The Metals Report: Graphite is a commodity that investors have a tough time pricing. Where do you go to get graphite price information? Or does the price even matter?
David Skarica: With graphite, you have to look at the big picture story. There is no exchange-based market. There is no graphite traded on London Metals Exchange. Instead, you have to understand the long-term, underlying fundamentals and the supply/demand picture. The demand picture is this: A lot of high-tech products use graphite—especially rechargeable batteries for cars and electronics. The supply of graphite is dominated by China, which controls over 70% of the world market. There is a risk that China will remove some export graphite from the market. This is similar to the situation that has already happened with rare earth element (REE) supply. Similarly, Russia has a dominant position in the palladium market and can use that position to suit its strategic and business goals. China may try something similar with graphite.
TMR: Rare earths can't be synthesized, but graphite derivatives like graphene can be made synthetically from fossil fuel carbon sources. Is that a concern to you?
DS: It's not a huge concern. Even if synthetic graphite supply increases, there's a certain elastic demand for the products that graphite is used in. We all thought that if oil got high enough, we might be running our cars on natural gas, and that hasn't exactly happened. On the other hand, the European Union and the U.S. have stated that graphite is a strategic material for national defense. We should see increased graphite production in the U.S. and Canada as a result. That's another reason to be bullish on the sector. Solid demand and limited supply is creating bullish pricing fundamentals. Even if the price dropped 20–30% from its current levels, it would be economic to produce in most cases. Every country wants to produce more graphite. If graphite becomes more strategic, governments could buy it directly from the producers. There are a lot of reasons to like the graphite story right now.
TMR: We had a hot market in graphite stocks about a year ago. What is different now?
DS: It's still very early in the graphite market. I call these mini-bubbles or maybe a prelude to a bubble. We saw this in uranium in the mid-2000s. In that market, former gold stocks would rebrand themselves as uranium explorers and some went up tenfold. Graphite probably will turn into a bubble. Even though I'm talking about these long-term fundamentals, investors will probably want to sell their graphite holdings in two years. Even though the long-term fundamentals are going to be good for five, 10 or 15 years, you may never see the prices of some of these companies hit those highs again. Even uranium companies had these big, 100%+ run-ups, then corrections of 40, 50 or 60%. Then the stocks would bottom and you'd have another big run-up. You're probably going to see a few of these types of run-ups in the future.
Keep in mind that you have to be very selective with graphite. First, most of the companies are not big companies. Second, there are quite a few companies that have a realistic shot at production. For investors, I consider it a better playing field than uranium was in the mid-2000s. The uranium market had far higher barriers to entry because of the cost of uranium mine building and regulation. In this way, many of the graphite companies are much more realistic. Right now, most graphite names are still cheap, being priced at the same depressed levels as the rest of the mining industry. The risk-reward is positive at the current level. You just have to do your research, find a couple of solid companies and then go from there.
TMR: Do you have a couple of companies you have your eyes on?
DS: Yes. I'm a consultant to and a shareholder of Alabama Graphite Co. (ALP:CNSX). I visited the property in Alabama in November. Among the management, I like President, CEO and Director Daniel Spine. He runs a hedge fund and is very knowledgeable about the mining industry. He's good on the finance side and can successfully raise money. Alabama is a good jurisdiction with a pro-business climate. The mine is located in an economically depressed region and the local community needs the jobs the mine will bring. I don't anticipate social or environmental challenges in the area. Infrastructure is good; it is about two hours from the Atlanta airport. Site access is only a 10-minute drive off a paved road to the property, which has power. Most of the infrastructure is in place.
The company's main challenge is financing. Currently, Alabama Graphite is listed on the Canadian National Stock Exchange. The company plans to move to the Toronto Stock Exchange or American Stock Exchange in the future. Recently, the company had solid exploration results. Alabama Graphite is moving toward production. When I visited the site, there was a lot of activity. Alabama is moving ahead of schedule, which is rare to see at a mining property. The company is aiming to begin production in approximately two years.
Another positive with Alabama is the resource grade and the quality of its product. The higher-quality flakes can sell for $2,500/ton, while the lower-quality graphite can go for as little as $500–600/ton. The grade of the deposit is approximately 3–4% graphite. The quality of Alabama's deposit is high, with average prices expected to be between $1,600–1,700/ton.
TMR: Who would Alabama's consumers or customers be? Would those be domestic consumers?
DS: It could be Boeing. It could be Tesla. It could even be the U.S. government for military applications.
TMR: Are there any other companies you follow?
DS: Another company I follow is Mason Graphite Inc. (LLG:TSX.V). Its deposit is located in Quebec. Mason is an interesting story, especially on the management side. The grades are ~20% graphite, compared to a typical deposit grade of 3%. The quality is high, selling at prices up to $2,500/ton. The CEO is Benoît Gascon, formerly the CEO of Stratmin Graphite. He has the unusual experience, for a North American, of putting graphite deposits into production.
