If one believes the forecasts recently made by Terry Adams of UK-based Adams Metals and the Albemarle Corporation (NYSE:ALB), then the escalating demand for molybdenum products could impact the stainless steel business of POSCO (NYSE:PKX). The Korean-based steelmaker, with about 6.5 percent of sales coming from stainless steel, is the world’s fourth or fifth largest, depending upon production or market capitalization.
According to the company’s 2006 annual report, POSCO exports more than 70 percent of its steel products across Asia, mainly to China, Japan and southeastern Asia. In response to record high nickel prices, the steelmaker announced it would begin manufacturing nickel-free stainless steels. So did European steelmakers ThyssenKrupp and Outokumpu, which has heavily relied on its austenitic products.
Would a sustained rally in the moly price result in the same backlash nickel recently suffered? Unfortunately for steelmakers, molybdenum has a broader range of applications than nickel.
At a recent industry conference, Terry Adams shocked his audience by warning of potential supply/demand imbalances commencing as early as 2011. He believes by 2015, the molybdenum price could get ‘interesting.’
But, this wasn’t the first sign of brewing trouble for molybdenum buyers. In early May, one trader told American Metal Market magazine, “We just don’t have any supply available.” He lamented that primary moly producers, also known as swing producers, have ‘nothing to sell right now.’
On June 18th, China is expected to announce the export quotas for molybdenum products it has assigned to a limited number of exporters. Potential labor disputes at copper mines in Mexico and Chile could further reduce available molybdenum supply later in June. A Chilean labor spokesman warned of a ‘hard and prolonged strike.’ Molybdenum mined as a byproduct of copper production accounts for about 60 percent of the global supply.
At this pace, molybdenum pricing could be severely impacted as early as this summer. By next year, if primary molybdenum production doesn’t quickly rise to meet the demand, the pricing climate could worsen for end-users. Some traders believe moly prices could soon creep above previous price peaks two years ago. “Things are going to get a lot firmer because there’s a lack of material,” one trader reported earlier this week. “There’s not a lot on the ground.”
According to different down-the-road forecasts, the magic demand number is 460 million pounds of molybdenum. Adams predicts that projected western world demand could reach this consumption by 2015. Others believe strong moly demand could bring this target consumption a few years earlier.
Another concern is one we highlighted in a previous article when USGS molybdenum commodity specialist Michael Magyar warned of a bottleneck, “… we can’t roast much more moly right now. No one is actively permitting for more roasting capacity in North America.
Additional roasting capacity is, however, coming online this year or next, courtesy of Molymet. Adams points out, “With the growth in demand a new roaster, the size of the new Molymet roaster is needed every two years.” Adams further explained, “Without further investment a roaster bottleneck could occur in 2011. Molymet plans another roaster about this time, but this would only allow another two years growth.”
In his presentation, Adams glimpsed in the future. While western world demand should continue to annually increase by three percent, demand in China and the C.I.S. could increase by more than 10 percent every year. “The combined global effect would be an annual growth rate of about 4.5 percent,” he predicted. “Western mines will have to increase production !
by at least 6 percent per annum.”
As we and others have concluded, Adams forecast, “Increased output at primary (moly) mines will be needed to fill the gap beyond 2009.”
We presume delegates from the junior molybdenum mining attendees mentally began popping champagne corks after Adams announced this point. But it was his next two points which investors should digest:
New or shuttered primary mines will have to open by 2011 By 2013, current primary mines and Climax could be at capacity
High-Level Growth in the Molybdenum Chemical Market
Having researched molybdenum for more than one year, only recently did a couple of technical experts help us understand how much molybdenum is utilized in the condenser tubes of nuclear and desalination plants. Because of the diversified applications for this metal, there is less reliable information about the molybdenum sector than in others we’ve explored, e.g. uranium.
We continue to gather data for our next publication, Investing in the Great Molybdenum Bull Market, and will present our detailed research in late August.
We have discovered two strong-growth areas for molybdenum applications.
It’s not just the steel market which uses molybdenum. Although the stainless and low alloy markets represent about two-thirds of molybdenum usage, the fastest growing market appears to be catalysts in the moly chemical market.
According to a spokesman for the Albemarle Corporation, moly consumption in the catalyst section could grow by more than 30 percent by 2011. The chemical sector could consume as much as 30 million more pounds in the 2006 to 2011 time period.
The global catalyst market is expected to reach US$13 billion in sales this year. Of this the petroleum refining sector should consume about 35 million pounds of molybdenum. The moly is used as a hydroprocessing [HPC] catalyst.
Growing global demand for crude oil, changing fuel specifications and strength in demand for aviation and diesel fuel should contribute to molybdenum demand.
Because the overall quality of crude oil has significantly deteriorated, over the past 25 years, more molybdenum could be consumed as a catalyst during the refinery process. Sulfur content in U.S.-imported oil has doubled over this same time period. Molybdenum-based catalysts are utilized to remove sulfur from petroleum, petrochemicals and coal-derived liquids.
Tighter specs over the past 15 years have demanded a higher performing catalyst and more contained molybdenum in those catalysts. Over this time frame, catalyst demand per barrel of crude oil has doubled – an average growth rate of five percent per year.
