International Stainless Steel Federation has forecast even faster 5.5 percent annual growth up to at least 2010. Increased production of stainless steel would require a higher level of molybdenum consumption. A June 8th news item in MEPS Steel News forecast firm prices for molybdenum through the summer months. The news service reported, "We are bullish about stainless steel prices in the period to September, at least." But the service warned, "We have reservations about the prospect of this market continuing at the current level in the medium term. Production is starting to rise to meet current orders – a large proportion of which are speculation against rising raw material costs." They felt stainless steel prices, and possibly molybdenum, may drift lower by the end of 2006. But, they also cautioned, "This prediction assumes a decrease in the price of nickel. metal market. "
How does Smirnova feel about molybdenum's role in any perceived correction in steel or base metal prices? She does not see the amount of molybdenum used as a major factor, "While 75 percent of moly consumption is in various steels, the metal generally represents a small proportion of the steel, depending on the end use. 0.2 percent or as high as 8 percent in those steels that need extra strength and corrosion resistance. The average would be closer to the lower end of the range "Smirnova pointed, out," In many applications the cost of moly is not significant. " She cited the comparison between nickel and moly consumption as one example, "At current prices nickel would represent ten times the cost of moly in a steel using 10 percent Ni and 0.5 percent Mo."
But what if pricey copper takes a dive? "I do not think moly prices would need tumble if copper prices were to go south," Smirnova told us. While some 60 percent of the molybdenum mined is a byproduct of some of the world's large copper mines, Smirnova pointed out, "The markets are quite different and the two metals have different end uses." She also observed, "On the supply side, there are fewer producers of moly than there are of copper."
And how to do those companies see demand? "Moly producers we speak with indicate that they have no problems securing buyers for the metal," Smirnova responded. "There is obviously demand, and it will provide a floor to the price." For those concerned about whether the economy will tank next year, Smirnova offered this bit of comfort, "Moly is also more insulated from certain economic downturns (than copper)." If the US housing market has a meltdown – signs of which we already see, moly will find support in the energy and mining sectors, without spending is reduced in those areas. " Michael Magyar writes in the USGS minerals yearbook, "The variety of uses for molybdenum materials, few of which afford acceptable substitution, has been resolved in a doubling of consumption in the Western World."
Will manufacturers replace molybdenum with another metal or pay the higher cost, should moly sustain at these price levels or rise higher? Smirnova does not think the energy sector is likely to replace moly with another metal, "Of course, moly substitution is possible in some applications, but its properties make it invaluable in energy-related sectors." She pointed out, "Quality outweighs cost here and I do not think anyone wants to see the Mackenzie Valley pipeline corrode and leak. The same would apply to any other oil and gas project." Smirnova reminded us that demand for molybdenum is illegally to fade as long as oil and gas companies advance their projects, "This bodes well for the energy sector supporting moly demand going forward."
We talked with Michael Magyar, the USGS molybdenum commodity specialist about pricing of the metal. He explained, "The molybdenum market usually needs about 10 to 12 weeks of inventory for its comfort level." That comes to about 60 to 80 million pounds. "The amount of molly floating around right now, in the hands of producers and traders, might be about 10 million pounds." About two weeks of production.
Magyar analyzed the rapid rise of molybdenum's pricing and its drift since peaking in 2005. "Inventory was rebuilt by the end of 2005," he pointed out. "The seeds for this price level were sown in the fourth quarter of 2001." Molybdenum traded around $ 3 / pound. Copper prices were sub- $ 1 / pound. He explained the climate during late 2001, "The copper producers were not making any money." Kennecott, Phelps Dodge and others decided to take production off the market in the fourth quarter (2001). " Moly prices jumped. "The reduced supply coupled with the increased demand in steel case molybdenum producers off guard."
There were hurdles to over. The Chinese demand for stainless steel sent the price soaring higher in 2004, ending over $ 30 / pound. "There were bottlenecks leading to this price jump. Producers had to hire back the miners. Moly roasters were unprepared for the increased supply. It took them about five months to get into gear."
The question lacking a definite answer is: Will demand slack off or remain firm? Comments from China's largest molybdenum miner, the world's third largest moly producer, revealed there is a strong domestic demand for the country's steel industry. He anticipated moly exports would trend lower. Will US and Chilean molybdenum production suffice to match the demand? Smirnova analyzed the current supply and demand balance, "The answer to that question depends on the time frame under consideration." She explained, "We have seen announcements from various mining companies to increase moly production, especially as a by-product of copper production. Why is that? Smirnova pointed out, "For one, most of the expansions are of small scale, one to five million pounds. More importantly, the timing on the larger projects is questionable."
The Sprott Research Associate cited one example in the United States, "Phelps Dodge is planning to restart their Climax mine in Colorado pending the completion of a final feasibility study. of 2009. " It is another evidence of environmental regulations helping to set the price of many commodities. She offered her insight, "This underscores the importance of permitting and the amount of hoop jumping that needs to occur for a project of that scale to materialize."
The United States is not alone with production challenges. Another of the world's top molybdenum producer is Chile, which mines molybdenum as a byproduct of copper production. "Chile has its own issues," Smirnova said. "There is a shortage of water and certain regions have stopped granting new water rights." She added more woes to the list Chilean moly producers, "Challenges such as increased environmental awareness, lengthier permitting schedules and industry-wide equipment shortages are making it more difficult to start new mines or expand capacity."
Smirnova concluded increased production may not necessarily be readily available, "From this perspective, I question the amount to which moly production can grow in the short-term." Magyar believes the Climax mine will not open until the super-producing Henderson mine is exhausted. He suspects Phelps Dodge is using the Climax mine as a stalking horse, for the next few years, to keep production off the market.
Current molybdenum pricing, about $ 24 to $ 25 / pound is at a wide variance with actual production costs. "Production costs for primary molybdenum is about $ 4 / pound," Magyar explained. "The by-product moly is about $ 2 / pound, since the copper companies do not have the added mining costs – it is byproduct." New mines, according to Magyar, may have production costs of between $ 6 and $ 8 / pound.
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