Philip Williams, Pinetree Capital’s VP of business development, says the spot price for uranium will likely explode above $100/lb. in 2011, much as it did in 2007 when it topped at $137. The good news, Philip says, is that even when uranium comes off its high, it will likely only fall to around $80. It’s around $73 now. If Philip’s right, we’re on the cusp of another round of uranium market madness. And you will want to read this Energy Report exclusive for some of Pinetree’s favorite uranium and lithium plays.
The Energy Report: In January, Macquarie Research said it expects the uranium spot price to reach $75/lb. in the first half of 2011 with the main driver being China’s growing energy demands. Where does Pinetree Capital Ltd. (TSX:PNP) see uranium trading at in 2011 relative to Macquarie’s forecast?
Philip Williams: We continue to be very bullish on the price of uranium. It’s had a very good run of late and we see that continuing for many of the same reasons that Macquarie does. I think for the early part of the year $75 is a good number, but it could surpass that substantially by year-end. By then, we think that the price will be at the $100 level and maybe even higher. We’ve got China doing quite a lot of stockpiling, especially on the spot market. We see the producers as being overcommitted right now. We also think that financial-speculator activity will come back to the market. All those events will culminate in a much higher price.
TER: The last time we saw a similar price spike in uranium was in 2007, when prices for yellowcake rose above $130 per pound. After that, prices dropped off dramatically. If these financial speculators are just looking for short-term money and getting out again, could we see a similar price drop?
PW: I think there are two things to think about. In 2006–2007, the uranium price was driven up mostly by financial speculators and I think they’re coming back into the market. When the run-up in the price was on, in some cases, a very small amount of uranium actually changed hands. With China’s recent uranium stockpiling, we’ve seen quite a lot of material go through the market at these prices. I think we’ll probably get a spike similar to the last one and it could be even higher, and then it will pull back. But I think we’re going to have a much higher base price this time than we did last time. After 2007, the price came back to about $40. I think it’s going to be substantially higher; it could be a price that falls back into the $80–$100 range.
TER: You mentioned China is stockpiling uranium, and China National Nuclear Corp. just received governmental approval to work on four new reactors. The European Commission just published a 10-year strategy plan that encourages development of nuclear energy as a means of clean energy. Japan’s Kyushu Electric Power Co., Inc. (TKY:9508.T) has submitted plans to build a third reactor at the country’s Sendai Plant, and India just brought a new reactor online. Where is North America in this global nuclear buildout?
PW: In a word North America is lagging. When it comes to nuclear, the U.S. is the largest generator of nuclear power with 30% of worldwide nuclear generation; but a reactor hasn’t been built in the U.S. in decades. While there are quite a few on the drawing board, only a handful is expected to come online by 2018. The real growth here is in the developing countries that you mentioned, China, India, etc.
TER: What’s largely responsible for the U.S.’ lagging nuclear growth?
PW: I think government policy is improving toward new nuclear energy but cost is still a big issue. Some of the numbers Macquarie recently published listed the cost of a new reactor built in China at about $2 billion versus $7 billion in the U.S.—that’s a huge factor. And natural gas-powered plants compete against new nuclear reactors. I think there’s still a lot of public opinion against new reactors being built. There are 104 reactors in the U.S. right now, so adding four is a very small growth rate compared to what’s happening in China and India. The U.S. was very successful on its first nuclear energy buildout but has since lost a lot of that technical knowhow, especially when it comes to building new reactors. Now, the U.S. is climbing back up that curve.
TER: Late last summer and into the fall, we watched big uranium producers like Cameco Corp. (TSX:CCO; NYSE:CCJ) and BHP Billiton Ltd. (NYSE:BHP; OTCPK:BHPLF) dip into the uranium market to meet their supply contracts because it was cheaper to buy uranium on the open market than bring on more production. What minimum price level is necessary for new uranium producers to be profitable?
