How does the hottest metals trade work? First, find storage

Pala Investments Ltd. fund manager Anthony Milewski figures one of the best payoffs from a global boom in electric vehicles will be a hard, gray metal that so far has drawn little interest from investors. That’s why he’s stockpiling it.

During the past year, the Switzerland-based mining fund has been buying cobalt, an essential element in the lithium-ion batteries powering Tesla Motors Inc. cars as well as all sorts of mobile devices. Even after a 50 percent surge in prices last year, Milewski and other bulls expect more gains as companies like General Motors Co. and Volkswagen AG make their own electronic vehicles.

Global demand exceeded output in 2016 for the first time in seven years, and increased purchases by fund managers this year probably will deepen the production deficit, according to Guy Darby, co-founder of Darton Commodities Ltd., a cobalt trading house based in Guildford, U.K.

The industry supplies about 100,000 metric tons annually. But about 65 percent of refined supply comes in a non-metal form, including chemicals and powders used in making parts for smartphones, jet engines, drilling tools and pigments. So, only about 35,000 tons produced each year is in the metal form preferred by investors. At current prices, that’s worth about $550 million, which may be too small a market for some commodity-focused funds. By comparison, annual copper output is 22 million tons valued at $127 billion.

Still, the market is growing. Ivan Glasenberg, the chief executive officer of Glencore, the world’s largest producer, said the pickup in production of electric vehicles means increasing demand for both cobalt and nickel, another component in batteries. Even after last year’s big price gains, cobalt has “fantastic potential” in 2017, Benedikt Sobotka, head of closely held mining company Eurasian Resources Group, said in a statement this month.

Congo Supply

Expanding output to keep pace with demand may not be easy. About 63 percent of global supplies come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which derives as much as a fifth of its production from small-scale operations that rely on child labor to extract minerals by hand, according to an Amnesty International report last year. The pressure group called on battery-makers like South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. and end-users like Apple Inc. to step up efforts to ensure minerals they use aren’t mined illegally in dangerous conditions.

The Amnesty International report made investors like RobecoSAM AG reluctant to own cobalt. The Swiss asset manager focuses on sustainable industries such as electric vehicles and green energy, with investments in lithium producers including Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile SA and Albemarle Corp., as well as battery makers including LG Chem Ltd. and Samsung SDI.

“We monitor allegations of human rights abuses closely,” said Pieter Busscher, a Zurich-based portfolio manager for the Smart Materials fund at RobecoSAM. “What we don’t want exposure to is a commodity that can be produced in conditions where workers aren’t looked after and protected.”

The increased public scrutiny could put pressure on global supplies outside the central African country. Chemical companies that supply battery makers rely on semi-refined cobalt being produced by Glencore and others in Congo.

Consumer Response

“The next stage is whether we’re going to see a response in supply, or whether consumers will start panicking and buying up any units they can,” said Tony Southgate, a cobalt trader at Engelhart Commodities Trading Partners based in London. “If battery demand spills over into the metals market in a huge way, then the chances are prices will spike.”

There’s also the risk that higher cobalt prices will encourage battery makers to come up with better designs that use less of the metal.

Milewski isn’t worried. Any attempts to substitute other materials will be dwarfed by the surge in overall demand for cobalt as the world’s fleet of battery-powered cars increases. Analysts may be underestimating just how popular the vehicles will become, not only in the U.S. and Europe but in China and India, where governments are eager for ways to curb fossil fuel emissions, he said.

“So far, sales of electric vehicles have been blowing forecasts out of the water,” Milewski said. “I don’t see why that won’t continue.”

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