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Visualizing China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals

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China's rare earth metals exports

China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals

Did you know that a single iPhone contains eight different rare earth metals?

From smartphones and electric vehicles to x-rays and guided-missiles, several modern technologies wouldn’t be what they are without rare earth metals. Also known as rare earth elements or simply “rare earths”, this group of 17 elements is critical to a number of wide-ranging industries.

Although deposits of rare earth metals exist all over the world, the majority of both mining and refining occurs in China. The above graphic from CSIS China Power Project tracks China’s exports of rare earth metals in 2019, providing a glimpse of the country’s dominating presence in the global supply chain.

China’s Top Rare Earth Export Destinations

Around 88% of China’s 2019 rare earth exports went to just five countries, which are among the world’s technological and economic powerhouses.

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Japan and the U.S. are by far the largest importers, collectively accounting for more than two-thirds of China’s rare earth metals exports.

Lanthanum, found in hybrid vehicles and smartphones, was China’s largest rare earth export by volume, followed by cerium. In dollar terms, terbium was the most expensive—generating $57.9 million from just 115 metric tons of exports.

Why China’s Dominance Matters

As the world transitions to a cleaner future, the demand for rare earth metals is expected to nearly double by 2030, and countries are in need of a reliable supply chain.

China’s virtual monopoly in rare earth metals not only gives it a strategic upper hand over heavily dependent countries like the U.S.—which imports 80% of its rare earths from China—but also makes the supply chain anything but reliable.

“China will not rule out using rare earth exports as leverage to deal with the [Trade War] situation.”

—Gao Fengping et al., 2019, in a report funded by the Chinese government via Horizon Advisory.

A case in point comes from 2010 when China reduced its rare earth export quotas by 37%, which in part resulted in skyrocketing rare earth prices worldwide.

average prices of rare earth imports

The resulting supply chain disruption was significant enough to push the EU, the U.S., and Japan to jointly launch a dispute settlement case through the World Trade Organization, which was ruled against China in 2014.

On the brighter side, the increase in prices led to an influx of capital in the rare earth mining industry, financing more than 200 projects outside China. While this exploration boom was short-lived, it was successful in kick-starting production in other parts of the world.

Breaking China’s Rare Earth Monopoly

China’s dominance in rare earths is the result of years of evolving industrial policies since the 1980s, ranging from tax rebates to export restrictions. In order to reduce dependence on China, the U.S. and Japan have made it a priority to diversify their sources of rare earth metals.

For starters, the U.S. has added rare earth metals to its list of critical minerals, and President Donald Trump recently issued an executive order to encourage local production. On the other side of the world, Japan is making efforts to reduce China’s share of its total rare earth imports to less than 50% by 2025.

Increasing rare earth mining outside of China has reduced China’s global share of mining, down from 97.7% in 2010 to 62.9% in 2019. But mining is merely one piece of the puzzle.

Ultimately, the large majority of rare earth refining, 80%, resides in China. Therefore, even rare earths mined overseas are sent to China for final processing. New North American refining facilities are being set up to tackle this, but the challenge lies in managing the environmental impacts of processing rare earths.

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Technology Metals

Rare Earth Metals Production is No Longer Monopolized by China

Rare earth metals are critical to several modern technologies. See how rare earth production has changed over time in this chart.

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rare earth metals production over time

Rare Earth Elements: The Technology Metals

In the midst of our daily hustle and bustle, we often don’t notice the raw materials that go into the technologies we rely on.

Rare earth metals, also known as rare earth elements or simply “rare earths”, are one such group of raw materials. From this group of 17 minerals, many are found in a range of technologies—from our smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Rare Earth Metals Production Over the Years

Despite the relative abundance of rare earth deposits, extracting them from the ground is difficult, and preparing them for usage entails significant environmental risks.

The U.S. was the world’s leading producer of rare earth metals from the 1960s to the 1980s. However, China took the helm in the 1990s and has been the dominant producer ever since.

YearU.S. Production (metric tons)China’s Production (metric tons)ROW Production (metric tons)U.S. % ShareChina’s % Share
198513,4288,50017,75734%21%
199022,71316,48020,91738%27%
199522,20048,0009,70028%60%
20005,00073,0005,5006%87%
20050119,0003,0000%98%
20100120,00011,0000%92%
20155,900105,00019,1005%81%
202038,000140,00062,00016%58%

In 1985, China introduced a policy that partially refunded the taxes paid by domestic producers of rare earths, which lowered costs for Chinese mining companies. This, in addition to lax environmental regulations and cheap labor, made China’s rare earth industry increasingly competitive. In fact, its production increased 464% between 1985 and 1995.

Meanwhile, in California, the Mountain Pass Mine struggled to compete with Chinese producers while facing stringent environmental regulations. Therefore, the U.S. share of production declined from 34% in 1985 to 6% in 2000 before ceasing completely in 2002.

Putting Rare Earths in Different Baskets

In 2010, China slashed its rare earth export quotas by 37%, pushing rare earth prices to all-time highs. This, in turn, fueled an influx of capital into the rare earth mining industry and kickstarted mining in other countries.

Namely, Australia saw a 672% increase in rare earth production over the last decade, and more recently, Myanmar entered the mix—producing 30,000 metric tons of rare earths in 2020. Additionally, the Mountain Pass Mine is undergoing a revival following an investment from MP Materials in 2018. As a result, the U.S. share of production is growing again.

While the mining of rare earth metals is diversifying, 80% of refining still occurs in China. With the demand for rare earths projected to double by 2030, building both mining and refining capacity overseas may prove key in reducing reliance on China.

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Real Assets

Visualizing the Life Cycle of a Mineral Discovery

Building a mine takes time that poses risks at every stage. This graphic maps a mineral deposit from discovery to mining, showing where value is created.