Mason compares very well based on fundamentals with Flinders Resources Ltd. (FDR:TSX.V) or Northern Graphite Corporation (NGC:TSX.V; NGPHF:OTCQX). Based on cash flow, grade and resource size, Mason is undervalued. The current price of $0.85/share is attractive. Mason is under the umbrella of Forbes & Manhattan group, which enables access to capital and connections. Lastly, it is just getting started trading—yet another reason to like it.
I still like Northern Graphite. I was invested in Northern Graphite when it was called Industrial Minerals and traded on the OTC. However, newer companies—like Alabama and Mason—don't have the overhang that comes from owners that might have bought near the top of the last pre-bubble and are still holding on and wanting to sell.
TMR: Besides graphite, you are interested uranium. What do you like about uranium in 2013?
DS: Uranium is interesting because we know where it is in the cycle. Uranium is post- bubble. Even with the Japan crisis, the fundamentals are good for uranium. Is demand going to kick down a little bit? Yes. Germany is getting out of nuclear production. But there's a new government in Japan that says it's still building new nuclear power plants. The long-term fundamentals are bullish. China and India are building power plants. The price chart tells a bullish story for uranium.
Cameco Corp. (CCO:TSX; CCJ:NYSE) has been basing between $16 and roughly $22 for the past year or so. This is called a phase 1 base. Usually, this base is followed by a long, large move higher. I am looking for something like that from Cameco. The reason that I focus on Cameco is that it is the bellwether for the industry. For most people, Cameco provides enough sector exposure.
TMR: Are there any other stories that you think investors should consider?
DS: If you like the rare earth story and want a simple way to play it, Molycorp Inc. (MCP:NYSE) is an excellent way to play it. Molycorp fell from $70 down to a low of $6. It's about $9 right now. It's one of these maximum pessimism plays. It's a nice way of playing the alternative metals with the market leader—albeit in a relatively small market.
This brings us back to an issue in the graphite market. In the REE sector, we have Molycorp as the market leading stock. In uranium, we have Cameco as the industry bellwether. Both are highly liquid stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange. However, in graphite, we have several smaller companies to choose from and no clear market leader, and certainly nothing with the market liquidity of Molycorp or Cameco.
When looking at the maximum pessimism trades, it gets to the point where even industry-leading large caps get extremely depressed. Under those conditions, if you see solidification in demand for their commodities, then share prices and the broader market could turn around. That could make Molycorp a five- or six-bagger, with Cameco potentially a three- or four-bagger. So you have the potentials for big gains in well-financed large companies that you know aren't going under.
TMR: Producers with real plant and equipment, huge deposits and a track record.
DS: In 2001–2002, you could buy a lot of these big-tier producers, like an Eldorado Gold Corp. (ELD:TSX; EGO:NYSE), which was trading at $0.25–0.50. In 2000–2001, there was really no point in buying juniors. You should have just bought the producers. They were all really cheap. Then when they had their first move, from late 2000 to about early 2003, then you could have shifted that money into the juniors, which were just starting to move. When markets are depressed, it is best to buy the seniors and you can just feel your way around. If things solidify and it looks like there's more demand, then you go into the juniors.
But it may take a long time for the uranium and REE bubbles to re-inflate, and it's not a given they ever will. In that case, many or most of the juniors will simply not come back. How many of the smallest startups came back from the dot-com bubble? Many of the best-performing tech companies recently were companies that emerged after the tech bubble. The obvious example is Apple, which did nothing in the 1990s. Many of the biggest names in tech didn't even go public until after 2000. Google is an example. It's the same thing in uranium or REEs. If you invest in junior uranium or rare earth companies now, they might not exist in the future. There might be new initial public offerings that come out.
TMR: Any closing thoughts?
DS: I believe that graphite is a legitimate story that will turn into a legitimate boom. The best part of the graphite story is while there is a dearth of quality companies, there is a number of companies that will realistically become good, profitable producers. This is unlike the uranium equity market of a few years ago, when most of the companies were going to go by the wayside.
The graphite story has a long way to go. If the re-inflation trend starts because of Japan, Europe and the U.S. printing money, then that is just one more tailwind pushing the graphite market higher. The same macro trends apply to the large caps in uranium and REEs, like Molycorp and Cameco. At today's prices, they represent good value. They've fallen between 60–80% from their highs, they're very depressed and they have good potential to be turnaround plays, if re-inflation kicks in.
TMR: Thanks for your analysis; it has been interesting.
DS: My pleasure.
At the age of 18, David Skarica became the youngest person to pass the Canadian Securities Course. He is the author of Stock Market Panic! How to Prosper in the Coming Bear Market, The Contrarian Who Saved the World, and The Great Super Cycle: Profit from the Coming Inflation Tidal Wave and Dollar Devaluation. In 1998, he started Addicted to Profits, a newsletter focused on technical analysis of markets.
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1) Alec Gimurtu of The Metals Report conducted this interview. He personally and/or his family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: Eldorado Gold Corp.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of The Metals Report: Northern Graphite Corp. Interviews are edited for clarity.
3) David Skarica: I personally and/or my family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: Alabama Graphite Co. and Eldorado Gold Corp. I personally and/or my family am paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: Alabama Graphite Co. I was not paid by Streetwise Reports for participating in this interview.