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China controls 97 percent of the world's rare earth metals. It is cutting its exports to increase profits and stockpile resources.  (Source: Sun Bin)

Sony says that the cuts may eventually force it to raise the price of its electronics. Other Korean and Japanese electronics giants have made similar statements.  (Source: Mynjayz)

EVs like the Chevy Volt, and hybrid vehicles might also see price increases and shortages as China cuts off rare earth exports.  (Source: Car Buyers Notebook)

The shortages will also hurt the wind and solar power industries, which depend heavily on the rare earth metals.  (Source: Wind Power)
Meanwhile nation pockets big profits and builds up its own growing economic juggernaut

They sound like something from a mad scientist's laboratory -- Scandium, Yttrium, Lanthanium, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, Lutetium.  Yet these "rare earth" elements -- which, as there name suggest, occur infrequently in the Earth's crust -- have become critical materials used by the electronics and automotive industry.

However, the market for rare earth metals is hardly an open one.  China, by expert's estimates, controls 97 percent of the world's rare earth refining capabilities.  And it's moved this year to cut exports.

I. Over a Barrel -- The World Stands Helpless as China Raises Prices

This month China announced that it would be slashing rare earth exports by 35 percent in the first half of 2011 from a year prior, and that it was considering cuts for the second half of 2011.  The country claims it’s making the move to maintain "ample" reserves.  Most experts, however, believe that the move is a bid to increase its profits and give its own domestic industries an edge.

The move has been met with outrage in Europe and the U.S.  The European Union has threatened that it may push the World Trade Organization, a powerful international arbiter to pass sanctions against China, if it doesn't restore supply.  A European Commission spokesman is quoted in Reuters as commenting that the EU "notes the latest quota figures and expects China to respect its recent assurance of a guarantee of rare earth supplies to Europe."

Japanese tech firms are also angered by the move.  Sony, which uses rare earth elements in its TVs and other electronics, says the move could damage it in the long run.  Writes a company spokesperson, "We cannot welcome rare earth export controls or any restrictions that hinder the system of free trade.  At this point in time there is no direct impact on our company. But further restrictions could lead to a shortage of supply or rise in costs for related parts and materials."

Some Japanese companies are vowing to cut their dependence on the rare elements.  But that may not be as easy as it sounds.  The elements have become widely used thanks to their plethora of desirable properties -- properties that aren't always seen in other elements and compounds.

As prices of rare earth metals soar, electrified vehicle (hybrid, EV, etc.) makers in the U.S. and Japanese are bracing themselves for price increases.  Hybrids and electric vehicles use more than twice the rare earth metal on average as a non-electric vehicle.  However, even non-electric vehicles may see costs rise, given the significant amount of rare earth metals used in their onboard electronics.

II.  The Future -- Some International Production, but Not Enough

The problem likely won't resolve itself anytime soon.  While Lynas Corp. (Australia) and Molycorp (U.S.) both hope to bring rare earth mines online next year, China will still control the majority of this rare resource in the foreseeable future.

For rare earth metal companies in the U.S. and elsewhere outside China, the opportunity is tremendous.  States, Molycorp CEO Mark Smith, "Any reductions China makes in its 2011 exports versus 2010 levels will only exacerbate the global supply shortfall of rare earths we can expect in 2011."

However, with demand expected to rise from 55,000-60,000 tons in 2011 to 250,000 tons in 2015, China will be in a prime position to score massive profits.  Increases in the price of electronics, alternative energy devices, and cars in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, barring significant unforeseen resource discoveries or technological breakthroughs, will likely reflect these profits.



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RE: And yet
By psychmike on 12/31/2010 12:48:20 AM , Rating: 2
I understand your concern regarding dependence on other countries. I disagree, however, with your assertion that lowering environmental standards will lead to better lives for Americans.

Part of the reason that China is able to grow at its current rate is because it is willing to accept a low relative standard of living. People in that country were literally starving to death 60 years ago so pools of toxic chemicals, thick smog, and unsafe or unfair working conditions are more acceptable to the general population which has seen a dramatic increase in their standard of living. Many people in the city-sized industrial complexes commute to work, live there through the week or month, and see their own families rarely. That is slowly changing and people are beginning to demand a fairer share of a good life. Engaging in a race to the bottom by cutting standards isn't the way to go. In my opinion, focusing on adding value through design, engineering, and marketing is the way to go.

No one thinks that corporations intentionally poison people, but the unfortunate truth is that environmental disasters are far more costly to society than it is to the company. BP knew about the risk of a serious disaster in the Gulf and ignored it. They spent a bunch of money on goodwill ads but have been lobbying behind closed doors to place a cap on the fines they will face. As time passes and the media loses attention, I would not be surprised to see them become increasingly combative in their tort settlements against the little guy. At the end of the day, environmental disasters are a cost of doing business for them. They're not evil, they're simply eminently practical, verging on amoral. Companies externalize costs whenever possible leaving others to pay the price.


RE: And yet
By Lerianis on 12/31/2010 1:03:15 PM , Rating: 2
psychmike.... judging from the evidence that I have seen? You are damned skippy that I think that corporations will intentionally poison people in order to make a buck!

A lot of people agree with me as well, after seeing what the corporations are doing without regulations in China.


RE: And yet
By FITCamaro on 12/31/2010 3:06:06 PM , Rating: 2
I am not saying to eliminate safety standards or allow companies to dump toxic chemicals into the environment.

