Chris Berry identifies commodity companies with the disruptive advantage

Globetrotting Chris Berry, founder of House Mountain Partners, finds most retail and institutional investors sitting on the sidelines waiting to see where the energy sector is headed before jumping back into the game. Game-changing disruptive technologies or sustainable end-user agreements are what companies need to succeed and he shares some likely names in the cobalt, lithium, nickel, graphite—even uranium—spaces in this interview with The Mining Report.

The Mining Report: Chris, on your travels, what are you seeing in Europe and Asia regarding supply and demand in the commodity markets?

Chris Berry: Sentiment varies depending on location. In Hong Kong the institutional community is generally optimistic and really favored gold, nickel, and aluminum heading into 2015, with a more bearish stance on coal and iron ore. While there are serious structural headwinds facing the global economy including the threat of deflation and a slowing China, the general consensus was that we're at the bottom of the cycle.

In Germany and Switzerland, the outlook is much more somber. In Germany, the call for higher gold prices based on market manipulation was in full force as it perpetually seems to be. The failure of gold to increase in price in the wake of the end of quantitative easing in the U.S. and the almost immediate continuation on the part of the Bank of Japan has many people scratching their heads. Clearly, the lack of inflationary pressure has stunted gains in gold or gold shares.

Switzerland was an interesting place to be, as I was there two weeks before the referendum voting on whether or not the Swiss National Bank would be required to hold 20% of its reserves in gold. Most people I asked had no opinion or didn't think the referendum would pass, but the fact that over 75% of voters voted against it was a real surprise. That the Swiss would rather have their national bank hold fiat currency in reserve rather than gold says a great deal about how gold is viewed in the financial markets these days.

My message to the institutional groups I spoke with was simple: If all you do is turn on the TV and listen to commentators rail about the falling price of gold and oil and you think that all commodities are faring the same, you're going to miss out on a host of opportunities. Not all commodities are in trouble. The outlook for lithium, cobalt or aluminum, for example, is positive, and this is where I see a number of opportunities going forward.

TMR: What is the collective opinion on the price of oil and what roles are Russia, OPEC and the U.S. playing in the era of fracking?

CB: With the price of a barrel of oil down close to 50% this year from its highs, I think everyone is in a collective state of shock. Fracking in the U.S. has led to a glut of oil on global markets. That and soft global aggregate demand are the primary forces responsible for the collapse in the oil market. The implications are positive or negative depending on which side of the investing coin you're on.

Consumers in the U.S. will presumably benefit as low oil prices give them a giant tax cut. What they choose to do with this—pay bills or spend on goods—is another story. I filled up my car yesterday for just $38. I cannot remember the last time I did that for less than $50.

Ultimately, low oil prices could end up hurting the mining industry in the near term as cheaper energy encourages increased production into many oversupplied markets. This remains to be seen, however.

TMR: What is your prediction for the price of oil going into 2015?

CB: It's not my area of expertise but it seems that the price of oil will continue to fall and may not bottom until mid-2015. In June 2014, West Texas Intermediate oil (WTI) was $108/barrel ($108/bbl). Today it's near $56/bbl. Wells that are currently producing oil can continue to do so until they run dry, as the costs are largely sunk. We're likely looking at another six months of oil prices in the current range.

Longer term, my sense is that the equilibrium price for WTI crude oil will be $70–80/bbl. That level still hurts a number of OPEC members and Russia; they need a higher oil price to balance their budgets. It would appear that OPEC is backed into a corner and will continue to suffer regardless of the final new equilibrium for oil prices.

In the U.S., we're reading a lot about how the fracking industry is exposed to high-yield debt. The Saudi Arabians know this and it's one of the main reasons they won't allow OPEC to cut production to support the price of oil. The goal is to push the marginal players in the U.S. shale industry out of business.

TMR: With such low prices, are energy investors doubling down and investing in companies while they're at their historic lows or are they waiting to see what comes next?

CB: Almost universally, in both the institutional and retail sectors, energy investors are waiting and are pursuing higher returns elsewhere. This is a classic falling knife scenario where many commodities have fallen hard consistently and nobody wants to be the first person back in the market for fear of incurring additional losses. It seems that this is a market where you find out if you're a true contrarian or not.

Instances like this strengthen my belief that deflation, rather than inflation, is the more pressing economic issue to tackle.

TMR: Let's talk about some of those other commodities. You've written a lot about the impact of increasing battery demand on commodities. What's your outlook for lithium?

CB: Lithium is one of my top picks going forward. Despite the large amount of press lithium receives, it really is a small industry. The combined market capitalization of all lithium mining companies I'm tracking amounts to about US$18 billion (US$18B). When you strip out the established lithium producers, that market cap number plummets to about $550 million ($550M). For the sake of comparison, Apple, a major lithium-ion battery customer, has a market cap of $653B, over 36 times larger than the entire lithium industry.