PW: I expect the spot price will get to around $85 soon, and I think everything that’s in—or very close to—production will be profitable at that level. Lots of groups out there have done cost-curve analysis for future production that suggests we need a much higher number. It’s hard to give just one specific number but I think it’s at least $80/lb. It could even be higher depending on cost inflation. The next generation of uranium projects are lower-grade, more technically challenging and farther from infrastructure and major markets than most of the current mines. So, these new projects require a significantly higher uranium price to make them profitable. You need a higher incentive just to get them into production.
TER: But just a few months ago, we had $40 uranium. What’s going to sustain the uranium price at $80?
PW: You need to distinguish between the spot price and the term price. The spot price tends to be a lot more volatile. That price was $40 but the term price was above that at the time. Now, the term price is below the spot price. But it’s that long-term price that applies to new projects because a lot of these projects will forward sell their production into that price.
Fundamental supply and demand issues are ultimately going to sustain the price. Going back to that Macquarie report you quoted, we’re seeing a lot of strategic buyers like utilities from Asia and other places buying projects outright. At some point, it’s going to be very difficult to get production at any price because it will be all tied up. The end users will be integrated in such a way that they’re already contracted for any material produced. When you get into that type of environment, the price can be as high as it needs to be.
TER: But JP Morgan was far less bullish on the short-term price for uranium. It predicted uranium prices in the neighborhood of $60–$65 in 2011. Why is one big bank so much more bullish than the other?
PW: I think the difference, which Macquarie discusses in its report, is that they missed the China stockpiling. Again, you’re talking about what’s happening today between buyers and sellers that need material today—not what people are looking for in the future. When China comes in and buys close to 3,000 tons of uranium oxide in December alone, that really impacts the spot market. Because the spot market represents just a fraction of the total uranium required in any given year, it is subject to much more swings in price than the term price.
TER: How large is that fraction?
PW: I think it’s 20%–30%. Last year and the year before were particularly active years on the spot market. That’s what gives us the confidence that this move on the spot market is real and can be sustained because of the volumes that are trading on the spot market. The spot price is much more transparent; the term price is far less so. It’s a referenced price that’s provided by the pricing groups, but it’s not as transparent as the spot price in terms of where it might actually be on any given day. It could be higher; but until an actual contract transacts that meets those specific criteria, it doesn’t actually change.
TER: What’s the term price right now?
PW: About $73.
TER: As of Sept. 30, 2010, Pinetree Capital had 55 different investments in uranium. That accounted for 18% of your holdings. I dare say that that’s even greater now based on stock-price appreciation since then. Either way, that’s a sizeable bet on uranium. Could you tell us about your investment thesis and why you own so many positions in so many different plays?
PW: That September number also includes coal. We have one very significant coal position that represented a large portion of that amount and that’s Cline Mining Corp. (TSX:CMK). Cline has done great since the end of September and we think there’s a lot of potential there. As you pointed out, there have been some tremendous performances by the uranium stocks since September. We’ve always been big fans of this space.
We saw the long-term picture early on, or our Chairman and CEO Sheldon Inwentash did. This is a very simple macro argument—the world needs more electricity, especially clean power, and nuclear is in the best position to provide that. With that in mind, we wanted to have a big exposure to the uranium space, especially after the price pullback from $138 to $40. There were junior explorers and developers whose stock prices went so low that their value was basically being discounted to almost nothing. At that point, we decided to take a very proactive position in the space and rebuild the portfolio. We sold quite a few of our uranium names at the peak in 2007. We made a strategic decision to return early to the space and identified a number of juniors that were well positioned. I think our thesis has proven correct to this point.
TER: What are some of your more promising uranium holdings?
PW: We have a number of names. We focus mostly on the junior and the development-stage companies. We like names that have great assets but have been mispriced in the market and good management teams that can see those assets forward. Some of companies we are most bullish on would be names like Mega Uranium Ltd. (TSX:MGA), a long-held holding. It’s an Australia-focused uranium developer, and Australia has the most uranium of any country in the world. There are some mines in production now. A change in politics and philosophy in the country called for even more uranium mines. Mega’s Lake Maitland Project could be the very first, or possibly second, new mine to be developed. It’s in the feasibility study stage and soon the company will have some detailed information about the economics of that project.