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Visualizing the Life Cycle of a Mineral Discovery

Mining legend Pierre Lassonde knows a little bit about mineral exploration, discovery, and development. Drawing from decades of his experience, he created the chart above that has become a staple in the mining industry—the Lassonde Curve.

Today’s chart of the Lassonde Curve outlines the life of mining companies from exploration to production, and highlights the work and market value associated with each stage. This helps speculative investors understand the mining process, and time their investments properly.

Making Cents of Miners: The Stages of a Mineral Discovery

In the life cycle of a mineral deposit, there are seven stages that each offer specific risks and rewards. As a company proves there is a mineable deposit in the ground, more value is created for shareholders along the way.

  1. Concept

    This stage carries the most risk which accounts for its low value. In the beginning, there is little knowledge of what actually lies beneath the Earth’s surface.

    At this stage, geologists are putting to the test a theory about where metal deposits are. They will survey the land using geochemical and sampling techniques to improve the confidence of this theory. Once this is complete, they can move onto more extensive exploration.

  2. Pre-Discovery

    There is still plenty of risk, but this is where speculation hype begins. As the drill bit meets the ground, mineral exploration geologists develop their knowledge of what lies beneath the Earth’s crust to assess mineral potential.

    Mineral exploration involves retrieving a cross-section (drill core) of the crust, and then analyzing it for mineral content. A drill core containing sufficient amounts of metals can encourage further exploration, which may lead to the discovery of a mineable deposit.

  3. Discovery

    Discovery is the reward stage for early speculators. Exploration has revealed that there is a significant amount of material to be mined, and it warrants further study to prove that mining would be feasible. Most speculators exit here, as the next stage creates a new set of risks, such as profitability, construction, and financing.

  4. Feasibility

    This is an important milestone for a mineral discovery. Studies conducted during this stage may demonstrate the deposit’s potential to become a profitable mine.

    Institutional and strategic investors can then use these studies to evaluate whether they want to advance this project. Speculators often invest during this time, known as the “Orphan Period”, while uncertainty about the project lingers.

  5. Development

    Development is a rare moment, and most mineral deposits never make it to this stage. At this point, the company puts together a production plan for the mine.

    First, they must secure funding and build an operational team. If a company can secure funding for development, investors can see the potential of revenue from mining. However, risks still persist in the form of construction, budget, and timelines.

  6. Startup/Production

    Investors who have held their investment until this point can pat themselves on the back—this is a rare moment for a mineral discovery. The company is now processing ore and generating revenue.

    Investment analysts will re-rate this deposit, to help it attract more attention from institutional investors and the general public. Meanwhile, existing investors can choose to exit here or wait for potential increases in revenues and dividends.

  7. Depletion

    Nothing lasts forever, especially scarce mineral resources. Unless, there are more deposits nearby, most mines are eventually depleted. With it, so does the value of the company. Investors should be looking for an exit as operations wind down.

Case Study: The Oyu Tolgoi Copper-Gold Discovery, Mongolia

So now that you know the theoretical value cycle of a mineral discovery, how does it pan out in reality? The Oyu Tolgoi copper deposit is one recent discovery that has gone through this value cycle. It exemplifies some of these events and their effects on the share price of a company.

    1. Concept: 15+ Years

      Prospectors conducted early exploration work in the 1980s near where Oyu Tolgoi would be discovered. It was not until 1996 that Australian miner BHP conducted further exploration.

      But after 21 drill holes, the company lost interest and optioned the property to mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland and his company Ivanhoe Mines. At this point in 1999, shares in Ivanhoe were a gamble.

    2. Pre-Discovery/Discovery: ~3 years

      Ivanhoe Mines and BHP entered into an earn-in agreement, in which Ivanhoe gained ownership by completing work to explore Oyu Tolgoi. A year later, the first drill results came out of drill hole 150 with a headline result of 508 meters of 1.1 g/t Au and 0.8%. To get a sense of how large this is, imagine the height a 45-story building, of which a third of story is copper. This was just one intersection of an area that could stretch for miles.

      Wild speculation began at this stage, as steadily improving drill results proved a massive copper-gold deposit in Mongolia and drove up the share price of Ivanhoe.

    3. Feasibility/Orphan Period: ~2 years

      In 2004, the drilling results contributed to the development of the first scoping study. This study offered a preliminary understanding of the project’s economics.

      Using this study, the company needed to secure enough money to build a mine to extract the valuable ore. It was not until two years later, when Ivanhoe Mines entered into an agreement with major mining company Rio Tinto, that a production decision was finalized.

    4. Development: 7 years

      By 2006, the Oyu Tolgoi mineral deposit was in the development phase with the first shaft headframe, hoisting frame, and associated infrastructure completed. It took another two years for the shaft to reach a depth of 1,385 feet.

      Further development work delineated a resource of 1.2 billion pounds of copper, 650,000 ounces of gold, and 3 million ounces of silver. This first stage of development for Oyu Tolgoi made Mongolia the world’s fastest growing economy from 2009 to 2011.

    5. Startup/Production: Ongoing

      On January 31, 2013, the company announced it had produced the first copper-gold concentrate from Oyu Tolgoi. Six months later, the company stated that it was processing up to 70,000 tonnes of ore daily.

    6. Depletion: Into the Future

      The Oyu Tolgoi deposit will last generations, so we have yet to see how this will affect the value of the mine from an investment perspective.

      It’s also worth noting there are still other risks ahead. These risks can include labor disruptions, mining method problems, or commodity price movement. Investors will have to consider these additional conditions as they pan out.

The More You Know

Mining is one of the riskiest investments with many risks to consider at every stage.

While most mineral discoveries do not match it perfectly, the Lassonde Curve guides an investor through what to expect at each stage, and empowers them to time their investments right.

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