Currently, just about all metals are suffering from excess capacity that built up during the first leg of the commodity super cycle between 2002 and 2011. Lithium is no exception. That said, there are two primary reasons I'm optimistic about lithium in the coming years.

First, overall demand for lithium is growing at about 8% annually. I can't think of another metal I'm tracking with that same growth trajectory. Compare that to global GDP growth at about 3%. Even if lithium demand falls to 6%, it's still growing at double global GDP. This provides some insulation.

Second, lithium has multiple avenues of demand. "Current day" uses include ceramics or pharmaceuticals. The next generation of use is the battery business, which is growing at healthy double digit rates. Vehicle electrification and energy storage are key drivers for lithium going forward. Almost any major auto manufacturer is either producing or working on some sort of a vehicle with an electric drive train, and with so much R&D funding focused on building more powerful and cheaper lithium-ion batteries, I'm confident that breakthroughs with energy density can occur, but will take time to be commercialized.

I'm paying particular attention to how companies like Panasonic, LG Chem, or Sumitomo are positioning themselves in the industry.

TMR: Which lithium companies could be ready to go by the time demand picks up?

CB: Lithium Americas Corp. (LAC:TSX; LHMAF:OTCQX) is a unique story with an advantage in its partnership with POSCO (PKX:NYSE), one of the largest steel producers in the world. POSCO has partnered with Lithium Americas at its Cauchari-Olaroz salar in Argentina to implement technology that POSCO has patented. The technology allows for lithium from brines to be produced at a much faster rate than is traditionally possible. Right now, it can take 18 months to produce lithium from brines and you have to contend with adverse weather and chemistry-related issues. POSCO, albeit on a small scale, has reportedly been able to reduce that production time to one month.

Second, POSCO's process shrinks the environmental footprint of a brine operation and increases the recovery rate. This should lower capital and operating expenditures, making lithium from brines an increasingly attractive option. This is exactly the type of transformative or disruptive technology I think the mining industry needs to embrace to survive and thrive in the current structural downturn. The lowest-cost producer always wins, and Lithium Americas, with this partnership, has the opportunity to do just that.

The pilot plant was just inaugurated last week and is positioned to produce several hundred tonnes of lithium per year, so we should know more details soon. 2015 will be a key year for Lithium Americas.

TMR: When will Lithium Americas be in production?

CB: I think production is still a few years down the road. While lithium demand is healthy, I don't expect it to really ramp until 2017 at the earliest, so the companies that are positioning themselves now should be able to ride the ensuing tailwind.

TMR: What other lithium projects should we be following?

CB: Nemaska Lithium Inc. (NMX:TSX.V; NMKEF:OTCQX) is a hard-rock project in Québec I'm monitoring. The company is focusing on the lithium hydroxide market and less on the lithium carbonate market due to favorable economics. Additionally, with the majority of lithium hydroxide being produced in China, the ability to offer a secure source of battery-grade material to the automotive industry is a key advantage Nemaska is looking to obtain.

As with Lithium Americas, 2015 is a pivotal year for Nemaska. The company is aiming to construct a small-scale pilot plant with the capacity for 500 tonnes per year (500 tpa) each of lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide. The total cost is estimated at $38M and the company is currently working on arranging the financing. The goal is to prove to larger potential offtake partners that its process works and can produce a lithium product that can be scaled into existing supply chains.

At full production (slated by 2017), the company hopes to produce 28,000 tpa of lithium hydroxide and 3,250 tpa of lithium carbonate. This is an aggressive goal, but I think this diversification of end products is a wise move and offers the company optionality in its product mix. We know a great deal about the potential economics of Nemaska's production plans and 2015 will be the year that the company starts to solidify them.

TMR: You also need cobalt to make batteries. What is its supply and demand picture?

CB: If there is a pain point where the grandiose plans for North America-based lithium-ion battery supply chains could come unraveled, it would be with cobalt procurement. Battery chemistries can differ but cobalt is typically the most expensive raw material or component in the batteries. It also originates from challenging investment locales such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or Russia, with much of the refining taking place in China. The cobalt price on the London Metals Exchange is up about 8% in 2014, in stark contrast to just about all other metals, indicating that demand is healthy. The overall demand picture looks reasonably strong, with a 6–7% annual growth rate, primarily coming from the battery and aerospace industries.

The challenge with cobalt is the lack of near-term production stories in reliable geopolitical jurisdictions. End users trying to find sustainable, secure sources of cobalt have a real problem. I'm not sure what the answer is, but it's a real potential flashpoint for the supply chains.

TMR: Are you watching any companies that could eventually fulfill demand for cobalt?

CB: Typically, the cobalt business has been dominated by larger companies such as Glencore International Plc (GLEN:LSE) or Sumitomo Corp.

