Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Real Supply and Demand of Oil and Other Commodities

The market irrationality has reached a new record. Spot price of the crude oil free falls to $31.41 a barrel (WTI Cushing Spot) two days after OPEC cut production by 2.2MB per day and made clear that they wanted to see $75 oil and will continue to cut if necessary. As OPEC vowed to keep cutting until they see $75 oil, oil should go up, but it actually went down. What gives?

In search for an answer, people blame it on "the oil demand has collapsed". Global oil demand did NOT suddenly collapse in the two days after the OPEC announcement. Look in a mirror for the answer. Yes that says you! Every one bet on raising oil after OPEC cut. The market ALWAYS fools most of the people most of the time, logical or not. Fundamentals work in long terms, not in short term moves. If you bet on short term moves, try to bet against most people, instead of bet on fundamentals.

Has the global oil demand collapsed? US oil import in October actually surged. Read the EIA provided weekly US oil import data. In the week ending Dec. 19, total US oil imports were 12.780M/day, versus 12.907M/day in the same week a year ago. That's only a 1.0% drop. Consider the surging oil demand in China, Russia, India, the global oil demand probably sees a slight increase or at least remain flat.

Do not forget Peak Oil. The world's top ten oil fields are all in steep production declines. Mexico's Cantarell Oil Field is declining more than 33% a year! According to Matt Simmons, Mexico, our 2nd largest oil supplier, will CEASE to export oil by the end of 2009.

The free fall of oil completely defied logic. I did purchase some USO a bit too early after the OPEC decision. Judging from what happened to other commodities, oil price may continue to drop to such low level that most oil producers can no longer make a profit. At that point people may finally be convinced that oil producers will cut production for real, instead of cheating on the OPEC production quota.

The fundamentals of commodities supply and demand can not change in just a few months. As I discussed before, the global credit crunch resulted in forced liquidation of global supply chains, as every one liquidate their inventory to raise cash in order to survive. The inventory sales flood the market to create a false over-supply situation while supply destruction is playing out at break-neck pace as unprofitable mines are shut down.

Due to the credit crisis, global commercial activities are brought to a grinding halt due to lack of credit. The global shipping industry is hit hardest. Read my analysis on what happened in the shipping industry and why I bought shipping stocks like DryShips (DRYS) near the low. If you followed my past articles, you know I have followed DRYS for a long time but never bought before. I believe DRYS could be like the coal stock JRCC I picked up around $4 last year, gaining some 15+ fold from the low in a matter of a few months!

BTW I continue to call for people to sell JRCC and other coal stocks (ACI, ANR, BTU, CNX, FCL and FDG) at any good rally. The US coal market is now a bear market. Coal is long term bullish but short term bearish. Obama's Global Warming team doesn't help coal either. I knew Steve Chu when I attended his seminar on his laser atom trapping research, two years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. I am sad a brilliant physicist was tricked by the Global Warming Hoax. He was too occupied to spend 10 minutes scrutinizing the global warming claims using his basic physics training. But in any case, the coal sector is not going to be a happy sector for a while. Mr. Secretary Steve Chu, please spare a few dimes to the Cold Fusion research scientists, you know, as an experimental physicist, no one could continue to do the same experiments for 19 years, unless there really IS something in it. Cold fusion is real science and humanity's best hope of overcoming the energy crisis due to fossil fuel depletion.

We need to make a distinction between the aberration caused by the credit freeze up, and the real fundamentals of supply and demand. The credit freeze up only has a temporary effect in halting global goods movements and suppressing or delaying demand. It can not last long. Governments around the worlds are printing fiat money like crazy and injecting huge liquidities to get the credit moving again. There are clear signs it's starting to work. Banks are NOT in the business to hoard cash. They are in the business of taking in deposits and then loan money out to earn the spread of interest rates. If banks do not resume regular business soon, the whole banking industry will disappear from our society. That is not going to happen.

The real supply and demand is no where near a catastrophe. World Bank predicted a 2% drop in international trade next year. MasterCard reported a 3% y-o-y drop in US gasoline purchases. US Census Bureau reports a 4.4% increase of goods exports and 3.9% increase of goods imports in October, compare with last year. The scariest number is Japanese government reported a 26% drop in export to the USA in a recent month. Well dah?! Japanese count numbers in Japanese Yen, the same US$ amount is now 23% lower in Yen compared with a year ago. So Japanese export in US$ terms probably dropped a mere 3%. Every one is shouting "demand destruction" but how many actually dig into the data and scrutinized the facts?

As I discussed, the modernization of China, India etc. is the fundamental driving force behind the global commodities bull cycle. This transition has been going on for some 30 years and can go on for decades more, as the per capital consumption of many raw materials and goods in China is still far below even the global averages. Read "China Eats the World". China's current highway mileage is worth about ONE INCH of highway per person. There is a gigantic demand of steel and cement if China provides its citizens at least one finger or one foot of highway.

The basic demands come from basic human needs. During bad economy times, people cut spending on luxuries but continue to demand on things that are essential. So let's exam what is luxury and what is necessity in the people's lives. First let's not confuse luxury with expensive items. Something expensive doesn't necessarily make it a luxury, and something cheap doesn't mean it is a necessity. This is important to keep in mind.

Drinking Coca-Cola is a luxury; driving a car to work is NOT; Brushing your teeth with tooth paste, rinse your mouth using mouth rinse liquid, or using shaving creams while shaving, is a luxury; but visiting a dentist for dental cleaning or a dental crowning, is a necessity. Watching big screen TV is a luxury, but owning a computer to surf the internet, is essential. Living in a 5-star hotel is a luxury, but living in a place with roof over your head, is absolutely essential.