TER: And it has a Japanese partner at Lake Maitland Project, correct?
PW: Yes, Mega has a very strong partner in the Japanese group JAURD (the Japan Australia Uranium Resources Development Co. Ltd.). And shortly it will be in a position to capitalize on the increasing price and shortage of advanced-stage uranium projects and companies. We’re excited about that one.
One of our names that’s had a tremendous amount of success in the last few months and really has just started to get a following is a company called Rockgate Capital Corp. (TSX:RGT). It has a growing resource in Mali, West Africa. We’ve seen a number of African names build and be taken over, including Mantra Resources Ltd. (TSX:MRU), which was taken over by Russia’s AtomRedMetzoloto (ARMZ) Uranium Holding Co., a Russian uranium miner that is wholly owned by Atomenergoprom OAO—a subsidiary of Rosatom and an extension of Uranium One Inc. (TSX:UUU) for a very attractive premium to the price that Rockgate’s trading at now. We’re starting to see monies that were invested in Mantra start to shift over to Rockgate as the company grows its resource. Rockgate’s recent financing puts the company in a very strong position to expand its resource and move its project ahead through economic studies.
One of the geographic regions we focus on that a lot of people have not is in South America. One of our key positions there is a company called U3O8 Corp. (TSX.V:UWE). U308 has projects in Guyana, Colombia and Argentina. This year, U308 is slated to expand its NI 43-101 resources at all of those projects by almost tenfold. We think there’s a lot of upside as other investors start to see South America the way we saw it two years ago—as the next frontier for uranium development.
One company in the U.S. is Energy Fuels, Inc. (TSX:EFR). We’ve been around that story for quite some time. What we saw last year was a very strong management team moving toward a new license to permit and build a mill in the U.S.—something that hasn’t been done for a long, long time. It paid off when the company successfully got that approval earlier this year. We think Energy Fuels is well ahead of the pack in terms of conventional uranium mining in the U.S. In the U.S., there’s a scarcity of uranium supply. We see Energy Fuels as a consolidator in the space. It’s just in a tremendous position to capitalize on what we think is a very strategic place to be in the U.S.
TER: And there’s some vanadium in the mix there on the Colorado Plateau.
PW: Yes, these Colorado Plateau projects, and even those in Utah contain certain ratios of vanadium to uranium. So, you get a nice kick from the vanadium byproduct, even though they’re still fundamentally uranium projects. Energy Fuels is well positioned to deliver new production and the first new mill permitted in the U.S.
Another one that we’re quite keen on right now is a company called Mawson Resources Ltd. (TSX:MAW; OTCPK:MWSNF; Fkft:MRY). This is in an interesting story because it’s much like Energy Fuels, but it’s actually uranium and gold. I would say almost freakishly high-grade gold and uranium. The company acquired a portfolio of projects in Finland from AREVA (PAR:CEI) last year. In prospecting at one of the projects, the company found probably the highest-grade gold and uranium anyone has ever seen on surface—over 20,000 grams per ton (g/t) gold in some places and more than 40% uranium in some places. It’s very early stage exploration at that project, but the company’s been able to delineate a 6 km. strike length to the trend at over 200 meters in width. These high-grade showings are pervasive across the trend and it’s never been drilled. It’s a new discovery with very limited work; but when you see those kinds of results on surface, it’s very, very encouraging.
TER: Does that mean Mawson is putting some of its other projects next door in Sweden aside for the moment?
PW: To a certain extent, yes. There’ll be some money spent on those projects but the bulk of the funds will be directed toward the Rompas Project, the high-grade uranium/gold project in Finland. Why? It’s the results. Mawson is waiting to get the final permits for a drill program that could commence as early as February. There’s just a lot of blue sky in that story and a lot to be learned about what could be there.
