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Frank Holmes

Frank Holmes

Frank Holmes is CEO and chief investment officer of U.S. Global Investors, Inc., which manages a diversified family of mutual funds and hedge funds specializing…

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Global Cobalt Supply Is In Jeopardy

Phones

Disney’s Black Panther is in theaters right now, breaking all kinds of box office records and wowing audiences. The film features a fictional, highly-advanced African country known as Wakanda, whose vast wealth and prosperity are derived almost exclusively from the mining of a rare, fantastical metal called vibranium.

In its own colorful way, Black Panther does an excellent job dramatizing mining’s important role in supplying the world with much-needed raw materials. Vibranium is the basis for everything in the film, from the title character’s flashy superhero suit, to Wakanda’s otherworldly infrastructure and vehicles, to its futuristic medicine and weaponry.

Like Wakanda, the real Africa is rich in minerals and metals, many of them extremely valuable. Think platinum and palladium in South Africa, diamonds in Botswana, copper in Zambia and cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Unfortunately, many African countries have not been managed as well as the one depicted in the film. Corruption and fiscal instability, coupled with inconsistencies in taxation and mining policies, make operating on the continent challenging for foreign producers, to say the least. Three years ago, I argued that Africa could mine its way to prosperity if only it addressed the hindrances that keep explorers and producers away. I stand by those words today.

Consider Congo, which produces roughly two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, an essential component in lithium-ion batteries. Lawmakers there recently voted to raise taxes and royalties on profits and metals produced. That includes cobalt, whose price has soared 180 percent in the past three years on red hot electric vehicle (EV) demand. The country’s state-owned mining company, Gécamines SA, is also pushing the government to renationalize the entire mining industry.

Admittedly, the fictional Wakanda appears to have a nationalized metals and mining sector. But because the country is so advanced and self-sustaining, it has no need for outside investment. That’s not the case with many real-life African nations, which are literally, in some cases, sitting on a gold mine.

Cobalt Supply Shortage Could Boost Prices Even More

But let’s focus on cobalt for a moment. Global demand for the brittle, bluish-white metal has skyrocketed in recent months, exceeding 100,000 metric tons for the first time last year, according to mining consultant CRU Group. Over the next 10 years, it’s projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.6 percent.

And because around two-thirds of the world’s supply is mined in the highly unstable Congo, a supply shortage is likely brewing. Related: Buffett Bets $28 Billion On Apple Loyalty

“There just isn’t enough cobalt to go around,” George Heppel, a CRU consultant, told Bloomberg in January. “The auto companies that’ll be the most successful in maintaining long-term stability in terms of raw materials will be the ones that purchase the cobalt and then supply that to their battery manufacturers.”

Apple to Buy Cobalt Directly from Miners

Automakers aren’t the only ones with this idea. Bloomberg reported last week that Apple, the world’s largest end user of cobalt, is in talks to buy the metal directly from miners. The move would help the iPhone-maker not only save many billions of dollars in the long term but also be more transparent about how the metal is sourced, as there have been concerns about illegal mining operations and the use of child labor.  

Details are scarce at this point, but Bloomberg writes that “Apple is seeking contracts to secure several thousand metric tons of cobalt a year for five years or longer.”

One of the miners the company is rumored to be speaking with is Switzerland-based Glencore, the 14th largest company in the world by revenue as of 2016, according to the Fortune Global 500. This would make sense, as Glencore—the best-performing London-listed miner last year, finishing up 41 percent—has been positioning itself as the go-to supplier of cobalt and other metals that are used in so-called clean tech, including copper, nickel and zinc.

Glencore Announces $2.9 Billion in Dividends in 2018

Glencore stock jumped more than 5 percent last Wednesday after the company reported phenomenal performance in 2017 that CEO Ivan Glasenberg describes as “our strongest on record.” Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) rose 44 percent year-over year, from $10.3 billion to $14.8 billion, led by higher commodity prices and “enhanced” mining margins.

Sure to make investors happy, the company also declared a distribution of $2.9 billion, or $0.20 per share, to be paid in two installments this year.

The earnings report made no mention of Apple—or smartphones, for that matter—but it did emphasize the high rate of growth in electric vehicle investment, which is expected to greatly benefit cobalt demand.

“Global automaker investments now total more than $90 billion, with at least $19 billion attributed to the U.S., $21 billion to China and $52 billion to Germany,” Glasenberg writes. “Volkswagen alone plans to spend $40 billion by 2030 to build electrified versions of over 300 models.”

Over the next three years, Glencore’s cobalt production growth is projected at 133 percent, followed by nickel at 30 percent and copper at 25 percent.

This year alone, the company believes it will produce as much as 39,000 metric tons of cobalt, up 42 percent from 27,400 tons last year.

By Frank Holmes

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