Companies that produce "luxury" items should be considered good short target now, particularly those big blue chips stocks few thought about shorting. In early August, 08 I called for shorting soft drink companies like Coca Cola (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) as I believe soft drinks will become non-essential luxury items. These two stocks have moved down a bit but they are still good long term shorts.

Now come to think about it, do people really need to use an ever growing amount of toothpaste, mouth rinse liquid or shaving creams? Even Albert Einstein did not use shaving cream. He just used warm water. I am thinking about shorting related stocks like Colgate-Palmolive Co. (CL). With a saturated market and shrinking profit margin, it's ridiculous that CL is priced at more than twice its annual sales and 15 times its book value. The short ratio seems to be low so CL may be a good long term short. On similar consideration maybe one should also consider Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) as a possible short. The difference is PG's is at a more reasonable 2.83 times book value, and it is well diversified into a lot of different products. So I will be cautious and want to do more DD before shorting PG.

Three things in life are absolutely essential: eating, living and moving. Eating is of course the most important. However there is a lot of room in cutting eating cost, without cutting nutrition. People will cut on non-essential and unhealthy processed food, and rely more on cheaper fresh food. One example is potato chips and pop corns. Why would any one eat these junk food? Frito Lay came to mind but it's part of Pepsi Co (PEP). Any one can recommend a good snack food producer to short?

There is much less to be compromised in living. For 99.99% of Americans not living under a roof is unthinkable. You either own a home or rent a home, one way or another. Surprisingly, the majority of the home builders, like DHI, CTX, LEN, RYL, are still around today. People either own a home, or have to rent one. So if people are not buying houses, then there must be a booming rental market and a booming business building rental units. Is it time to buy home builders as many of them seem to have gone up from their lows? I am skeptical. We need to see at least half of home builders go out of business to remove enough excessive capacity, before the remaining ones can return to profitability. There are so many good things to buy now. It's not time to go into home builders yet.

I see even less room to be compromised on moving. The mobility is an essential human needs more important than eating and living. In the Great Depression movie "The Grapes of Wrath", the family lost everything and they had little to eat. But they kept their family truck, which allowed them to move to California, find a job and find a place to live. Without a four wheels car you are reduced to just two legs. Without two legs and you are reduced to two wheels. That's how important mobility is.

Car ownership is an essential part of American lifestyle. You need a car to go to work or go shopping. Even if you do not have a job, you still need a car to move around looking for jobs, or go get some help, or to move to a better place. Has the global auto demand collapsed? Not by a long stretch! Just look at the global oil consumption. The Big Three US auto makers, particularly GM, are at the mercy of government help now. But it is a problem of the Big Three unable to compete with foreign auto makers, not a problem in fundamentals of the global auto industry.

The current credit crisis forced many people to delay buying new cars, but it also means a strong pent-up demand to come back soon. Historically, due to the skyrocketing oil prices and inflation, auto demand collapsed in early 1980s and GM stock hit a low in mid 1982. But just a little over a year later, in 1983, US auto sales reached a new record high as consumers who delayed car purchases found they still need a new car when the old car breaks down.

I believe it is in America's best national interest, as well as in the interest of the consumers, to keep the Big Three alive and keep the competition alive, and the vehicle prices low. But I do NOT advocate buying GM stocks as an investment. There is no reason to believe they can pay off the huge mountain of debt and pension obligation, and start to make profit any time soon. So there is no reason to invest. Both the longs and shorts in GM stocks right now are just gambling against each other, trying to pick a few dollars from each other's pocket.

We should invest in companies that have been indiscriminately hit hardest, but are financially strong and have good future prospect of profitability. The best sectors to be in right now are mining companies and bulk shipping companies. The shipping sector should rebound sooner and stronger than anything else, due to the pent-up shopping demand from the goods stockpiled on harbors waiting for credit letters. That is why I started massively purchasing shipping stocks like DRYS and EXM. There are others, like DSX, EGLE and GNK.

But my best favorites remain the by-product rare metals, palladium, and cobalt. Both metals are critical both during peace times and during war times. Stillwater mining (SWC), America's only palladium mine, remains my biggest holdings, although DRYS now catch up to be my No. 2. Another palladium mining company to own is North American Palladium (PAL). I also own a significant stake in OM Group (OMG), the world's dominant cobalt chemical company.

You've got to like palladium and cobalt because both metals are mostly by-product metals, and supply of both could be interrupted by a single-point-of-failure, which is very real. I talked about a possible Russian Checkmate. Norilsk Nickel (NILSY.PK) could suspend unprofitable production due to low nickel price, hence cut off 45% of the world's palladium supply.

Now it seems things at Norilsk are playing out in better favor of palladium than I thought! Norilsk resumed the US$2B stock buyback. That leaves them $2B less in cash and closer to a liquidity squeeze that will force them to shut down the unprofitable mine soon. Norilsk also announced production cut. Nickel production in 2008 cut to 298K tons from planned 300K tons, and reduces to 290K to 305K tons next year. The cut in palladium is much more dramatic, from a planned 3.05M ounces to actually 2.764M ounces in 2008, and 2.61M to 2.62M ounces production next year. Why the production cut in palladium is much bigger than nickel?

