By Luke Burgess
Palladium Demand Up 40% in Two Years
I relish in the rare and undiscovered. Unsung musicians, obscure texts, the cryptic myths of ancient cultures… In all of these, I am magnetically interested. But I’m interested in scarcity even more when it presents the opportunity to make money – which is why I’ve been a life-long precious metal investor.
Most people don’t realize just how rare these elements are. Even fewer recognize that without precious metals, everything about our lives would be completely different. In fact, we can generally deduce that almost every product that’s manufactured today makes use of precious metals in some way or another.
With this in mind, and a real understanding of just how scarce some of these metals are, the argument for investment in precious metals starts to make perfect sense. And there’s one precious metal that particularity sticks out as being one of the most obscure and rare elements to be mined. I’m talking about palladium.
Unlocking the Secrets to Palladium
Palladium is in a category of transition metals called the “platinum group metals” (PGMs), or “platinum group elements” (PGEs).
Platinum group metals – which include platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium – have similar physical and chemical properties. These metals also tend to naturally occur together in shared mineral deposits. So they’re almost always mined together, as well.
Palladium was first used by man centuries ago. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that chemists truly unlocked palladium’s secrets and applied the metal to a device that eventually would end up on every automobile in world.
Heavy Metal’s Unsung Hero
One of the most interesting properties of palladium is its ability to absorb hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas that passes over a palladium-coated surface gets trapped into the spaces between metal’s atoms. And like a sponge, palladium absorbs up to 900 times its own weight in hydrogen gas.
This makes palladium ideal for use in automotive catalytic converters, which chemically converts harmful hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide into less-harmful substances.
Growing concerns over pollution and subsequent American environmental legislation in the 1970s sparked rapid innovation in automotive emissions-reduction technology. And due to its unique physical characteristics, palladium soon became an integral part of the automobile catalytic converter.
As environmental standards were applied globally in the 1990s, the demand for new auto catalytic converters exploded. As such, so did the demand for palladium. And because supplies were so scarce, palladium prices skyrocketed over 400% higher in a matter of just 36 months.
By mid-2000, the price of palladium topped $1,100 an ounce.
As a result of high prices, global autocatalyst manufacturers replaced the palladium in their catalytic converters with platinum – which worked just as well as palladium, and was much cheaper at the time.
Shortly after making the switch, however, the price of palladium dropped and platinum’s price increased due to the change in demand from the autocatalyst industry, and from sharp selling from Russia. (We’ll talk about that in a minute.) Take a look at how the switch from palladium to platinum affected prices:
Since that time the price of platinum has soared to as high as over $2,200 an ounce, before the 2008 global pullback.
Platinum prices are still very high – trading over $1,700 an ounce right now. And as a result, the global autocatalyst industry has quietly been making the switch back to palladium!
The U.S. Geological Survey reported in its recently released 2012 Mineral Commodities Summary:
Many motor vehicle manufacturers have substituted palladium for the more expensive platinum in gasoline-engine catalytic converters. As much as 25% palladium can routinely be substituted for platinum in diesel catalytic converters; new technologies and laboratory experiments have increased that proportion to around 50% in some applications.
Currently trading at just over $700 an ounce, palladium offers manufacturers a superior metal for catalytic converters at a 60% discount. So there’s no wonder why autocatalyst manufacturers are switching back. The change back to palladium-based auto catalytic converters puts the metal in a very unique situation… again.
One of the main reasons that the price of palladium jumped so much at the end of the 1990s was simply the metal’s scarcity. Palladium is actually about twice as abundant as gold in the Earth’s crust. However, there are only a handful of mines around the world that are able to produce palladium economically.
According to the USGS, only about 200 metric tons of palladium is produced annually. (Even less platinum is produced.) Compared to world production of silver and gold, this is a just drop in the bucket.
Palladium – like all other precious metals – is very rare on earth. But even rarer are economically feasible deposits of palladium. Like all other elements, precious metals are found all over the world. Even seawater contains gold. Depending on the location, seawater contains about 0.1 to 2 mg/ton of gold.
But gold can’t be extracted from seawater profitably. So miners have to find locations where the Earth’s geologic forces have concentrated these elements in one place, so that the profit from selling the metal exceeds production costs.
These geologic forces have been kind in providing concentrated gold and silver deposits, as mining these metals is active in nearly all settled territories and countries. The same cannot be said, however, about palladium. (Or for the other PGMs) Concentrated palladium deposits are exceedingly scarce. The most extensive deposits are located in just two regions, the Bushveld Igneous Complex in South Africa and the Norilsk Complex in Russia.
As a result, 80% of the world’s palladium production comes out of Russia and South Africa. The Stillwater Complex in Montana and the Thunder Bay District of Ontario are also significant sources of palladium, but currently contribute less than 15% total production. Limited global mining capacity, combined with rising demand from the autocatalyst industry, result in very interesting investment dynamics.
And I Haven’t Even Mentioned the Russians…
Combine with the switch from platinum- to palladium-based autocatalysts another major reason palladium prices fell so drastically in 2000: the sharp selling coming from a large Russian stockpile of the metal.
As the world’s leading palladium producer, Russia began stockpiling the metal a few decades ago. And as the price of palladium increased over 400% between 1998 and 2000, they sold the metal from their stockpile for a healthy profit. However, this created an immediate surplus in the market, which sharply drove down prices and weighed down on them for many years.
The actual size of the Russian State stockpile has long been a closely guarded secret. But official sources have indicated to the media that the Russian palladium stockpile is at historically low levels. Last year, exports of Russian palladium fell to their lowest levels not seen since the 1990s. Russian palladium, for instance, going to Switzerland – Europe’s central hub for storing and trading precious metals – fell to its lowest level in 15 years during 2011.
Experts predict 2012 will see the lowest Russian palladium supply to date.
In December, Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel said their palladium output could fall 3% in 2012. Though only a slight drop in production, Norilsk Nickel produces over 40% of the world’s palladium. This means this cut in output could result in a significant global supply deficit, particularity as the overall demand for palladium sharply rises.
Palladium Demand Up 40% in Two Years
After a decline following the 2008 global financial meltdown, world palladium demand has increased 40% in just two years.
The sharp increase in demand, along with dwindling supplies from Russian, has left the global palladium market with a widening supply deficit. There has been a supply deficit in the palladium market for the past two years. And Barclays Capital estimates another deficit this year of 275,000 ounces.
According to Credit Suisse Group AG, demand will exceed supply until at least 2015.
As a result, many analysts are expecting higher palladium prices in the near- and mid-term.
Four weeks ago, Reuters reported that palladium was expected to average $725 an ounce this year from a survey of 28 analysts. The analysts offered a range from $846 to a low of $556. In 2013, analysts expect palladium prices to rise again to average $819 an ounce.
Add it all up, and palladium really is quite an interesting investment option. Considering the metal’s rarity, however, getting good investment exposure is more difficult than, say, investing in gold or silver. Not to worry, though. I’ve got you covered in my next essay…
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