to 30 million pounds annually, where will Idaho General roast the moly concentrates and convert these to molybdenum oxide. Permitting a roaster in the United States, we have been told, could be a fool’s errand. As one wag put it, “Hell will freeze over first.” Mt. Hope is big, and the company has begun the permitting process. It would be interesting to fast forward to 2009 or 2010 and find out how the project has been advanced.
Roca Mines Inc.
Quietly, Roca Mines [CVE:ROK] is moving forward toward becoming a small-scale molybdenum producer. A hiccup in their plans to mill the moly ore at British Columbia’s MAX deposit and begin selling it, as had previously been announced, was delayed by a few months. The company cited weather-related problems during the construction of their tailings facility. On a positive note, the company plans expanding mill capacity to 1,000 tpd.
In crunching the numbers to determine the value of the rock for the MAX deposit, Michaud concluded, “It’s rich.” Depending upon how the numbers were calculated, this deposit could be worth between US$561/tonne to US$660/tonne. Cost of operations could be as low as $71/tonne to a higher level. Estimated recovery could run between 85 and 90 percent depending on how this start-up mine plays out. On a milling level of 1000 tpd, this equates to about 35,000 pounds per day of moly sulfide concentrate, or about 20,000 pounds of molybdenum oxide per day.
Bluntly said, if Roca delivers on its plan of selling 3 million pounds of contained molybdenum in 2007, and the moly price hovers at the $25/pound level, the company stands to rapidly build its treasury. We interviewed Scott Broughton this past week, which helps provide a better of this company’s plans.
Molybdenum might likely be premature in creating the sort of excitement found with the uranium price frenzy and the explosion of junior uranium companies of 2006. There may be some life this year in the moly sector. Most mining analysts are forecasting a slow drifting in the molybdenum price over the course of the 2007 to 2010 period. Some are the same analysts who were cautious in the uranium price outlook before Cameco Corp announced severe flooding at the company’s northern Saskatchewan Cigar Lake uranium mine in the Athabasca region. Since then, the uranium price shows the potential for additional hysteria coming into this New Year.
Molybdenum does not, at least not yet, carry with it the overpowering supply/demand imbalance. However, the current price levels induce the further exploration and development of previously explored properties and especially those which have stronger degrees of deposit delineation from the earlier, but short-lived molybdenum boom.