Investing in a Resource-Constrained World (Part I)

by: Mark Anthony

We are living in a resource constrained world, due to rapid depletion of many of the none-renewable natural resources, like oil, coal, and metal mineral resources. As the main stream media wake up to the Peak Oil reality, I believe it is important to keep the reality of a resource constrained world in our mind, when making investment decisions. In this article I want to talk about precious metals, including gold, silver, platinum and palladium, the rare metal tellurium and selenium, coal mines, agriculture, sugar, and fertilizers. Relate to these resources I will talk about the following stocks: PAAS, CDE, SLW, PAL, SWC, OMG, FSLR, JRCC, IPSU, POT, SEED, TNH, COIN, not necessarily in that order. This is the first part in a series. I will take about them in more detail in the future.

First on First Solar Inc. (FSLR) and tellurium, because I have some breaking news! I have previously written about FSLR and its critical reliance on tellurium supply, and about the fact that tellurium is increasingly being used on important new applications, which could force FSLR out of business. I also suggested buying physical tellurium as an investment.

The breaking news I discovered about FSLR, is from 5N Plus Inc. ( VNP recently went IPO and they have just made the first public release of quarterly operating results, for the quarter ending Nov. 30, 2007. Find it on I was shocked to discover that VNP saw virtually NO growth in sales revenue over several of past quarters. Here are the numbers of quarterly sales revenues:

Nov. 30, 07 $6.796MAug. 31, 07 $6.394MMay.31, 07 $6.400M (extrapolated from year total)Feb.28, 07 $5.700M (extrapolated from year total)Nov.30, 06 $4.890MAug.31, 06 $4.903M

We know that 55% of VNP's sales are CdTe sales to FSLR, so that's about $3.75M per quarter. We know during this time period, FSLR saw incredible production capacity expansion, going from one production line to three at the end of 2006, and then seven during Q3, 2007, due to the new Germany factory reached full capacity. The thoughput speed of the production lines also increased greatly.

Such rapid growth would mean a lot more production consumption of the CdTe raw material, and a lot more purchases from 5N Plus. However the growth was NOT reflected in 5N Plus's quarterly sales revenue. The sales had been flat for 3 or 4 quarters. Why?

On page 26 of VNP's IPO prospectus, it explains that VNP currently has an annual production capacity of 100 metric tons of CdTe, and it is building a new factory in Germany to double the capacity to 200 metric tons, and then some further improvement to bring the capacity to 350 metric tons per year. They have also reserved empty land lots in Germany so that they can build another facility to further double the capacity. Such an aggressive expansion plan was the result of contract obligation to FSLR. The contract mandated that the Germany factory must reach full production by July 31, 2008.

That's a pretty aggressive expansion plan. Clearly both FSLR and VNP saw that the quantity of CdTe needed by FSLR warrants such an expansion. However, such a desperate need of more CdTe is NOT reflected in sales revenue growth of VNP, which almost stalled in recent quarters.

What's the road block? The roadblock is neither VNP's current production capacity, nor the lack of demand from FSLR. Judging from the number of $3.75M quarterly sales to FSLR, VNP's current production capacity is under-utilized. The only conclusion I can draw is they are not getting enough raw tellurium for the production!

My estimate is the cost of CdTe in whole sale price is probably $350 per kilogram or more. I saw 10 times higher retail price at, at $3500 for one kilogram CdTe of 99.999% purity. Assuming $350 per kilogram, the latest quarterly CdTe sale to FSLR was roughly 10 metric tons. FSLR's current capacity is 40 MW per production line per year, and 7 lines. So that's 70 MW per quarter. Each 1 MW of solar PV production costs about 250 kilograms of CdTe. So the need is about 17.5 metric tons of CdTe per quarter. They are getting far less than that!

First solar might end up having to shut down some production lines if it can not find more tellurium supply soon! Don't forget they have another 4 Malaysia factories being build, each as big as the Germany factory. Where are they going to get the tellurium supply? I think there is a looming catastrophe here in First Solar.

But there is an ongoing catastrophe in my favorite long stock PAL right now. The catastrophy is not with the company's business, but rather, with the company's stock price! I predicted a palladium super bull cycle and recommended buying PAL and SWC. The palladium price rallied to multi-year high recently, but the PAL stock price reached multi-year low. That rather defies the logic! In a previous article I analyzed why PAL stock was punished, and called a bottom on Dec. 13. Looking back, the bottom price of $3.40 a share was called correctly. But PAL has yet to rally above $4 credible.

