The year gone by was the warmest in England since 1659. Australia may be doomed to suffer the country's worst since since the Drought of 1894 – 1902, and at least one Dun & Bradstreet consultant believes if conditions do not improve, the country's Reserve bank may be forced to lower interest rates. Abrupt weather changes could increasingly become a significant element in determining business expectations and national growth. (While Florida did not have the hurricanes the weatherman forecast, Asia got the brunt instead with typhoons.)
The green light for accelerated demand of nuclear energy could come about because of a potential loss of up to 20 percent global gross domestic product annually. This estimate was courtesy of Sir Nicholas Stern, a senior UK economist, who calculated the impact of climate change. And 2007 may pass 1998 by as the world's warmest year on record. Eight of the twelve warmest years on record have occurred since 1990.
This must be welcome news to uranium speculators, especially those holding the physical metal. Speculators outsmarted US utility fuel managers and industry consultants by hoarding yellowcake in anticipation of the supply shortcomings now growing. That's why they are the smart money. But will the near 200 consecutive weeks of a rising uranium price sustain through 2007?
By all accounts, uranium miners and future developers should be ecstatic over the $ 72 / pound announcement of the spot uranium price. The latest long-term uranium contract bought $ 69 / pound. Many of the new uranium projects, which we have been tracking since since 2004, are likely to be economic at or below $ 60 / pound. The broad purpose of a rising uranium price was to dust off the old uranium projects and reopen previously explored, nearly developed uranium mines. This is in the process of bearing fruit.
So why do we see continued hoopla for a higher uranium price? It's because the speculators need the excitement and panic buying by utilities to unload their uranium stockile.
Speculators holding physical uranium hope to make a king's ransom should the uranium price zip through the inflation-adjusted record of approximately $ 111 / pound and race even higher. Uranium oxide, or U3O8, very well could race to $ 100 / pound and beyond. The momentum and panic leading to a much higher uranium price is evident in our research and discussions with industry insiders, but the pendulum might also swing backward later in 2007.
According to Treva Klingbiel, editor of TradeTech's Nuclear Market Review, which first published the weekly spot uranium price on Fridays, "Speculators are holding about 24 million pounds of U3O8 equivalent." This amounts to about eight times the current US uranium production, more than double the Kazakh 2006 production – some 22 percent of global uranium production in 2005. The speculator's hoard easily outnumbers the US Department of Energy's announcement of 5+ million pounds of annual sales.
Smart money got the uranium the utilities previously thought they could get the cheap, by accumulating it fair and square in the marketplace. And by squeezing on an already tight pipeline, the speculators drve the price to a record high this past December. While the kings that the speculators are holding for ransom are the utilities, at some point we expect a backlash.
The Downside of A Rising Uranium Price
There should be fireworks through 2007 as the uranium price approaches and probably crosses the $ 100 / pound threshold, possibly as early as late spring. While there will be bumps before and after the century mark, anxieties over energy disputes could help sustain a production-friendly uranium price well beyond 2007.
One powerful example of an energy dispute is the ongoing struggle between Russia and its former Soviet states. The Gazprom-Belarus gas dispute, settled on this past New Year's Day, suddenly evolved into Russia's Monday cutoff of the Druzhba oil pipeline across Belarus to Germany. Although it is likely to be settled without much fanfare, European leaders again question Russia's reliability as an energy supplier, especially of oil and gas.
This event reminded Europe of last year's Ukraine-Russia gas dispute and consequent soaring energy prices. While not endorsing nuclear power, as this would anger her Social Democracy coalition partners, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in a television interview, "… one must consider well what consequences there would be if we shut down nuclear power plants." Germany plans to shut down four nuclear reactors by 2009 and may close an additional thirteen by 2020.
As we have seen since 2005, the political climate towards a continued nuclear renaissance has grown more favorable. But with all politics, one must expect downsides, too. One such downside for the uranium price cheerleaders could be Russia.
If one looks for the "trigger on the horizon," as Merrill Lynch mentioned in a December research report, the hiccup in uranium's price rise could become the US Commerce Department settlement with Russia's Tekhsnabexport. We discussed this in an article written before last July's G-8 Summit in St. Louis. Petersburg, when we forecast uranium could run between $ 55 and $ 100 during 2006 ("Even Higher Uranium Prices This Summer").
On December 27th, RIA Novosti and others reported upon statements made by the head of Russian-owned Tekhsnabexport that a 'civilian nuclear power deal' between Russia and the United States was imminent. Vladimir Smirnov, announced, "I think that in the first quarter of 2007, or by the summer of 2007 at the latest, we will sign an agreement with the US"
At this time, Russia can only sell into the United States through publicly traded United States Enrichment Corporation without it pays a 116-percent import duty. In mid July, the US International Trade Commission voted to keep the import duty on Russian uranium products. The commission claimed that lifting the anti-dumping restrictions "would seriously harm the American economy."