Norilsk explained there are two reasons for lower palladium production:

Reason 1: they will reduce local mineral ore production and purchase third party intermediates (metal concentrates) to supplement nickel production. Nickel concentrates purchased from third party will contain no palladium, only nickel.

Reason 2: much lower PGM content in the ores. Norilsk's mineral reserve statement shows that the nickel rich part of ores actually contain less palladium (2.91% Ni and 7.41g/t Pd) while the nickel poor ores contain more palladium (1.19% Ni and 11.92g/t Pd) . If they seek to reduce capital expenditures, they will produce the ores rich in nickel and poor in palladium. Using the content ratio of the richest nickel ore, if Norilsk's polar region nickel production is 225K tons, then the palladium production will only be 1.922M ounces, versus the normal 3.05M ounce.

It's end of December now and the annual Russian government stockpile palladium shipment has NOT showed up in Switzerland. Maybe the Russian palladium stockpile sale has finally ended for good. It's in Russian's strategic defense stockpile. There is no reason to sell at current low palladium price. The Russian Government has taken effective control of Norilsk Nickel, and will support the mining company by buying up its metal products.

What better support can the Russian Government extend, than to simply buy up Norilsk's palladium production and re-stock the nation's defense stockpile? In doing so they can bid up the global price of palladium to over $2000 an ounce, which means a cool extra $6B per year for Norilsk, a money they desperately need right now.

These numbers and facts continue to convince me that Stillwater Mining (SWC) is the best mining stock I can own for the next 5 years. That is the reason I continue to hold a dominant position in this mining stock, America's ONLY producer of the strategic PGM metals.

Full Disclosure: The author is heavily invested in SWC, DRYS, OMG and PAL. I currently have no position in GM, KO, PEP or CL.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How to Save The US Economy Part Two

The global credit crunch has brought virtually all economic activities to a grinding halt, except for one which is booming: Piracy from Somali. But even the pirates, despite of their lucrative and booming business, can not get a loan from CitiBank (C) to expand their fleets. I predict the pirate business will collapse as there will be no more ships to hijack: With BDI Shipping Index dropped to 666 on 12/04/08, cape size ships (100K+ tons) are leased for only $2,345 a day, a 99% drop from $234,000 a day just 5 months ago. Ships are now better off laid at harbors than to fight the pirates. Is BDI = 666 a sign of Armageddon for the world?

I think there is big hope in global economy and there is little hope in the US economy. I actually started to aggressively buy shares of Dry Ships (DRYS) near its recent lows, around about $4. Many ironic things happen for reasons. During the WW II, non-Christian China extended helps to the European Jews escaping from Hitler by letting them come to Shanghai without a visa, while Christian western nations kept their doors shut. Today, the communist China which Jim Rogers called "the best capitalist in the world", is coming to the rescue of the world's capitalism, by doing the right things. Today the man with a Muslin middle name could save America!

China's aggressive plan to boost spending and stimulate domestic demands will save and revitalize the global economy. Based on its huge population basis, China's per capital consumption of many basic things are still far below even global averages and hence have a lot of rooms for growth. With 1/5 of global population, China consumes 1/12 of the world's oil, owns 1/28th of the world's passenger cars, Read "China Eats the World" to get a better picture what Chinese demand means for the world. China's relentless economic growth amid global resources depletion is the fundamental basis for a long period of commodities bull, regardless any temporary set backs. As China turn its economy from one which is export oriented to one that's domestic consumption oriented, the demand on global commodities will be stronger, not weaker. There is a good reason that well over half of China's overseas investments are in the mining sectors.

But the Americans people will have to wake up and do right things to save the US economy. We either succeed, or we will be marginalized and become irrelevant as the rest of the world moves forward, leaving America behind. I voted for Obama as I hope he is humble enough to listen to humble people like me instead of special interests. He needs a lot of helps to get his job done. I am willing to do what I can to help him, but only if he listens. Obama is calling all Americans to contribute ideas. I know exactly how to save America from an economic collapse so I am hoping that my ideas can make it into his ears in some way.

My first help to Obama is helping him with his difficulty in picking a proper inauguration gift for his wife. Obviously Obama must have thought about a rhodium ring, but then backed off the idea. I think he was smart to have considered rhodium, and wise to give it up.

There is no better indicator of the health of global economy than the commodities sector. As I discussed, rhodium was the brightest star in the commodity boom, haven raised from $300 to $10000 per ounce. But rhodium was also hit hardest, having fallen to $700-ish recently. The rhodium price swing is just too much change even for Obama, and it surely will raise public eyebrows that you purchased the perceived most luxurious precious metal during hard times.

Obama should buy Michelle an Iridium Ring. Iridium, just like rhodium, is a PGM metal. The noble metal iridium is just as rare and precious as rhodium, but it is much humble than rhodium. Iridium price never experienced the glory and then the collapse of rhodium. Out of all noble metals, iridium is the noblest one: Its melting point is 500 degrees higher than platinum; It's the most corruption (corrosion) resistant metal in nature, and extremely hard. The character of iridium is so precious and unique it is a perfect expression of an eternal bond and commitment, a perfect fit for a gift to our next First Lady. Iridium is the second densest element in nature and the most dense one is Obamium (oops, Osmium). Some say the densest is Bushcronium, an element that like they say in Texas, is all neutron and no proton. Unlike rhodium's freefall from glory, iridium is a phoenix raised from ashes.

So President-elect Obama, be sure to buy a custom made iridium ring for the first lady as it is a perfect symbol in defining your presidency and your character, and a daily reminder to yourself that American people deserve an Obamium that's different from Bushcronium.

