There is presently a growing panic among molybdenum traders. From our sources, it appears reduced inventories have been overpowered by rushing demand for the silvery-white ‘energy metal. ’ On the day before the Ryan’s Notes metals conference at the New York Athletic Club on Tuesday, our sources told us moly traders are sweating, scrambling to find inventory. One told us, “$50 per pound molybdenum is a heartbeat away. ” This would represent an increase of nearly 50 percent from present pricing.
How did this tightly controlled, somewhat secretive and closed market get out of control?
Record nickel prices are one of the key drivers. Scarce inventory has forced ThyssenKrupp AG, the world’s largest stainless steel manufacturer, to start reducing the company’s use of nickel. Further cuts are being contemplated.
Finnish austenitic provider Outokumpu plans to increase production of ferritic stainless steels. Ferritic steels continue to use molybdenum, but are nickel-free. Outokumpu recently released a low-alloyed duplex stainless steel, trademarked LDX2101, with low nickel content, but balanced with manganese, nitrogen and molybdenum. Allegheny Ludlum began campaigning for greater manganese use earlier this year in stainless steel products.
According to the International Stainless Steel Forum, the fastest growing type of stainless are those grades absent the nickel content, or with lesser nickel in the composition.
In yesterday’s article, we covered the soaring substitution of super-ferritic stainless steels for copper-nickel and austenitic condenser tubes in nuclear reactors, coal-fired power plants and other power plants.
Plymouth Tube general manager Dan Janikowski told us, “This year, at the pace we are going, we will sell more of this tubing than we’ve ever sold before. We are working at a record pace. ” He was referring to the high chromium, low nickel stainless steel tube called UNS #S44660, which contains 3.7 percent molybdenum.
The S44660 tubing is presently used in Lake Maracaibo’s PDVSA collection towers (Venezuela) and in the U. S. government’s Strategic Petroleum reserves for cooling gas and/or crude when utilizing sea or brackish waters.
This week, Janikowski meets with General Electric to discuss plans for reactor condenser tubing for nuclear power plants to be constructed for Entergy and Dominion. Recently, his company won the contractor to supply tubing to China’s Qinshan #2 reactor. He estimated condenser tubing for new power plants can range between 35,000 and 41,000 pounds of molybdenum.
Our research shows there could be more than 1,000 power plants constructed around the world over the next decade. This quantity of molybdenum consumption alone would represent about one year’s of current mining production. China is reportedly constructing between one and two power plants per week.
According to Janikowski and Edward Blessman, technical director of Trent Tube, the major business with respect to the North American power plant market comes from re-tubing worn-out or eroded copper-nickel tubes in the plant’s steam condensers. These come in the form of life extensions for both nuclear and fossil fuel plants. “Two-thirds of our activity is in re-tubing existing plants, ” Blessman told us. “Scarcity of water is driving the re-tubing. ”
New water rules in Nevada, New York, Missouri, Iowa and Arizona have forced power plants to use treated sewage water as cooling water. Utilities can’t get fresh water to use in cooling their plants.
Blessman explained that secondary water, such as waste water, can have elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and chloride. These chemicals punish copper-nickel tubing. The highly corrosive water-environment has driven the replacement for super-ferritic stainless steel tubing. Janikowski and Blessman agreed this trend is expected to accelerate because of lessened water availability.
Nowhere is this scarcity more evident than in the Middle East. They both agreed this region has run out of fresh water and are using sea water or treated waste water in their district cooling and refrigeration.
We spoke with Otto Spork, who had been traveling in Europe. His Toronto-based Sextant Strategic Opportunities Fund was recently ranked the ‘best-performing Canadian fund’ over the past twelve months with 117-percent returns for that period.
Spork, who had been traveling through the Middle East to promote his recently launched Global Water Fund, confirmed there was no surplus fresh water left in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates. He called the situation ‘desperate. ” This has driven more countries in this region to construct more desalination plants – another potential key driver for the molybdenum price.
Another key factor driving the molybdenum demand, according to Blessman, is the growing number of regulations about copper discharges into the environment.
Blessman explained, “Federal limits are one parts per million, which is very easy to meet with copper alloy tubes. ” But he added, “Localized limits, mostly state driven, could be much more stringent. ” Blessman pointed to the 12 parts per billion (ppb) discharge limits recently issued for new permits at three NIPSCo (Northern Indiana Public Service) coal-fired plants which discharge into Lake Michigan. He told us this was reported at the Champaign Electric Utility Chemistry workshop last month. “I know of another plant here in Wisconsin with 45 ppb limits.
What we didn’t realize is the impact of corrosive water on copper-nickel tubing. Janikowski told us, “Condensers weighing 800 thousand pounds at installation weigh about one-half as much because of all the copper discharges over time. ”
These discharges can eventually pose a danger and/or downtime during the power plant’s operation. In a paper Janikowski presented at an industry workshop in 2003, he wrote, “The copper can replate on turbine blades, resulting in loss of efficiency, or on boiler tubes, resulting in premature failures. In some North American regions, high discharge levels have prevented the reuse of copper alloys in power plant heat exchangers. ”
“Copper-nickel isn’t totally out of use, but the high cost and copper release issues have cut into the amount used, ” Blessman told us. “My personal estimate is these are less than 20 percent of the power condenser market these days. ”
Janikowski agrees, “We know of only one new power plant sited or built in the past ten years in North America using copper-nickel tubing. All of the other new plants have chosen stainless steel or titanium. Some existing power plants are still re-tubing with copper-based tubing but this percentage is dropping. ” Because of the high price of titanium and nine-month (or longer) lead times, stainless is outpacing titanium by four to one for such tubing.