In the junior space, Global Cobalt Corp. (GCO:TSX.V) and Fortune Minerals Ltd. (FT:TSX) stand out as long-term opportunities. Global Cobalt is currently at work on producing an NI 43-101 resource on its newly acquired Werner Lake cobalt project in Ontario. This is a past-producing asset with a great deal of historical data already available. It's too early to speculate on production possibilities, but the fact that the company is working to derisk a North American supply of cobalt should be of interest to investors focused on strategic metals.

Fortune Minerals has recently begun operation of the Revenue silver mine in Colorado, but is also pushing forward with development of its NICO project in the Northwest Territories. This project includes, copper, gold, bismuth and cobalt and the company's current focus includes establishing offtake partners to help with project financing.

TMR: What about nickel and graphite?

CB: Nickel has been hogging the headlines lately and rightfully so.

A lot of the interest in nickel was due to the Indonesian government's actions shutting off exports of raw nickel ore. The goal of the government is to build its domestic supply chains and export higher-value products. I think the real keys to watch regarding nickel in 2015 are the inventory levels on the London Metals Exchange (LME), nickel production in the Philippines, and also nickel stocks in China.

As for graphite, it has a different story. Of the metals and minerals I cover, graphite is among the most difficult to reliably forecast. The market is incredibly fragmented and there are dozens of end products, making an overall forecast challenging, to say the least. China's relative dominance in the market is another factor adding a layer of opacity to the supply and demand picture.

A main difference between graphite and other metals and minerals is that graphite has a substitute in synthetic graphite. This product is also already integrated into global supply chains. Even though synthetic graphite is more expensive to produce than natural graphite, end users know exactly how it will fit into their supply chains.

Substituting natural graphite for synthetic is a sizable risk. That said, with so many potential uses for graphite being discovered in labs, the future for graphite, both synthetic and natural, remains positive. I think the optimal junior mining graphite opportunities going forward will be those that have worked to establish their own supply chains, such as Focus Graphite Inc. (FMS:TSX.V; FCSMF:OTCQX; FKC:FSE), or have established patented production technologies, as Northern Graphite Corporation (NGC:TSX.V; NGPHF:OTCQX) has. In an era of excess supply and muted demand, increased productivity is crucial for sustainability.

TMR: What other commodities are playing disruptive roles right now?

CB: It's less about the commodities and more about which companies are employing unique technologies to reduce costs and compete in oligopolistic markets with high barriers to entry. An example is the titanium dioxide market, which is currently well-supplied. Titanium dioxide is a $15B per year market and is mainly used in the paint business. Recent production figures peg the size of the market at 5 million tons. It's dominated by the Chinese and by companies like DuPont.

Argex Titanium Inc. (RGX:TSX.V) is more of a chemical production story than a mining story. Argex, through ownership of a patented technology, has the capability to produce high-purity titanium dioxide from ilmenite waste. The company has been producing product on a pilot scale since 2012 and has proven that its costs are competitive with the major players in the industry.

Given that the company wants to start small with 50,000 tpa of production, with its low cost profile, I think it can survive and thrive. The key will be the ability to deploy the production technology and scale it up as demand warrants. Argex can produce a product that the market needs and at a cost that is competitive with the lowest cost producers in the world.

TMR: How soon could Argex be in production?

CB: This is dependent upon successful financing and build out of its first production plant in Quebec. Management needs to raise about $300M and this is its main focus. My guess is that Argex could be in production by 2016–2017, subject to a successful financing.

TMR: Like Argex, rare earths (REEs) often come down to the processing. You've talked about the long-term picture for REEs outside of China. What companies are you watching there?

CB: I'm focused on four companies: Tasman Metals Ltd. (TSM:TSX.V; TAS:NYSE.MKT; TASXF:OTCPK; T61:FSE)Commerce Resources Corp. (CCE:TSX.V; D7H:FSE; CMRZF:OTCQX)Namibia Rare Earths Inc. (NRE:TSX, NMREF:OTCQX) and Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (UCU:TSX.V; UURAF:OTCQX).

TMR: Commerce just released its metallurgy report for the Ashram deposit. Did that show you that it could actually make an economic product?

CB: That was one of the takeaways, yes. But when you talk about Commerce, you need to think about the optionality inherent in its business model. Commerce really is both an REE play and a tantalum/niobium play. Based on initial economics, individually, both are valuable and highly strategic assets.

We also know a lot about the mineralogy with a majority of the Ashram REE deposit hosted in monazite. This is an underappreciated positive as commercial quantities of REEs have been produced from monazite (as well as bastnasite and xenotime) in the past.

Another point concerns Commerce's ability to raise money in a really terrible market for juniors—specifically REE plays. Commerce has raised close to $11M in 2014. While some may decry the dilution, these funds allow the company to push forward with its plans while many other juniors are struggling to survive.