The root of America's economic problem is we create too little and spend too much. We live beyond our means, which is unsustainable. We created one debt bubble after another to pop up the system and continue reckless spending and accumulation of debt, only to make it worse. We must head directly to the problem of over-spending and under-producing. The budget must be balanced, but it can NOT be done by tax hike or spending cut. The solution must be found outside conventional thinking. We need some revolutional thinking to solve the problem.

  1. Stop throwing trillions of dollars at financial institutions. They are blackholes and anything thrown at them makes the blackholes grow bigger. Soon the blackholes will be big enough to swallow America in one swoop. Let them fail! What's good of banks if they are not lending money out? I can lend my money to my neighbor without a bank's help!

  2. Get rid of the Federal Reserve System; get rid of IRS; get rid of personal and business income tax. This gets rid of the need for people to file annual income tax return. If there is no income tax to pay, then there can not be any tax fraud or tax evasion.

  3. Tax consumptions, NOT incomes or profits. The government provides public services and protections so people can go about their lives. If you are consuming more goods and services, you are likely also using more government services so you need to pay more tax.

The third point is the most important point: Tax on consumptions, not on incomes or business profits. Is this unfair that billionaires like Warren Buffet who lives a modest life could end up paying little tax compare to his fortune? Not at all! If a billionaire spends his fortune on luxuries, he will surely pay the consumption tax for it. But if he re-invests his fortune to expand business and create more jobs and do all kind of good things to the economy, and at the end of day he donates the bulk of his fortune to charities that promote the well being of the society, why should he pay more tax beyond what he pays for his own personal consumption?

California's current budget woe is a good example why it's bad idea to tax on business and personal incomes. During bad economic times, when the government desperately needs to spend more money, the tax revenues dry up, as individuals lose jobs and businesses are not making profits, hence paying no tax. The government then has to tax the remaining profitable businesses even harder, driving them out of business as well, or driving them out of state. Likewise, on the national level, businesses are moving operations to overseas and bring away jobs with them. Rich people migrate to foreign countries and even denounce their US citizenship. Capitals are flowing out; cheap foreign goods are flowing in. The whole reason of the downfall of the country is the irrational tax and spending system.

President Obama's job No. 1 is to bring America's Most Famous Fugitive back home! Not the terrorist, but a true patriot and believer of free market capitalism, named Jim Rogers, he openly confessed to have sold almost all of his US assets and dollars, sold his house, sold all furniture: sofa, bed, tables and chairs, and moved to Singapore. He is a billionaire refugee as he sees no hope left for the country. Send Air Force One to bring him home! Offer him a good job and he might be helpful to salvage America. Likewise, use people like Peter Schiff and Karl Denninger. They have good ideas what's wrong and how to fix things.

Why Jim Rogers would call China the "Best Capitalist in the World" is quite striking. Thirty years ago China was a completely different world. In 1978, China was on the brink of catastrophic social, economic and political collapse, after ten years chaos of the Cultural Revolution destroyed the country's remaining economic infrastructures. To Americans today it may sounds like an ideal society: "bankruptcy" and "unemployment" were phrases never heard about as they simply did not exist in a socialist system. Are we going in the direction of socialism if we now bail out every one and no failure is allowed?

Deng Xiao-Ping changed China and the world forever. He visited America to learn how free market capitalism works and why is it successful. He adopted Dr. T.D. Lee's suggestion and started a series programs to send Chinese students to study in America, including the CUSPEA which I personally benefited from. More importantly, he started some experimental special economic zones to invite overseas investors to come and open businesses, promising full support of the government in all means possible, relaxed labor laws, prohibition of labor unions, and not a penny of the business profit shall be taxed. The only tax is a low, symbolic land usage tax. It was quite controversy at the time, because how could any communist allow a capitalist come and open a sweatshop to rip off local workers, and get off with the profits and not paying a penny? But it worked; capitals flowed in, first in trickle and eventually like flood. China's economy prospered. The rest is history.

Exactly thirty years later, President Obama needs to pay a return visit to China and learn how the Chinese succeeded in the economic reform and how America can benefit from it. Things can be turned around quickly; stop taxing any business profits, then capitals from all over the world will flood into America and open business here and create jobs at home. When Americans have good jobs and they don't need to pay income tax, they will have more money to spend and create more consumption tax for the government. Wouldn't it be wonderful?

In light of current economic crisis, I am hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. So my investment strategy reflects both possible outcomes. I am hoping that somehow my humble words can make its way to some one close to Obama, and somehow indeed he is persuaded to buy an iridium ring for the first lady, and some how the iridium metal will get him interested in the rest of the noble metal family, particularly palladium. Mr. Obama needs to know that America is blessed with a world unique palladium mine in Montana: Stillwater Mining (SWC), and that palladium enable cold fusion, a physics discovery which is being suppressed by the establishment science camps, but which could bring to the world virtually inexhaustible cheap new energy source. He needs to take cold fusion seriously, as it is the best solution to the looming global energy crisis and bring about long lasting global peace.

Short of a quick cold fusion break through, America needs to rely on its own natural resources. We have a tremendous amount of coal. But vehicles burn oil, not coal. There is a chemical process that turns coal into synthetic fuel; it needs cobalt, which is in the same family as rhodium and iridium! Iridium's little sister is rhodium; rhodium's little sister is cobalt. I hope any day Obama sees his iridium ring, he thinks about cobalt and how it can contribute to America's energy future. We need biofuel. But we first need lots of fertilizer to grow biofuel efficiently. We need platinum, palladium, rhodium in making chemical fertilizers. All these metals are critically important to a nation's survival and prosperity, both during peace time and during war times.

