The Rarest Earth
Those who keep up with business news will have no doubt read about the recent developments in the category of minerals known as rare earth elements (REE's). These are minerals that are vital to modern industrial applications, ranging from lasers, batteries, alternative energy, and superconductors to all sorts of important high-tech applications. There are 17 minerals classified as REE's with exotic names like scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, and praseodymium. Don't worry, this is not a technical discussion and this will probably be the only time I write about rare earth elements.
Actually, these minerals are not all that rare, in the strictest sense of the word. Many are quite abundant in the earth's crust. What makes them rare is that they are generally not concentrated in ore bodies offering economically feasible extraction. The first rare earth mineral was discovered around 1800, in a village in Sweden named Ytterby, and several REE's are named after that village. Up until about 1950, most rare earth production came from India and Brazil. In the 50's, South Africa was a big producer, then California took the lead from 1960 through the 1980's. Then, China came to be the dominant producer by far, and currently produces 97% of world production.
Due to booming world demand, production has strained to keep pace. This was recently exacerbated by China's new export restrictions, due to falling ore reserves and environmental concerns. This sent the price of rare earth elements soaring by hundreds of percent, prompting a world-wide effort to ramp up production. However, you just don't flip a light switch and begin new mine production. It can take years to develop a mine and begin production. In the meantime, industrial consumers must compete for available supplies by bidding up the price. This is the essence of the law of supply and demand.
Since I'm not a REE expert why am I writing about them? The answer has to do with silver. Silver shares many characteristics with the rare earth elements and there is a lot to learn from them in our analysis of silver. In fact, the purpose of this article is to make the case that silver is the rarest of all the rare earth elements.
One of the common characteristics between silver and the rare earth elements is that many REE's are mined in conjunction with other minerals, the same as silver with its by-product mining profile. Mining for both tends to concentrate on the easiest to exploit properties first. Consequently, the remaining properties tend to be lower-grade and more expensive and difficult to develop. Both silver and REE's have seen the emergence of China as the chief producer of each. (In the case of silver, the production reliance includes the processing of scrap material not mined in that country.) Silver production from China is nowhere near 97% of world production, as it is in the rare earth elements, but it still is significant. Environmental issues and restrictions inhibit the production of both silver and the REE's. And with both, higher prices don't automatically guarantee immediate new production. For instance, last year on an 80% increase in silver price, the mine production of Peru (the world's largest miner) declined 7% or 12 million ounces. That's a million silver ounces less per month than from a year earlier. Recently, the price of REE's skyrocketed, due to China's sharply curtailed exports. Should any major silver producing country sharply restrict the export of silver, the price would soar.
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Quote of the Week
"The scarce and valuable commodities such as copper, lead, zinc, uranium, gold, silver, platinum, and palladium just to name a few are limited. These are the basic building blocks for all the goods and services we desire in modern society. You can't have a car, a house,
a cell phone, a refrigerator, a simple bar of soap, etc. etc., without them."