TER: Let’s move away from uranium, toward another clean energy commodity that’s getting a lot of play—lithium. Increasingly, lithium is being used in batteries to power electric vehicles (EVs). Those were nickel-metal hydride batteries just a few years ago, but now they’re mostly lithium-ion batteries. Lithium is also finding its way into some other new technologies. Judging by the number of investments that you have in lithium plays, Pinetree is betting heavily in its investment potential. Why did you get into lithium?
PW: A couple of years ago, we saw the potential in this space in terms of electric cars. Our analysis showed that even though some other battery types would fit into the mix, lithium would ultimately be the dominant player. There are a very small number of players that dominate on the production side; in fact, there’s a lot of room for juniors to come in and acquire projects—brine, hard rock or clay projects. You can acquire projects for relatively low costs and add a significant amount of value through exploration and development. We saw that as a great opportunity to make some very strong returns.
TER: Does Pinetree show a preference for brine versus hard rock lithium plays?
PW: We have in the past but we don’t like to make general statements about one type of project versus another. We really look at the individual investment opportunity. In some cases, the hard rock assets might be so mispriced that you could make a much better return even if you took a stance ideologically that the brines were going to be the better projects overall. For example, we’ve been quite positive on Canada Lithium Corp. (TSX:CLQ; OTCQX:CLQMF) even though we’ve spent most of our time focusing on the brines and names like Lithium Americas Corp. (TSX:LAC), Orocobre Limited (TSX:ORL; ASX:ORE) and others in South America. But really we try to find those mispriced or misunderstood assets where management has the wherewithal to move ahead, add value and realize the right price in the market.
TER: Yes, but some of those brine lithium deposits have potassium in the mix. If your processing circuit is developed properly, you could get potash as well as lithium.
PW: Absolutely. There’s tremendous opportunity in those kinds of plays.
TER: What are some that Pinetree is rather bullish on?
PW: Lithium Americas is at the top of our list. We’ve been involved in that story from the very early days, and it’s just blossomed into a tremendous story. It’s one of the largest brine deposits on the planet. The company’s made tremendous strides on the technical side, as well as understanding the economics. We’re going to see two major studies published this year with a prefeasibility study first, and then a feasibility study by year-end. The story has come together in a very short amount of time, but we see tremendous upside.
TER: And Lithium Americas’ Salar de Cauchari lithium project is not far from one owned by another company you mentioned, Orocobre.
PW: In fact, Cauchari and Orocobre’s Olaroz project are abutting each other.
TER: Given the proximity to each other, did Pinetree make its investment in Lithium Americas with an eye toward potential consolidation?
PW: In general, we always look for assets that we think will ultimately be consolidated or could be the consolidators. We certainly see that as something that should happen in that particular region. We’re not sure whether Lithium Americas will be the consolidator or not, but the company has tremendous partners and could easily go it alone. As I said, it’s one of the largest brine resources on the planet; so, it’s not a requirement but it’s certainly an exit that’s possible for LAC.
TER: Are you vested in Orocobre, too?
PW: We’re not a disclosed holder of Orocobre.
TER: Could you leave us with thoughts on how these clean technologies are influencing the mining sector and some of the opportunities they are creating?
PW: One area that we didn’t touch on is rare earth elements, which are used in a lot of cleantech applications. We also have quite a few investments in that area. We believe there will be strong opportunities in the cleantech space over the next few years for many reasons. China is dominating rare earths production, and finding supply outside of China is an absolute must for companies that want to be in those cleantech spaces. We’re tremendously bullish on rare earths, at least for the next year or two. Clean energy is certainly one reason we’re in the uranium space. When you stack up nuclear versus coal-generated power, uranium is a hands-down winner. We see more and more people getting behind nuclear energy, and it’s a great place to be vested.
TER: Thank you for talking with us today, Philip.
Philip Williams joined Pinetree Capital in January 2009 and was appointed to the position of resources analyst. Philip brings almost 10 years of financial market experience to the company. Prior to joining Pinetree, he spent five years working for several institutional brokerage firms in the equity research department. Most recently, he was a uranium analyst focused on companies with advanced development projects in Australia, the United States and Namibia.