On the night that the auto bailout failed in the Congress, let's pray for America's tomorrow. Let's hope that Obama is truly a leader who can listen to the people and can bring about change in Washington as well as change in Wall Street. GM might only have days if not hours to live as market confidence in its survival has now been lost. Let's hope President Bush can do one last thing right before he goes home: Use executive power to bail out GM immediately. Meanwhile Obama should promise Bush that he will be pardoned if he exceeded his legal authority in directly bailing out GM, as it is in the national interest to protect millions of jobs. Stop the bipartisan finger pointing already. We have only one America and one future for our children.

Full Disclosure: The author is heavily invested in SWC and PAL, two palladium mining companies, in OMG, a cobalt chemical company, and in DRYS, a dry bulk shipping company. I have no GM position either way.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Last Chance to Save the United States of America From Collapse

Congratulations to our President-elect, Mr. Obama. It's fitting that an African American shall take up America's top job to salvage this country from an imminent political, social and economic collapse. Closer ties with Africa, a land blessed with rich natural resources, might provide the best opportunity we desperately need to save America and continue our prosperity!

Circuit City (CC) bankrupted. General Motors (GM) could be next and Ford (F) is not much better. Mean while we are bailing out AIG (AIG) for the second time (or maybe the third time) in just a few months as it seems to be just another growing black hole. And who will bail out the Federal Reserve Bank or the US Government itself?

If you read my past articles, you know my favorite precious metals are palladium and platinum. PGM metals used in catalytic converters in vehicles account for half of global demand. Am I concerned about these two precious metal's future prospect?

I am not concerned at all, not only because PGM metals are precious metals and hence are safe haven investments just like gold and silver, not only because PGM metals have strong demand in emerging new applications especially in alternative energy sectors like fuel cell, hydrogen economy, bio-fuel, and coal-to-liquid, but even within the auto sector, the global demand continue to remain strong fundamentally.

Enron collapsed a few years ago. Did we stop using electricity at the time? No. Do you stop buying auto insurance if AIG goes out of business? No. More than ten years ago, the last American owned TV manufacturer went out of business or was acquired by a foreign entity. It did NOT stop Americans from watching too much TV today, either.

The downfall of the US auto industry is a completely separate story from global auto demand, just like a sunset of US based TV manufacturers did not mean a sunset of consumer demand of TVs and other electronics. It simply means that the US auto industry is no longer competitive in the market place against foreign auto makers like Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC). Businesses go bankrupt even during good economic times, if they can not compete. But I truly feel sad about the current status of the auto industry and other manufacturing infrastructure of this nation.

From a fundamental point of view, the global auto demand is expanding even as the world enters a period of severe economic recession. IEA recently revised the projection of global oil demand in 2008 and 2009. The lowered projection is 86.5M barrels per day for 2008, which is still 0.5% higher than 2007, and the projection for 2009 is 87.2M barrels a day, yet higher than 2008. Higher oil consumption must mean higher vehicle demand.

Let's do some simple calculation. One barrel of oil produces roughly 19.5 gallons of gasoline and 9.2 gallons of diesel, totalling about 28 gallons of road vehicle fuel. If global oil demand is 86M barrels a day, that's 880 billion gallons of fuel consumed per year. An average vehicle drives 150,000 miles during its lifespan and consumes fuel at a rate of roughly 20 MPG, so lifetime consumption of fuel is 7500 gallons. So 880 billion gallons per year means the world is wearing off vehicles at a rate of 117 million per year. That is the expectation of global new vehicle demand in the next few years, versus current 70M auto sales per year.

China just announced a 4 trillion yuan ($586B) stimulus plan to transition her economy to one based on domestic consumption demand rather than on exportation. Chinese demand on commodities, goods and services will be insatiable even as her growth slows down, because China's population is just huge and the per capital consumption is still at a very low level comparing with global average, leaving plenty of room for growth.

October auto sales in China increased 8.37% over last year. For the first ten months, auto sales were 5.67 million, which is 6.8M annually. There are only 40M passenger cars in China. These numbers are incredibly low considering China's 1.3 billion population. Global average ownership of cars is roughly one car per 6 persons. China has one car per 33 persons. China today consumes 8M barrels of oil a day, still less than half of global average. Using the rough numbers above that correlates to 11 million vehicles wear off per year in China. So China needs 11M new vehicles a year just for replacements, not to mention new ownerships. I will not be surprised if auto sales in China double or triple in the next 5 years.

The global commodity bull cycle will continue if you understand the impact of China's demand growth. Global consumption of many raw materials can easily exceed available supply by a large margin, even if China's per capital consumption only reach where global averages are!

No wonder we see ever increasing Chinese influence in Africa. Africa is blessed with some of the world's richest mineral resources, especially South Africa, owning over 90% of the world's PGM metal reserves and virtually every spieces of mineral resources, missing just a few. China is also blessed with mineral riches. China is rich in more than half of all known mineral spieces, especially in rare earth metals and tungsten, antimony, indium, etc. But China doesn't have much base metal reserves. China has zero reserve in PGM metals and very little in cobalt, metals of critical strategic importance. What China doesn't have, Africa has plenty. And what about USA? We are the world's capital of helium. We have plenty of coal. That's about it. America desperately needs to develope good relationships with Africa and South America, if we want to be prosperious in the 21st century.