The high price of nickel and the far lower price of chromium are driving manufacturers to rely more upon molybdenum for the improved thermal performance required in many power-related applications. The crossover to secondary water for cooling power plants demands a high level of corrosion-resistance not found in many replacement metals. Of course, molybdenum is best-known for its anti-corrosive properties.
Investment Opportunities in Molybdenum Companies
At this time, there are less than a full handful of primary molybdenum producers. The majority of molybdenum production comes as a byproduct of copper mining. A year ago, we forecast the rise of primary molybdenum producers. Shares in companies we began covering a year ago, such as Thompson Creek and expectant producer Roca Mines, have appreciated exponentially.
How much upside is left? This depends more upon the price of molybdenum than any other factors. A year ago, moly companies were kneeling in their prayer boxes, hoping molybdenum would not sink into the teens. Back then, we argued it would go in the opposite direction. Industry forecasts were less sanguine and suggested we were mistaken.
About eleven months ago, we talked with Michael Magyar, the USGS molybdenum commodity specialist about pricing of the metal. He explained, “The molybdenum market usually needs about 10 to 12 weeks of inventory for its comfort level. ” That comes to about 60 to 80 million pounds. “The amount of moly floating around right now, in the hands of producers and traders, might be about 10 million pounds. ” About two weeks of production.
In November 2006, Magyar told us, “There is not enough excess to rebuild inventories. ” Clearly, the moly supply climate got tighter since we began coverage on this space.
In the May 2007 Monthly Stainless Steel Report prepared by Damstahl®, the company forecast that molybdenum ore supply is expected to increase by only 12 percent to 460 million pounds by 2009. The Danish stainless steel manufacturer wrote, “The market will remain tight for some time. ” This compares with a statement one trader made to American Metal Market magazine in late May, “The demand is there but the supply isn’t. ”
On May 29th, the supply got tighter. The recently IPO’ed Sprott Molybdenum Participation Fund announced the purchase of 600,000 pounds of molybdenum. Eric Sprott, who has been promoting his moly fund in the media, has reached legendary status among Canadians for his prescient investing in the uranium sector three years ago. For example, one of Sprott’s favorite uranium companies, Energy Metals Corp, announced on Monday it would be acquired by Uranium One at more than 1000 percent from the level where the fund manager began acquiring the company’s shares.
We believe Sprott will repeat his success in the molybdenum market.
This past week, Sprott told Canada’s Business Television, “Our view is that moly, which at one time touched $40, could have a very good chance of going back there again. ” He believes inventories have been depleted and that demand has already exceeded supply.
One of the molybdenum companies in which Sprott has invested is Roca Mines. We talked with Scott Broughton, chief executive of this company. He agreed with Sprott, “Current demand for concentrates is clearly outpacing supply. ”
Broughton knows this because his company will be mining and milling at the MAX molybdenum deposit in British Columbia this summer. “We have gotten significant, recent interest from Asian and North American buyers, ” he told StockInterview. “Those buyers are both end-users and metals brokers desperately seeking off-take, despite the fact that Roca Mines already committed its production for 2007. ”
Some are not surprised at the molybdenum price’s strong rally over the past year. Adanac Molybdenum Corp’s executive vice chairman Larry Reaugh told us, “I’ve been watching the moly story unfold since our exploration days in the mid 1990s. The usual market demand will be further upwardly affected through new usage created by environment, energy and water requirements in emerging economies in Asia, South America and the Middle East. ”
Reaugh, who follows the sector like a hawk, believes the molybdenum price will eclipse the previous 2005 highs, as early as this summer. (Top-rated fund manager Otto Spork, mentioned earlier in this article, has molybdenum exposure through his fund’s investments in Adanac. )
Pioneering moly commentator Ken Reser is overjoyed with recent developments in the market place, but insists, “Moly prices have a fair ways to climb yet as more new uses and realities of molybdenum demand present themselves. ” Reser, who also serves as a research consultant to Adanac, believes molybdenum could become front page news soon, as we have found in the uranium mining market.
But Reser warns, “Many investors are going to be burned by the rainbow chasers and fly-by-nights. ” We agree because we’ve seen the number of uranium ‘mining’ companies grow from 30 to more than 400, since we began covering this space. Most lack the technical expertise or deposits required to commence mining operations.
Nonetheless, we anticipate this growing interest in molybdenum mining companies will continue to attract herds of investors. In a recent article, we prepared a ‘ratings checklist’ for investors to utilize when evaluating the smaller, and possibly prospective, molybdenum juniors. As a reference case, we reviewed United Bolero, which met our coverage criteria. For other possibilities, one can review StockInterview’s Molybdenum HQ.
COPYRIGHT© 2007 by StockInterview, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
James Finch contributes to StockInterview.com and other publications. His focus on the uranium mining and nuclear fuel sector resulted in the widely popular “Investing in the Great Uranium Bull Market, ” which is now available on http://www.stockinterview.com
StockInterview.com’s Moly HQ can be visited here - http://stockinterview.com/moly-index.html