Does the rare earths market lie?

There is a lot of press about the scarcity of rare earths, but what is the market saying, and does it really lie? Compare these three points of view. First, America (and by the way MolyCorp is the only rare earths company in the U.S.):
“The pricing of the rare earths doesn’t make sense — they’ve been way too low for way too long,” grumbled John Benfield, the square-jawed senior chemical engineer at the [currently non-operational] Mountain Pass mine.
Then China:
Low prices for rare earth elements from China contributed to cuts at the Mountain Pass mine before it closed in 2002. They also discouraged most entrants to the industry until the last two years, when prices began to climb because of strong demand.
Then financial investors:
The Kaiser Bottom-Fish Online Index of share prices of rare earth companies soared eightfold last year, and has kept most of its gains. That has encouraged worries about a possible bubble.

“Most of them will get nice share prices for a while and then what goes up, comes down,” said Judith Chegwidden, a managing director and longtime rare earth specialist at Roskill Consulting Group in London.
I recognize that mines like these have long lead times, but when financial investors are worried about a bubble and prices are still not high enough to make American production viable, the worries start sounding to me more like supply chain security concerns (particularly for sensitive applications like defense) than commercial concerns about an aggregate supply shortfall. Also, if the rare elements are extremely valuable in minute quantities, they would be much easier to store than oil, for example (in which large-scale physical speculation has recently occurred), so why aren't savvy investors or countries doing this already?

While I'm critiquing, I also don’t really agree with this analysis:
With each start-up typically raising $10 million to $30 million and signing up one or two long-term customers, the ventures are fragmenting the market’s search for reliable supply sources beyond China. A result could be that few mines actually open outside China, which would remain the dominant supplier.

“The customers and the industry are not being discerning enough, and we’re going to end up with 70 rare earth companies employing geologists and rare earth directors and no more than five new mines by 2020,” predicted Dudley J. Kingsnorth, the best-known consultant in the industry and an adviser to some of the start-ups.
I would characterize that not as fragmentation, but as “competition”, which is generally believed to have positive effects in bringing supply to market in an economically efficient way, and without conceding rents to dominant suppliers.

Some other fascinating tidbits are that Molycorp was owned by Unocal when CNOOC made its famous and ultimately unsuccessful bid (farsightedness only now detected?), and its currently owned by a PE consortium, of which Goldman was a member but has recently sold its participation.


  1. Most of your assumptions are incorrect.

    Mostly you don't understand that the issue is not in finding Rare Earths ores but in processing them. The cost of a processing plant is $40 per Kg per year. Lynas is currently building a $400M+ plant which will process 11000t per year or 7% of the market.
    Since the entire RE market is 1.5B, not many plants can be built, hence most mines will disappear.
    Furthermore 70% of the cost of a finished Oxide is in the processing so the ore is not that valuable.

    Many companies in this space have indeed seen an 8 fold rise but most have retraced by over 50%, so a lot of money has already been made and lost.

    Storing RE is extremely costly, you can't just pile them in the wharehouse.

    Should do better research before you write about something you know very little of.


  2. Giorgio – thanks for your comment. The nature of this blog is that I will sometimes write about things I know very little of in an attempt to understand them better, and hopefully more knowledgeable commenters like yourself will correct me where I’m wrong, which I appreciate.

    It’s not clear to me from your comment what your position is on the most important issue – do you worry about a catastrophic shortage of rare earth metals outside of China, or not?

    If the bottleneck is really processing and there is plenty of primary ore, I feel less worried, because unlike mining ore you could build a processing plant pretty much anywhere, right?