Upon his inauguration, President Obama needs to first pay visit to China, second to Africa, and third to Russia. America, now the world's top debt nation, needs to be bailed out by the world's emerging economic power houses. We can not afford to be a superpower any more as we are not self sufficient and can not survive on our own any more. We need a peaceful and co-operative world to help us. President Obama must prevent an Iranian War or World War Three from breaking out, during his term(s). Prosperity comes from peace, not from aggression.

Now coming back to the US auto industry. Is there still hope in the Big Three, GM, Ford and Chrysler? I think the fundamental demand of autos from US consumers is still there. The current credit crunch means a consumer may not be able to get an auto loan. But it does NOT destroy the auto demand, merely postpones it. If I see a vehicle break down on the roadside, or a vehicle crashed on the highway, I am pretty sure that within less than 24 hours, a certain auto repair shop or a new car dealer will see a new customer come to their doors for business, regardless of how many credit cards the customer may have. The mobility needs can not be eliminated. The question is will the customer come to a Toyota (TM) dealer or a GM one.

There might still be some hope if GM can adapt itself to meet customer's demand, but I don't think it can do it alone. It needs a government bail out. I am against using tax payer money to bail out private enterprises. But it is in our vital national interest to bail out the US auto industry to preserve jobs and our manufacturing basis. The current GM shareholders must be wiped out. GM must go bankrupt, then the government must immediately come in to help the bankruptcy re-organization and give the auto maker a second life.

Full Disclosure: The Author is heavily invested in SWC and PAL, two palladium mining companies, as well as in OMG, a cobalt chemical company. The author does not have a position in GM or Ford, and does not intend to buy or short either.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Safe Haven Investments: Imminent Danger and Opportunities!

When people see danger in the market, their animal instinct response is to liquidate everything and go fully in cash to ride out the storms. The conventional wisdom is "Cash is King". But conventional wisdom doesn't work anymore, as this is unconventional time. If you are fully loaded in cash or US Treasury Bonds, this news first noted by Karl Denninger should completely shock you out of your shell:

$2.29 Trillion Dollars US Treasury Bonds Failed To Deliver!

Note it is $2.29 TRILLION, with a T for Trillion! I never heard one can short US Treasury Bonds, let alone naked shorting US T-Bonds! The T-Bonds are considered some of the safest investments, with the full faith and credit of the US government guaranteeing the principal, and you get an interest payment. So shorting US T-Bonds is virtually guaranteed to lose money. You will have to payback the principal plus the interest. You do NOT short the US T-Bonds, let alone naked shorting, let alone as much as $2.29 Trillion.

That is UNLESS you are a really BIG player and you clearly see imminent danger of the collapse of the US T-Bonds, and of the US dollar itself. I wrote before that Warren Buffet saw extreme danger in the US Treasury Bonds and he was completely out of the bonds and fully into the equities market now. Of course people should respect and follow this guy's wisdom. But small potatoes like Warren Buffet could not have naked shorted $2.3 Trillion US T-Bonds. Some one much bigger and knows better did it. I will not speculate. Please read Karl Benninger's comment.

Money created out of thin air is NOT King! The Kings now are precious metals. Never mind the fact that the dollar staged a shocking rally and precious metals plummeted. The dollar rally is nothing but a bubble, while current precious metal prices, especially platinum and palladium, is nothing but absurdity. Physical commodities MUST be priced above their production cost, or the supply will simply dry out, as no one can continue produce metals at a loss. So if I am sitting on my precious metals, I pretty much have the guarantee that they will soon appreciate in real purchase power term. On the other hand, if you are sitting on trillion of dollars of the fiat currency, and the currency falls, the only guarantee you will have is they will continue to fall further down, until eventually they reach zero.

The general market always manages to fool most people most of time, and causes more people to lose more money in unexpected way, and rewards only the selected few who has the wisdom and who has the determination to stick to their wisdom. The current global crisis necessarily means an astronomical amount of fortune must be totally wiped out. What could be a better, cleaner and quicker way of wiping out trillions of dollars of fortune instantly, than to first herd the sheeples into holding nothing but cash, and then the currency suddenly collapses? Of course the US dollar rallies big time if every one is herded into buying dollars. A bubble is something pumped up to a valuation much higher than where it should be.

Fiat money is completely at odd with the economy basics of supply and demand. For anything physical, equilibrium can be reached as the price impact positively on supply and negatively on demand. Higher price encourages more production while low price suppresses the supply. When the price falls below cost, supply dries up as no one can continue to produce and sell something at loss. On the demand side, the price has exactly the opposite effect. High price suppresses demand while low price encourages consumption.

Fiat money acts in exactly the opposite way. The less valuable a currency becomes, the more is being produced out of thin air. The cheaper the currency becomes, the less people desire to own and keep them, and the faster people want to get rid of them. When people want to get rid of their paper money as fast as possible, it speed up the velocity of money, and cause the value of the currency to plummet even more, forcing the government to print more money. The vicious cycle continues until the currency is totally destroyed. Throughout civilized history of mankind, every single experiment of fiat currency has failed. No exceptions.

In Chinese the word CRISIS contains two characters, DANGER and OPPORTUNITY. We are in extreme danger but also with extremely good investment opportunities. The opportunities are made even better because every one runs away from them and run towards a gigantic death trap with a sign "Cash Is King". Remember one thing, safe havens must be small, with narrow spaces that accomodate only a few refugees.

