House Mountain Partners

Gradually, then Suddenly: Adoption of New Technology in Lithium Brine Extraction

Chris BerryComment

By Chris Berry and Alex Grant

Livent’s announcement last week that they would invest in E3 Metals Corp. of Alberta, Canada to help develop the company’s direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology was a major signal to the industry that new technologies can play an important role in meeting future lithium demand for batteries. Traditionally, financial capital in the mining exploration sector has chased unproductive assets as commodity prices have risen, only to be squandered when those same prices mean revert. Is there perhaps a new model or funding mechanism available to add to lithium supply?

  We share the belief that new technologies are key to future lithium supply and here we’ll share some of the ideas from our recent conversations on the topic. For context, Alex co-founded Lilac Solutions, a DLE technology company, and now advises on technology strategy/flowsheet development for several lithium project developers.  Chris is a prominent minerals market analyst who provides corporate strategy and advisory services to investors and companies along the lithium ion supply chain. We both spend our days focused on how macroeconomic and technological forces affect the lithium industry from different angles, and we hope this article provides some actionable insight for project developers, investors, and other industry players.

The Strategic Metals Supply Chain in an Era of De-globalization

Chris Berry1 Comment

By Chris Berry

Ed Note: **This piece is a shorter version of a book I am writing on the economic, financial, and geopolitical aspects of the energy transition and will publish in 2020.


 

What a difference a year makes. The Summer of 2018 can arguably be remembered as a time when investor sentiment for lithium and cobalt took a turn for the worse. Since then a paradox in the sector has only become more glaring: while prices for lithium and cobalt in various forms have continued to fall, long term demand projections haven’t budged and are still very much intact. This disconnect has caused many investors to leave the sector for the “safety” of index funds or cash.

While it’s true that spodumene originating from Western Australia has flooded the market as I believed it would, pushing lithium prices down, conversion capacity in China remains somewhat of a question mark. How much is existing? What is the spare capacity? How much is under construction? When will a new equilibrium be reached?

As someone who has been to China recently, these questions have answers that change more frequently than you’d like to believe. Once built, scaled, and fine-tuned, investor logic dictates that this will push prices for lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide down further. While some sell side banks might agree here, the truth is, as always, somewhere in between.

Much the same can be said for cobalt which has a truly ugly chart (below). The recent decision by Glencore to put Mutanda, a truly world class copper/cobalt asset, on care and maintenance for the foreseeable future due to poor economics says volumes about resource nationalism and royalties hurting profitability (to put it mildly), but still says nothing about long-term demand for cobalt, which appears firmly intact.

Volatility in Lithium: A Gift or a Curse?

Chris Berry6 Comments

By Chris Berry (@cberry1)

 

With the sentiment around lithium almost universally bullish, the recent hammering of lithium equity share prices can be traced back to one or two reasons: either as a sign that valuations had exceeded reality or a specific catalyst has injected a dose of reality into the markets. It is possible for both to be true and while I think this is the case, anyone with a long-term bullish view of the lithium sector can view the recent carnage as a gift.

Q2 Energy Metals Earnings Review - Crunch Time for the Lithium Majors

Chris BerryComment

By Chris Berry (@cberry1)

 

With earnings season winding down and news of vehicle electrification hitting the wires daily, it makes sense to take stock of Q2 results from some of the major players in the Energy Metals space and position as necessary. After all, this is a cycle. There is a great deal of “macro” news I could discuss here, but decided to keep this note short and focused on the producer side of the Energy Metals business.

·         Lithium segment results from Albemarle (ALB:NYSE) and FMC (FMC:NYSE) were unsurprisingly strong (Ed note: SQM doesn’t report until later this month, but based on previous guidance, results similar to ALB and FMC can be expected).

o   ALB reported lithium segment sales of $244M in Q2 up 55% driven by higher pricing (up 31%) and volume (up 25%). Adjusted EBITDA margins of 47% continued a streak of at least eight straight quarters of +40% operating margins in the lithium segment. The company forecast higher costs going forward due to expansion and exploration expenses and also LOWER average lithium pricing for customers saying that Q3 and Q4 lithium results are likely to match Q1 – perhaps managing investor expectations downwards. The stock sold off hard, falling as much as 6% and is down another 2% as I write this. Given that ALB has returned over 40% in the past year and pundits on CNBC are recommending buying the stock at close to all-time highs, perhaps a pullback was long overdue.

Takeaways from the Recent Industrial Minerals Lithium Conference in Montreal

Chris BerryComment

What follows is an abbreviated version of  the most salient points from the recent lithium conference in Montreal with some context added. The full and more complete version was sent out to clients earlier this week. 

·         Attendance has risen by 100% each of the last three years with this year being the most diverse across the lithium supply chain. While upstream players were the most widely represented group, some new names from the automotive and tech sectors were in attendance – a difference from years past. The institutional investment community was more prevalent this year, but still a minority at the conference. This is likely due to the fact that the conference is less focused on investors.

·         My thesis of valuing “execution over exploration” seems to have taken hold as the most advanced development stories including Lithium Americas, Orocobre, Nemaska, and Neometals garnered the most attention at their respective presentations. Everyone is watching to see how the Nemaska and Lithium Americas capital raises unfold as an announcement on each is anticipated shortly. There was much more forward thinking at this year’s conference relative to years past.

Lithium Q1 2017 Review and Risks - The Train Keeps a Rollin'

Chris Berry3 Comments

By Chris Berry (@cberry1)

 

As I’ve discussed before, all commodities are cyclical and the Energy Metals are no exception. Anecdotal evidence suggests that battery grade lithium pricing remains healthy in the $14,000/t USD range even as lithium share price returns have moderated from their triple digit returns in 2016. Despite this, lithium shares continue to post impressive gains. Year to date in 2017, an equally weighted basket of lithium names I track has returned 45.1%. This is compared to a return of 5.98% for the SPX, 2.42% for the TSX, and 4.07% for the ASX.  

Here are the year-to-date returns for select lithium names sorted by USD market cap:

Lithium in 2017: Quacking Ducks, Execution, and Continuation of the Secular Bull

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By Chris Berry (@cberry1)

 

There is a famous phrase in resource investing:

“When the ducks are quacking, you feed them.”

The “ducks”, of course are the investment community and the “feeders” here are the companies with shares for sale.

In 2016, the ducks quacked loud and continually for lithium, and rightfully so. The price of lithium chemicals rose dramatically and almost all publicly traded lithium juniors rose as well with some well into the triple digits. Other than zinc or iron ore, lithium was a star performer in 2016.

As I said in June, managing risk and profit taking in the face of lithium’s impressive strength and secular bull market seemed to be the prudent strategy. My warning turned out to be accurate as many of the high flyers in the lithium space ran out of steam.