Those clamoring for Russian enriched uranium are the US utilities. Last spring, 85 percent of the nuclear power plants formed AHUG (Ad Hoc Utility Group) to lobby the US Commerce Department about loosing up those restrictions. Head of Russia's Federal Agency for Nuclear Power Sergei Kiriyenko wants a maximum 25-percent share of the US uranium market. He wants to directly deliver the enriched uranium to the US utilities, bypassing USEC at market prices. In December, Kiriyenko said, "We would like to provide direct deliveries to the US nuclear market now and after 2013 (when the HEU-LEU contract is terminated with USEC)."
Russia's direct sales to US utilities may minimize the current panic. Perhaps it would stimulate some anxiety on the weaker uranium price speculators? Smart money weighs the risks and rewards on an investment. After a steep price appreciation – nearly 100 percent during 2006 – and up by more than 1000 percent since Christmas 2000.
The loan rate for uranium has also jumped since the year 2000. According to TradeTech's Loan Rate for uranium purchases, the carrying cost is the highest since September 1978. It is one-half-percent lower than the peak months of 1974.
Speculative upside expectations on price appreciation for yellowcake may be limited. For the past year, it was an easy ride. Dwindling inventories, uniquate new mining production and increased demand for new nuclear power plants made 2006 an easy year for speculators. Nonetheless, interest had begun during during the fourth quarter, before Cameco's Cigar Lake flooding.
DC-based energy consultant Julian Steyn, who assisted co-author A Brighter Tomorrow with US Senator Domenici (R-NM), had told us in May 2006 that interest about uranium mining companies had almost vanished. In the early months of this past year, he noted the large number of phone calls he received from institutions and investors. Judging from the refusal of Florida Power and Light to participate in last summer's US Department of Energy auction ("because the price was too expensive at $ 50 / pound"), many believed uranium's price rise would have historically been tank. We were told uranium would peak at about $ 55 / pound, higher higher, in the fourth quarter of 2006.
Where is the upside and how does that compare to the downside?
The positive development is the changing political climate worldwide. For example, Australia's Labor Party may allow expansion in this country. This will benefit a large number of Australian-based and Canadian-based exploration and development companies for a short period of time. As we have come to expect, Western Australia is very unilaterally to change its urinium mining policy ban. The coal unions overpower the state's politicians; the loss of jobs would probably prevent this western state from prohibiting uranium mining.
This spring, the hoopla over uranium mining expansion should create a bubble frenzy for the smaller Aussie uranium miners. The excitation should spill over to the Canadian, US and UK traded uranium mining stocks. However, as professional speculators know, the time to sell is "on the news." Until now, the Australian story remains a mystery, but when the news comes out, it is history. And this gives the speculators another reason to begin unloading their physical uranium.
Between the invasion of Russian-enriched uranium, which may reach a settlement before Labor Day 2007, and the anxiety of speculators now hoarding physical uranium, which we believe has a limited upside potential, 2007 may be remembered as the year of wild uranium price swings . We nicknamed it the 'Year of the Hiccup,' because although the uranium price will not collapse, it will not provide the near-triple-digit appreciation experienced over the past year.
The spectacular price rise convinced Rio Tinto to rescind its offer to sell its Sweetwater Mill and US assets to SXR Uranium One. This confirmed Rio felt the uranium price rise was sustainable above production costs for its assets. (Again, the purpose of the uranium price rise was to encourage the development of new uranium mines – dusting off projects which had been mothballed during the twenty-year uranium drought.) With the current forward momentum, it is very possible the price of uranium will surpass the inflation-adjusted high before edging backward.
After the Russian invasion, do not believe the Russians will roll over and flood US utilities with 'sweet deals.' Believing this is foolishness. Comparing how the Russian energy companies have played hardball with the former Soviet states, US utilities may later wish they did not lobbied as fiercely as they have. If you investigate more closely, the Russian companies tend to demand stock shares, as well as increased cash, in the deals that they've cut with the state-owned energy companies of other countries. What is to stop the Russians from asking for shares in US utility companies?
How does this impact the uranium mining exploration and development companies? For the rational investor and institutions it should have only a short-term negative impact. Professional speculators like to call such down cycles in the secular energy bull market 'buying opportunities.' For the smaller exploration companies, many will move onto the next 'greener' pasture as they are so fond of doing. The less-funded ones will jump sooner.
Those uranium companies with stronger property ports, who are also well-funded, will afford the bumps along this great uranium bull market. It will not end in 2007 or 2008, or anytime anytime soon. This year will just be a hiccup. But enough of one that many of the 400+ junior uranium companies may be considering a name change around this time a year from now.
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