It reminds me of the Bible story of Noah's Ark. People ridiculed Noah as he was building his ark, thought it had never rained a single drop for a year, how could the flood come? The flood did come as Noah expected. Had these people listened to Noah and seek refuge in his Ark, would it make a difference? No! The Noah's Ark was still only big enough to contain just one pair of each kind of animals. It wouldn't be a Noah's Ark if it was made any bigger. Likewise, today's financial safe haven wouldn't be a safe haven, but a death trap if it was big enough to allow every one in!

Although we do not see a drop of rain yet, trillion dollars of wealth will soon be flushed away by the coming financial flood of hyperinflation. Have you built your Noah's Ark yet? There is definitely NOT enough material to build a big enough Noah's Ark to save every one.

I can't understand it! There are tons of investment opportunities in commodities right now. You can buy a few metric tons of nickel or copper or cobalt or a number of other things. You know they are priced far below their production cost right now. So it is absolutely a guarantee they must appreciate to at least the fair price of their cost. Can you find any better investment, with such absolute certainty of making double, triple and quadruple the money in the next few months, regardless of the demand? How could people be so blind and not seeing the opportunities? They all rush to cash and T-Bonds waiting to be slaughtered, and they actually thought it was safe to be with the biggest group of mobs?

Nickel is now less than 1/6 its price of May, 2007? Hello?!

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! When enough is enough, the eruption is fierce!

On Monday, third largest nickel producer in Russia, Ufaleynickel, responsible for slightly less than 1% of global supply, announced that they are shutting down production, as the nickel price is simply too low. They need to see at least $26,000 per metric ton to break even.

Instantly nickel shot up to touch $5.00 a pound, from Friday's $4.00. That's a one day rally of 25%. It's probably the biggest one day rally of any commodity in history. Removing 1% of global supply doesn't really change supply/demand that much. But the price was suppressed too much so the bounce had to be fierce. Had you bought nickel at $4, you have made 25% profit in just a day. And yet people rush away to buy US T-Bonds to earn 3% annual interest while waiting to be slaughtered in the looming implosion of the bonds market?

Want to make a 10 fold return in two months, and maybe two weeks? Go buy some palladium metal. Any palladium metal you can find. Palladium price can go from $170 per ounce to $1700 per ounce in no time, once the Russian Checkmate plays out.

The Russian Checkmate event will be Norilsk Nickel (NILSY.PK) shut down production. They are the No. 1 nickel producer in Russia. No. 3 has shut down already. Would No. 1 be far away? Norilsk shut down, and 45% of global palladium supply is gone. I can't even start to predict where palladium price could go up to, with 45% of supply removed instantly. In 2000/2001, one false rumor from Russia was enough to send palladium up to $1100. It would be fun to watch the effect of 45% of palladium supply removed.

Of course, you can get better leveraged gain investing in the palladium stock Stillwater Mining (SWC) and North American Palladium (PAL).

Will Norilsk shut down? They are facing a severe liquidity squeeze. In first half of 2008, Norilsk group reported a profit of $2.682B, at 32% profit margin. If you look up metal prices as of Oct. 24, 08, and re-run the numbers, they would have to write down -$4.594B of sales revenue for the whole group, or $3.634B for the main Norilsk Mine, resulting in heavy losses. The cash drain will be nearly $2B per half year.

Norilsk group had $4.8B cash as of end of June, 08. The main Norilsk mine probably had $4B in cash. They spent $2B in a recent stock buyback, a senseless decision which Mr. Mikhail Prokhorov denounced as "capable of putting the company on the verge of bankruptcy". Operation loss since June probably costs them another $1B. They have a debt payment of $400M due in November. Do they have any cash left? Can they continue to operate the mine at heavy loss? Why would they continue to operate with heavy loss until bankruptcy?

The bullish case for palladium can not be disputed if you understand how bad a shape Norilsk Nickel is in today.

Yesterday's news of Ufaleynickel shut down mentioned OM Group (OMG) and reminded me that OMG is the best cobalt play, because it dominates the chemical sector involving cobalt. I consider cobalt as a better metal to buy than silver, with the potential of 10 fold appreciation in a short period of time. Check out news on Minor Metals. If the speculation of Katanga Mining shut down plays out, cobalt price should fly soon. You can buy cobalt from BHP Billiton (BHP).

There are so many beaten down silver and gold mining shares now. All are very good buys: PAAS, SSRI, SIL, HL, NEM, AUY, NAK, IVN, NG. There are so many to name. Even Southern Copper (PCU), my very first commodity play, is now back below where I first bought in late 2005. Anything in mining is good nowadays. I would not touch Silver Wheaton (SLW)though, because of counter party risks. Also forget about any coal player now. I continue to call for selling JRCC, ACI, ANR, BTU, CNX, at any rally. The US coal market is a local market and is now bearish. Again watch Dry Ships (DRYS) share movement as it is an important indicator of the health of the global economy. I might even consider buying some DRYS as the valuation has become so attractive. But I first need to get a conformation that cross ocean shipping activity is recovering.

I will keep a portion of my portfolio in iShares Silver Trust (SLV). I will not buy gold or SPDR Gold Shares (GLD). I believe gold is adequately priced at current level. The money spent on gold is better spent on something else. Even buying a ton of nickel or copper is better than gold.