One industry expert expects global HPC catalyst growth to annually increase by eight percent between 2006 and 2010. Molybdenum consumption for this use could increase by 46 percent through 2010. Annual consumption could rise to more than 60 million pounds of molybdenum.
Lack of New Primary Mining Supply
The typical molybdenum concentrates being sold by the copper producers, as byproduct mining, contain 40 – 45 percent Mo. Concentrates from primary producers often average 50 – 55 percent.
As a result, primary molybdenum mining operations offer a more desirable concentrate. Technical moly, also known Mo03 (molybdenum trioxide) specifies 57 percent Mo and contains less than 0.05 percent copper and 0.1 percent sulfur. Primary molybdenum producers provide concentrates with lesser amounts of deleterious elements.
Because the concentrate is ‘cleaner,’ less roasting is required to upgrade the material to tech oxide spec. Less electricity is expended to power the multi-hearth furnaces during the roasting process. The cleaner primary moly concentrate offers the roaster more flexibility. The higher spec concentrates can be blended with lower spec concentrates to upgrade the overall product, or the roaster can refine the higher spec material separately if the end-user requires it.
The less roasting to bring material up to spec could also help avoid the bottlenecks a few years from now.
Although byproduct molybdenum producers are expected to bear the brunt of increased demand, the copper producers aren’t cooperating. Codelco’s molybdenum production dropped by 25 percent in 2006 to 60 million pounds this past year. Moly production could drop another 15 percent or more this year.
Because of the recent molybdenum price revival, dozens of exploration companies have ‘suddenly’ become molybdenum companies. There are scarce few with a potentially viable project.
Those primary molybdenum producers and future producers we’ve been monitoring appear to be moving their projects forward.
Thompson Creek is Thompson Creek. This has emerged as the ‘primary’ primary player in North America while the world waits for Climax to come online again. Some believe the company’s Davidson moly deposit in British Columbia may not arrive on the company’s timetable. If so, then this could further pressure the moly price.
Roca Mines (OTCPK:ROCAF) should become a producer during July. But, this company also hopes to expand its operations deeper and should also commence those exploration efforts this summer. In the interim, the high-grade molybdenum found at the company’s MAX mine should become a cash cow in the third and fourth quarters of this year. And for several years forward. Although the company is not yet in production, there appears to be no scarcity of molybdenum traders clamoring for the company’s future production. Another indication of a tight market.
Last month, Adanac Molybdenum Corp (OTCPK:AUAYF) ordered its long-lead time equipment for the construction of its mining and milling complex at Ruby Creek. Expenditures totaled nearly C$40 million, for which the company has made its down payments. Also, some time this summer, Adanac should finally receive its permits and commence construction. While the company boasts of 220 million pounds of molybdenum, a recent chat with Adanac consultant Ken Reser suggests Ruby Creek have more pounds than was previously thought. Ongoing drilling results could later confirm this speculation.
We continue to watch United Bolero (UBDVF.PK) as a promising development company in!
Montana. We were told drilling at Bald Butte began over the weekend to upgrade the resource category. Hopefully, the drilling program will also move to its nearby Cannivan Gulch property. Historically, but not technically documented, major miners, who worked these properties in the previous moly cycle, estimated the company’s properties could host more than 400 million pounds of molybdenum.
Primary producers, such as these and possibly others, is what molybdenum end-users are depending upon to meet their needs as we approach 2009, 2010 and beyond.
Over the course of this summer, we’ll further study other potential near-term pro!
ducers, such as Moly Mines and others.
Many in the industry have warned us about the potential increase of ‘moly dumping’ by the Chinese. Historically, China has helped chill out molybdenum prices in the past. According to Adams, as noted earlier in this article, China could become less of a factor.
Fundamentally, this should not be a concern. Typically, a country is indirectly focused on the background of its leading politician. In China’s case, the eight members of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s most powerful politicians are all engineers. All are graduates of engineering or technology schools.
China’s president was trained as a hydraulics engineer. The premier is a geologist, who also has a degree as a mining engineer. The former vice-premier was trained as an electrical engineer, as was the ‘propaganda’ chief. The Secretary of Political and Legislative Affairs was trained as a metallurgist. Others hold degrees in thermal engineering, radio electronics or electronic motor design.
Engineers like to build things. China has embarked on the greatest industrialization period in history, dwarfing the construction of infrastructure of the late 19th century in Europe and North America. Because molybdenum’s applications include architecture, energy, petroleum refinement, coal conversion, chemicals and other industrial applications, we would not be surprised if China soon announces the ‘strategic’ importance of molybdenum (as it has uranium) and stops all exports.
Molybdenum also plays a strong role in numerous and diverse military applications. Globally, military spending reached $1.2 trillion last year. In 2006, China surpassed Japan as the largest military spender in Asia. The U.S. Pentagon estimates China could be spending up to US$125 billion this year. At least ten varieties of ballistic missiles are deployed or in development. Our preliminary research into this subject confirms the large percentage amount of molybdenum utilized in missiles. In some applications, the moly content is greater than 20 percent.
In summary, every time we delve into a new area to investigate demand for the molybdenum application, we find growth. Strong demand could surprise many stock and industry analysts over the next decade. In the meanwhile, more primary molybdenum producers need to come forward. Unlike some, we don’t believe the molybdenum story has yet been fully revealed. This summer, we hope to make the molybdenum market more transparent – both on the demand side and the supply side.