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Is Tin A Semi-Precious Metal?

OK, semi-precious may be a stretch. We'll come back to that choice of title at the end. I am trying to pay homage to the mini-boom we experienced in "rare earth" metals a couple of years ago. After all, the first step of a bubble is having a catchy meme. If in a few years we see a boomlet in tin mining stocks.... well, perhaps you heard it here first.

An introduction to tin

Tin is usually considered a base or industrial metal. Tin (Atomic Number 50, symbol Sn) is used in the manufacture of solder for electronics and a variety of metal alloys. It is a significant component of pewter and bronze, for example. It has also found more use in manufacture of plastics and fire retardants.

The US Geological Survey has a nice overview of tin statistics. A brief summary of the variety of uses of tin, from the USGS:

Today, most tin is used as a protective coating or as an alloy with other metals. Tin is used as a coating for steel cans, in solders for joining pipes or electrical conductors, and in bearing and other alloys for widely diversified applications. Tin is essential to an industrial society and in many applications for which there are no completely satisfactory substitutes.

The largest producer of tin, by far, is Indonesia. In the past, the instability of this region has led to price spikes in tin. Essentially no tin is mined or smelted in North or Central America. Tin's price per pound is about 3 to 5 times that of base metals such as zinc, lead, and copper, yet it is much cheaper than precious metals such as silver, gold, and platinum. Hence, I think tin could in the future be considered a "semi-precious" metal.

Tracking tin prices

A number of price charts for tin are available at infomine. I happen to like the 5-year tin price chart - long enough to show some trends, but not so long as to be overwhelmed by the impact of chronic inflation like the longer-term charts suffer from. As you can see, recent prices have been US$8-14 per pound, which is about 2-3 times the low reached following the 2008 financial crisis. This is similar to the behavior of many other, more common commodities.

5 year Tin price chart

This compares with copper recently at $3 per pound, zinc at under $2 per pound. On the other hand, the least expensive precious metal is silver, at approximately $30 an ounce. This is why I introduce the concept of tin as a "semi-precious" metal. I hypothesize that if and when global inflation ramps up, and silver becomes priced out of reach for low-end investors, that tin could become considered an "investable" metal. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. But just as a thought exercise, I wanted to go through the process of finding out exactly how to invest in tin.... just in case!

Investing in tin equities

There are no US-based companies with significant exposure to tin. The equities that trade on global markets are predominantly listed in Canada and Australia. Since those markets aren't discussed on Seeking Alpha and are generally risky investments that trade on the US OTC market, I didn't go any further into them at this time. The closest US equity miner listing I could find was the Market Vectors Rare Earth/Strategic Metals ETF (NYSEARCA:REMX). While its top holdings do not include any primary tin miners, the movements of this fund do seem to track with tin prices. Plus, one would get the added benefit of diversification, which is a plus when investing in the volatile sector of mining.

Another way of getting even more direct exposure to the metal is the exchange traded note, iPath Tin ETN (NYSEARCA:JJT). A more diversified base metal ETN is the ELEMENTS Rogers International Commodity Metal ETN (NYSEARCA:RJZ). Other base metal ETFs and ETNs are listed here, but none have as much tin exposure, if any, compared to the Rogers fund. As a reminder about risk, ETNs carry the credit risk of the issuer, which did become material during the 2008 credit crisis.

Tin futures and physical metal

For even more esoteric and possibly riskier ways to invest more directly in tin, futures traders could trade tin on the London Metal Exchange, via futures (where prices were recently US$24,000 per ton). Obviously, futures are risky and potentially illiquid in a market such as tin. You can buy and take delivery of smaller quantities (with a markup, of course) from metal suppliers such as Rotometals (a supplier I have dealt with over the past years a number of times). Finally, I have seen tin ingots for sale on Ebay!


So this initial foray into tin as an investment metal has yielded a few conclusions thus far:

  • There are few ways to get exposure to tin mining in the US markets
  • The most direct exposure is the exchange traded note, JJT
  • Physical markets are available, but not widely

The contrarian in me wonders if the lack of interest in tin means I might be on to something.... a potential future trend. The spike a couple of years ago in the rare earth sector was on my mind as I did this initial research. Successful investing sometimes requires looking in unexpected places for the trends of the future. The nature of the thinly-traded tin market, along with continued global growth, potential global inflation, and the concentration of tin mining in volatile unstable, parts of the world, could create the makings for a base metal bubble.

Thank you for reading, and good luck in your investing endeavors!

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, but may initiate a long position in JJT over the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Stocks: JJT, RJZ, REMX