* Dozens of non-Chinese companies seek to fill supply void
* Most won't survive expected industry shakeup - analysts
* Industry valuations remind observers of dot-com era
* Survival may depend on having right mix of rare earths
* Rare earth value in downstream processing, not mining
(In U.S. dollars unless noted)
By Julie Gordon
TORONTO, Nov 8 Rows of moss-covered concrete
bricks block the opening of the Monmouth rare earth mine in
Canada, keeping curious hikers from entering the long-abandoned
From the early 1940s to the late 1970s, a now-defunct
company called Amalgamated Rare Earth Mines explored the site
for uranium and a then-obscure cluster of 17 elements known as
The mine, 340 km (215 miles) north of Toronto, never went
into commercial production and by the early 1980s the company
abandoned the project, scared off by an aggressive Chinese
campaign to corner the rare earth market.
Two decades after the Monmouth mine shut, China accounts
for 97 percent of the world's rare earth ore production,
empowering Beijing in a way that was unimaginable in the
Rare earths have become crucial components for some of the
world's consumer and industrial icons: the Toyota Prius,
General Electric wind turbines, the Apple iPhone and hundreds
of other devices.
Until recently, the global dependency on China for rare
earths was a well-kept secret. But word started to spread fast
after Beijing cut export quotas by 70 percent for the second
half of 2010, sending prices of some oxides -- the purified
form of rare earth elements -- up as much as 850 percent. The
need for alternative supplies from outside China suddenly
Dozens of companies all around the world are now aiming to
fill the coming void in supplies, and investors have poured
billions of dollars into their projects.
Rare Element Resources RES.V, which owns a promising rare
earth deposit in the U.S. state of Wyoming, is a good example.
Its shares have risen almost 400 percent in less than 90 days,
and over 2,000 percent since April 2009. In that time, the
495,000 shares belonging to one director have jumped in value
to more than C$5.4 million ($5.4 million) from C$247,500.
But the bricks that seal the entrance to Amalgamated's
long-abandoned Canadian mine should serve as a cautionary tale
to rare earth investors.
Current Chinese policies, which are driving up prices of
oxides as well as company share prices, could shift, leading to
a big industry shakeout. Holdings worth millions of dollars
could turn worthless overnight, leaving burned investors with a
painful sense of deja vu.
"There's a dot-com aspect to a few of these mines," said
Christopher Ecclestone, a strategist with Hallgarten and Co in
New York. "These stocks are going up because the products are
going up in price, but none of these companies have any
products to sell."
The common refrain in interviews with industry executives,
analysts and mineral experts is that only about a half dozen
non-Chinese producers will emerge from the rubble.
"Some of these stocks will be found to be nothing more than
a pile of dirt," Ecclestone said. "And it's not because the
product isn't there; it's just going to be that they're never
going to be developed."
While the odds of emerging as a successful producer are
long, the winners are likely to be those with the right mix of
specific rare earths in their deposits, the downstream
processing know-how and the contacts to make it in a demanding
With literally hundreds of exploration companies and junior
miners to chose from, the challenge for investors is separating
the real players from the pretenders playing the rare earth
buzz to make a quick profit on the stock market.
The speculative nature of rare earth stocks, coupled with
the intense investor demand to own them, has prompted fund
manager Van Eck Global to launch an exchange-traded fund
focused on rare earths and minor metals.
But even the buffer of trading a group of rare earth miners
instead of just one doesn't guarantee a safe ride for
"Everybody's standing up, waving the flag, and shrieking
it's rare earths, because that pushes the valuation up," said
Byron Capital Market analyst Jon Hykawy. "When the Chinese
change their quota system, we will see the bubble rupture."
For more rare earth content: [ID:nSGE69S09C]
Insider on rare earth: link.reuters.com/waf24q
Insider on valuations: link.reuters.com/rec44q
Insider on Molycorp CEO link.reuters.com/nyv42q
Insider on China control link.reuters.com/gyk39p
Insider on Lynas link.reuters.com/jyw62q
Insider on smuggling link.reuters.com/huc44q
That bubble, which has seen the average share price of the
top juniors in the sector rise 145 percent in six months, is
one of the main risks facing investors.
Even BlackRock (BLK.N), the world's largest money manager,
says the "jury is still out" when it comes to the long-term
investment potential for rare earth mines outside China.
"The ability to bring on production quickly in the
higher-price environment means that the longer-term
sustainability of those prices are questionable," Catherine
Raw, a fund manager in BlackRock's natural-resources division,
Regardless of the red flags, analysts and industry
observers agree that more suppliers are needed, no matter what
policy China pursues.
"Whether the Chinese are restricting supply or not, there's
going to be a need for new deposits," said Ecclestone. "The
Chinese do not have a boundless supply of rare earths."
If new supplies of rare earths do not come online within
the next 10 years, a global shortage would likely develop with
far-reaching consequences: wind turbines will not be built,
electric vehicle production will grind to a halt, and mobile
phones would have to triple in size.
The issue even carries national security implications
because of the rare earth content in many advanced military
weapons, not to mention the economic threat that shortages
would present. The problem is, getting new sources of supply
into production is not that easy.