The other precious metals and where to find them

Think of metals and we think of iron and copper, or gold and silver. But there are many other scarce metals you can invest in. Here, we highlight vanadium, and tip one mining stock to keep an eye on.

Ultra high-strength and super-light steels are the plastics of the 21st century. There is high demand for these steels for use in everything from jet engines to rail components. In turn, there is a big push for the quirky metals so critical in making them. And in those quirky metals are good opportunities for investors. One of them is vanadium.

For some industries, such as airlines, finding a more fuel-efficient way to do business is a matter of survival. According to a recent Financial Times article, it's "triggered a massive jump in the price of obscure and scarce metals that are used to improve the fuel economy of jet engines."

The quest for fuel-efficiency goes beyond just the airlines, of course. It extends to rail cars and automobiles, to power plants and high-speed drilling. Vanadium's primary use: to strengthen steel. Combine it with titanium and you get the best strength-to-weight ratio of any engineered material. That makes it practically irreplaceable in aerospace and other industries. Companies also use vanadium to produce sulfuric acid, and in nuclear power plants. Vanadium also promises new advances in battery technology. Giant vanadium batteries power wind farms and solar power plants.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

In the great infrastructure boom, vanadium takes its place at the table of other rare and obscure metals that are growing much more important. The price of vanadium, as with many of these metals, is way up. For most of last year, vanadium cost $40 per kilogram. In February, it hit $90 per kilogram. It has since come back some, but it rallied to over $80 again recently.

The rocketing vanadium price is no mystery. Demand is strong, while supplies are constrained. A big part of the supply constraint lies in South Africa. That's because a massive electricity shortage is preventing many mines from operating at full capacity. As the CEO of Windimurra Vanadium, an Australian mining company, put it: "The market is very sensitive to power supply issues. Large South African miners are facing up to 15% restrictions to their power supply The supply of vanadium will remain tight, and that's factoring in a best scenario for South African producers, which is no guarantee." In March, Xstrata, which produces about 12% of the world's vanadium, said it would cut its deliveries by 10-15% in the second quarter. And Highveld, the world's biggest producer of vanadium, said in February that power outages posed a "considerable threat" to future output.

The vanadium market also has some interesting quirks. For example, 98% of the world's vanadium comes from only three countries - China, Russia and South Africa. South Africa, we know, has power issues. China's Sichuan province, devastated by earthquake, was also a rich vanadium producer. Moreover, China is becoming as much a consumer of vanadium as a producer. So vanadium exports from China are dropping. Last year, China ended its export credits for vanadium because it needed the metal more at home. This year, China went further and put an export tariff in place.

China's vanadium use per quantity of steel is still well behind the curve compared with the US's If China were to use as much vanadium as US steel producers, the vanadium market would face a one-third increase in demand. That's a pretty nice long-term tail wind for vanadium.

Russia's Evraz Group is the world's largest producer of vanadium, with about 27% of supply. I think it's safe to say that Russia has been an uneven producer of certain commodities. And as the Russians like to change the rules of the game as it suits them, I would not rely too heavily on Russian supply. And finally, there are no stockpiles of vanadium or substitutes of equal quality.

So where are the opportunities?

It's tough to find a good pure play that is easy to buy. Most of the producers are in China or South Africa or Australia. And these producers make lots of other metals. You wouldn't buy Xstrata just because you like vanadium. You'd also have to understand a host of other metals that contribute much more to Xstrata's bottom line than vanadium. One interesting company is Denison Mines. Vanadium could represent up to a third of Denison Mines' revenues in 2008. The problem with Denison is that it is mainly a uranium play. To invest in Denison, you have to like uranium; you get the vanadium exposure as a bonus. Denison is probably cheap, although I haven't looked at it in great detail.

Some of the best ideas are just in the prospecting stage or emerging as producers. There are a few in Australia, including Windimurra Vanadium and Reed Resources. Both have big vanadium resources and could each eventually represent 6-8% of global production.

One of my favorite vanadium ideas I'm keeping an eye on is Largo Resources (CVE:LGO). Largo has the world's highest-grade vanadium mine, in Brazil. It's close to infrastructure and located in a mining-friendly state. The company should have a completed feasibility study in July. Production should start in 2010. It's highly speculative, but promising.

The company also has a molybdenum and tungsten project in the Yukon, called Northern Dance. These metals are also important in infrastructure.

Scarcity is a great thing when you are an investor. Finding companies that own something scarce - with good long-term demand behind it - is a winning formula for finding good ideas.

This article was written by Chris Mayer for Whiskey and Gunpowder.