I am saying to give companies the ability to do business period. If lawsuits keep a mine from ever opening, who's going to want to try? Same goes for oil drilling or refining. With mining in the US, companies have to return the land to its original state. Large old mines have become beautiful lakes.

My point is that we have enough regulations. Our emissions standards are HIGHER than that of Europe. Yet environmental groups try to get them raised ever higher still and attempt to help push through schemes like cap and trade which will completely kill industries in the US.

And if you think BP thought that well would blow and ignored it you're crazy. They followed the standards that the US currently has. Bad things happen from time to time. If you think they would knowingly risk the bad publicity and billions spent on that accident, you're wrong.

Yes a company is always going to spend the least possible to get a job done properly. But that was not the case here. They followed what they needed to and unfortunately crucial equipment failed. It's amazing something like that hasn't happened sooner. It's likely many of the other wells BP has were built in the exact same way. But they didn't have problems because the unique sequence of events that happened this past spring didn't happen when those wells were made. BP should pay all the costs to clean it up and go back to work.

Of course now they can't because our idiot of a president has said there will be no drilling whatsoever now for a few years. Costing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in productively for the citizens of the Gulf states. And all in one of the worst recessions ever.


RE: And yet
By simsony on 1/1/2011 12:25:30 AM , Rating: 2
You seem to be thinking that cleaning up pollution from an industrial accident is like vacuuming a house. You obviously don't live near the Gulf states.
What if an industrial accident occurred that released say hydrofluoric acid into the air, and then it rains across the US by getting into the weather system? Who'll clean that up? Who'd fix those permanent burns scars on your family's skin?The company couldn't afford it and would just declare bankruptcy. Whose fault would it be then? And who would pay? Something tells me you'd blame the government for that too.

I think you are either naive or arrogant to think that ANY environmental damage is easily corrected by a simple "cleanup" operation that some corporate will and can pay for.


RE: And yet
By SPOOFE on 1/1/2011 3:08:35 AM , Rating: 2
Conversely, why is the eighth largest economy in the world tanking, bringing down the lives and wellbeing of tens of millions or people? Over-regulation.

Smart, intelligent regulations would avoid all the failings that you note without driving away business, costing careers, harming collected tax revenue, etc. Once you see those symptoms, you know you have too much regulation and it's time to rethink.

Unfortunately, chicken littles like you are hampering our ability to replace outdated and stupid regs with something a little less wasteful. Hope you sleep well at night.


RE: And yet
By simsony on 1/1/2011 6:15:47 PM , Rating: 2
It's very easy to simply call for "smarter regulation", but it is not the same as less/ no regulation. You're coupling the two, which just makes it rhetoric.

You still haven't answered the crux of my argument, who pays the price for missing regulation?

No one in their right mind would argue that smarter regulation isn't better!


RE: And yet
By SPOOFE on 1/1/2011 9:39:31 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
It's very easy to simply call for "smarter regulation", but it is not the same as less/ no regulation. You're coupling the two, which just makes it rhetoric.

Reading comprehension FTL. I'm specifically DE-coupling the two. It is you that has conflated criticism for some regulations as criticism of all regulation, and indeed, the very concept of regulation itself.

quote:
You still haven't answered the crux of my argument, who pays the price for missing regulation?

Potentially nobody. Potentially somebody. I DO know that over-regulation DEFINITELY hurts everybody.

quote:
No one in their right mind would argue that smarter regulation isn't better!

Nobody in their right mind CAN argue that smarter regulation is better, because of a slew of hypersensitive status quo defenders that send out a call to arms anytime someone suggests that a given government regulation may not be all that hot.


RE: And yet
By simsony on 1/2/2011 1:28:31 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Potentially nobody. Potentially somebody. I DO know that over-regulation DEFINITELY hurts everybody.
quote:


And missing regulation also DEFINITELY hurts. The banks are a good example.

You remind me of 19th century businessmen who sold people radioactive toothpaste.

You're ignoring the consequences of a mishap, saying "bad things happen", and yet do not have an answer for how to deal with the undesirable consequences, should they happen.

I suppose you'd just call it "collateral damage", but hey we made a million bucks in profit, so it's all good! We need cheap TVs!


RE: And yet
By SPOOFE on 1/2/2011 8:21:09 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
And missing regulation also DEFINITELY hurts. The banks are a good example.

The banks are a TERRIBLE example: They are heavily regulated! They just had BAD regulations that allowed - in fact, pretty much required - that they engage in dangerous financial behavior. Regulations were put into place that favored risky loans. Those were bad, stupid, dumb regulations, and right now, they're the sort of regulations people envision when the call goes out for "more regulation".

A smart system doesn't need a lot of regulation. Just piling more regs on top of broken, lousy, financially disasterous regulations doesn't "fix" anything, it simply makes an awkward, clumsy, directionless, and inaccessible system even worse. Calling for more regulation is just jingoistic crap; obviously we can get LOADS more regulation and it can all be just as bad or worse as existing broken regs. It is the mindless demand for government oversight that is the problem, as opposed to very focused demand for VERY SPECIFIC government oversights.

Unfortunately, the political climate makes the right oversights difficult to implement. For over a decade, people that can't afford a house have been told that they deserve a house. Try telling them otherwise now. That is one of the most insidious problems with government handouts: Once enacted, it's nigh impossible to get rid of, even if it's a tragic failure.


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