TMR: Namibia released its PEA for the Lofdal project. What do you think of it?

CB: It was a very positive step forward. The major host mineral is xenotime, which I mentioned above has been proven to lend itself to commercial REE production. The PEA gives us a baseline to measure Lofdal relative to other projects. At $162M, the capex is extremely manageable and, just as important, the value of the concentrate the company aims to produce is heavily slanted toward the most critical REEs, including dysprosium and terbium. Namibia Rare Earths is a good example of a critical metals story that slowly continues to derisk itself and impress in the process. When sentiment in the space turns, it will be well positioned.

TMR: Ucore just released its heavy rare earth (HREE) concentrate. Did the market like that news?

CB: The market didn't really react and I think it was a positive step for the company. The use of the Molecular Recognition Technology (MRT) to produce a high purity HREE concentrate opens up the possibility for the company to now focus on establishing end-user relationships. These results really set Ucore apart from much of the pack in the REE space.

Overall, I consider REEs to be a 2019 story. By that I mean it will be 2019 before any realistic supply chain is constructed outside of China, and China will likely still play a significant role in the market. That said, it is the junior space that will provide the foundation for future supply chains and that's where I see the most opportunity going forward. I think you can use REE prices as a signal for where the market is going. Prices have collapsed and seem to still be under pressure. It appears that we've bottomed right now, but I haven't seen a sustained upturn, even in the face of a magnet business that's growing at 10% per year and requires a host of rare earths.

TMR: Let's move on to the last commodity, uranium. Rick Rule calls it one of the most hated materials and therefore one of his favorite investments. What role does uranium play in the changing energy landscape and which companies could capitalize on that?

CB: Uranium is definitely hated. It's still my top contrarian pick. It's indispensable in our global energy nexus. Nuclear energy supplies about 20% of global electricity today, and will arguably provide about 20% into the future as the overall size of the energy "pie" grows. Nuclear infrastructure is in place and, of course, growing in countries like China and a lot of R&D is underway to make nuclear power safer and more effective.

It's been encouraging to see the uranium price increase this year. It was up about 50% off its lows this year, although it has backed off some.

Again, the key is finding the lowest-cost near-term producers. I am still tracking Uranerz Energy Corp. (URZ:TSX; URZ:NYSE.MKT), as an example. The company recently achieved commercial production from its in situ projects in Wyoming and is one of the few companies that can operate in the current low uranium price environment.

With a great deal of uranium production not economic at current prices and the long-awaited restart of Japanese reactors looming, finding low-cost production stories is the most realistic way to play the uranium market. Exploration isn't getting rewarded, so I would argue that the greatest leverage can be had by finding near-term production stories. I don't think you'll see new supply incentivized until uranium reaches $70 per pound.

TMR: Any final advice for taking advantage of disruptive technologies looking forward?

CB: One of the more powerful lessons I've learned in investing is that when you hear people say, "This time it's different," remember that it's never different. Disruption and innovation are certainly clichés, but given that we are dealing not only with cyclical challenges but structural challenges as well, including excess capacity, structural challenges can be mitigated through applying technology that can lower costs in a mining operation. Structural challenges take much longer to work through before we can begin a new commodity cycle.

Technologies, relationships and intangibles like those I described above can help companies achieve low production costs.

I think energy metals are set to outperform during the next metals cycle as technology and higher living standards converge to demand a sustainable path of growth going forward.

TMR: Chris, thank you for your time and your insights.

Chris Berry is a well-known writer, speaker and analyst. He focuses much of his time on energy metals—those metals or minerals used in the generation or storage of energy. He is a student of the theory of Convergence emanating from the Emerging World and believes it will have profound effects across the globe in the coming years. Active on the speaking circuit throughout the world and frequently quoted in the press, Berry spent 15 years working across various roles in sales and brokerage on Wall Street before shifting focus and taking control of his financial destiny. He is the co-author of The Disruptive Discoveries Journal. Berry holds a Master of Business Administration in finance with an international focus from Fordham University, and a Bachelor of Art in International Studies from The Virginia Military Institute.

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 Source: JT Long of The Mining Report  

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1) JT Long conducted this interview for Streetwise Reports LLC, publisher of The Gold Report, The Energy Report, The Life Sciences Report and The Mining Report, and provides services to Streetwise Reports as an employee. She owns, or her family owns, shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of Streetwise Reports: Nemaska Lithium Inc., Commerce Resource Corp., Focus Graphite Inc., Namibia Rare Earths Inc. and Uranerz Energy Corp. The companies mentioned in this interview were not involved in any aspect of the interview preparation or post-interview editing so the expert could speak independently about the sector. Streetwise Reports does not accept stock in exchange for its services.
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