I encourage people to buy PAL below or near $4 a share. The reasons are not just the strong rally in precious metals recently, but more importantly, PAL's Q4 earnings will be released at the end of January or beginning of February. Since a considerable portion of the mine produced metal was not sold in Q3, but will be added to Q4 sales, it can be expected that the Q4 earnings result will be fantastic, boosting stock price.

More importantly, I sense that an explosive palladium rally is imminent now we have entered 2008. Traditionally, each year the Russians sell about 2 million ounces of extra palladium, from the government stockpile, flooding the global market and capping the metal price. They always shipped the government stockpile sale of palladium in one batch to Switzerland in the month of December. So far, year 2007 has ended, and there was no indication they shipped any palladium stockpile.

Palladium rallied in previous years despite of Russian stockpile sale. Now, when the fact that the Russians have finally depleted the stockpile becomes public knowledge, and people know that there is an industrial shortage without the Russian extra supply, you can expect the palladium price will explode.

SWC is also a good buy here, but relatively, PAL has better value at this price. You get more palladium production per dollar of stocks. Read my detailed comparison between the two.

I am also pondering other potential stocks to buy, OMG looks like a fantastic titanium metal player, with unbelievably low P/E. I have not done enough DD to determine if the P/E is real, but I feel the stock may be a bit high to buy here, do your DD and wait for a dip to buy.

Among silver players, PAAS and CDE seems to be the best of breed, SLW is the purest of pure silver play. SLW seems to be an excellent trade vehicle if you like volatility. But I do not like it as a long term investment. Do not get me wrong. All these stock should go up long term. But if in comparison with silver they are less worth than silver as an investment, then you are better off buying physical silver than buying these stocks. PAAS's market capital current can buy more silver, than the worth of its underground mineral resources. The same could not be said abut CDE, however. So I think CDE is better than silver, and PAAS is worse than silver.

Besides precious metals, I also pay attention to other resource investments. I don't buy oil players. Too many people have thought about oil already. When too many people doing the same thing, it diminishes your investment return. However I like coal. JRCC is a coal player that I have been paying attention for a long time. It has a super low price/sales ratio. So if the coal price raises to the level that allows it to make a profit, the profit will be very remarkable. The problem with JRCC is it has too much debt, so during the ongoing credit crunch JRCC may suffer a bit in short term. I am going to watch for JRCC to come down a bit more before I will buy it. Another thing to keep in mind is coal is still abundant in this country.

Sugar is sweet! I noticed that sugar price recently has bottomed and is going up again. Fortunately I also noticed a sugar player, IPSU, which for some reason, is being naked shorted. I think IPSU$18 a share looks like a very attractive buy. But will need to spend more time to study the sugar fundamentals.

Every one knows Jim Rogers is favorable in agriculture. In a TV interview, he said that he liked palladium better than gold and platinum! That I agree with him. He also said he liked agriculture better than palladium. That I totally disagree. I agree with him that agriculture is bullish. But agriculture is LESS bullish than palladium. The reason is very simple, palladium, the precious metal, is price inflexible in its industry applications. How inflexible? Just look at rhodium, it went from $300 an ounce, to now more than $7000 per ounce, and there seems to be no stopping. The demand can not go away, now can supply catch up. That's price inflexible.

Agriculture is quite price flexible, both on supply side and demand side. On the supply side, you just plant more and produce more. On the demand side, you have demand destruction. Demand destruction happens in the most vulnerable section of the human society: people who are poor and can not afford adequate food. So the demand destruction actually happens at pretty low price point, because poor people don't have much money. They either have to settle for less expensive, lower quality food, or in the worst case, just die off in famines. It's cruel to say that. I am not being insensitive, but it is a fact of life that this world see famines just too often whenever there is a food shortage crisis. The charities are always too little, too late.

Of course, the better hope is increased agriculture production. That is exactly what's happening. However, increased agriculture production poses increased fertilizer demand. That's why there is a sudden boom in the fertilizer sector. So it is worthwhile to check out why the fertilizer sector suddenly becomes so hot. I recommend have a look at POT, TNH, CF, MOS, AGU, COIN, SEED. All those are related to fertilizers and/or agriculture. I have not done a sufficent DD study on them to give a definite recommendation of buy or sell. I hope you do your DD and tell me what you think about these stocks. And I hope to discuss them in more details in the next article.

Disclosure: I am heavily invested in PAL and also own some SWC positions. I am short in FSLR and plan to add more short positions. I am invested in physical tellurium and plan to buy more. I do not own any of the other stocks I meantioned here but do intend to buy some of them at appropriate time and price.