But the best of all is still palladium, and the only two pure palladium plays, SWC and PAL. We are witnessing a singularity event unfolding in the palladium market as Norilsk Nickel will inevitably shut down, to protect its own best interest. What is singularity? A singularity is the kind of extremes like what you get when you try to divide a number by zero!

Full Disclosures: The author is heavily invested in SWC, PAL, has considerable stake in OMG and SLV, and will continue to buy some select silver shares including SSRI, HL, PAAS and SIL. I am also looking for opportunity to buy DRYS soon.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is Norilsk Really Selling Its SWC Stake?

My article on Oct. 22, 2008 discussed the breaking news that Norilsk Nickel (NILSY.PK) is open to offers to buy its majority stake in Stillwater Mining (SWC), America's only PGM mine. The share price of SWC plummeted 25% on yesterday while the news spreads, as investors probably fear that Norilsk dumping its shares could depress the share price.

However, upon further research, I am growing more and more suspicious about the credibility of the news story. It could well be a false rumor after all. I still do not have a definite confirmation or denial of the authenticity of the original news story, but I will discuss why I now suspect the story could be a false rumor.

1. SWC is Norilsk Nickel's very important strategic asset. They have not sold a single share. They would never sell, unless Norilsk is extremely desperate for some cash and they can't get a loan from a bank. I believe they still have credit lines to pull. If they need to sell asset, there are plenty of other less important overseas assets to sell, for much more cash, before they would sell SWC for a meager US$230M. Not long ago, Norilsk was still spending billions of dollars in a stock buyback trying to support its share price. It seems unlikely its cash liquidity drained so fast.

2. Source of the news story is suspicious. The news story was first carried by The Moscow Times and immediately mentioned on Yahoo by a misterious cjlu4585, at 21-Oct-08 09:18 pm EDT, which is 04:18am Oct. 22, 08 Moscow Time. The original news story was dated Oct. 22. How would the story be published so early during the day, at 4:18am, and promptly catched?

3. Anonymity of the original citation. CJLU4585 used a curious URL to refer to the original article. When you go there, there is no mention of author near the title of the story:
However, notice the number 600 in the URL link? Replace it with other numbers, like 599 or 601, it still link to the same story, but with the author name shows up. Only when you use 600 does the author name NOT show up. Very strange.

4. No confirmation. The hometown newspaper of SWC also carried the story from Moscow Times but said that SWC was never informed by any one from Norilsk. Every one got this news from the original Moscow Times piece. There is no press release from Norilsk and no direct confirmation from any official in any of the companies involved. No other media confirmed the information independent from Moscow Times.

5. The writting of the original news story was non-professional and contained many obvious errors. It refered to Mr. Oleg Lobanov as Chief Financial Officer (CFO). That's a term commonly used in western corporations, but not in Norilsk. Mr. Lobanov's official title is Deputy General Director for Economy and Finance, very different from a CFO.

The story said Mr. Lobanov made the comment during a conference of finance executives. It did not say what conference it was and where it was held. Why would Moscow Times be the only media invited, as no other media carried the story? Why would Norilsk reveal it through such a casual comment by Mr. Lobanov, instead of in a more formal way? Why no party involved was informed about it?

The cited percentage, 55.4% stake in SWC, was incorrect. It's more like 53.5%. Would Mr. Lobanov get the percentage wrong?

The story twice mentioned the South African company "Empala Palladium". A very strange name. It should be Impala Platinum (IMPUY.PK). Mr. Lobanov, an industrial insider, would never make such a mistake. The rumor maker probably did not get the name right. Since the name was referenced twice, it was not a typo. Further the author said he/she called "Empala Palladium" and left a phone message which was not returned. If he/she called the correct phone number, he/she would not have gotten the company's name so wrong.

In all, until we get further confirmation from Norilsk or Stillwater, I am now highly suspicious of the originality of the original story, and persuade readers to do their due diligence to find out the truth. It can not be ruled out that some one deliberately spread the rumor in a deliberate effort to manipulate SWC share price. If this is confirmed to be a rumor, I shall take actions to report criminal act of involved parties to the SEC and other authorities.

I am a value-based investor and strive to get all my information and facts correct and tell readers what I truely believe is correct information. I am always fully responsible for everything I say. If I inadvertedly helped spread a rumor, my appologize to all who might have been mislead. I still do not know whether the orignal story is true or false and will provide update as soon as I find out from related parties.

P.S. The author is heavily invested in SWC and PAL, the world's only primary palladium producers. The author does not currently own shares in Norilsk Nickel.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Safe Haven Investments: Survival of the Fittest

Important update [Oct. 23, 08]: The story of Norilsk selling SWC stake might NOT be true. Please my latest comment on my suspicion and do your own due diligence.

This is part 4 of my series articles discussing the true valuation of physical assets, paper assets and currencies, vital knowledge needed to survive the unfolding global financial crisis. This is a sequel to part1, part 2, part 3. Read previous articles if you have not.

I wanted to discuss the valuation of US dollar; why it rallied so strongly; why we will see a sudden and abrupt reversal of the dollar rally; and why such a reversal will come imminently. I wanted to spend more time giving it more thoughts. But some big breaking news happened yesterday, forcing me to discuss the new developments immediately.

In previous articles, I emphasized that physical commodities can serve as reliable safe haven assets because their intrinsic values are decided by the marginal production cost. When something is sold BELOW production cost, the low price can not last long as no business can operate at loss indefinitely. SUPPLY DESTRUCTION will happen, tilting the supply/demand relationship to a shortage. Price will then be restored to profitable level to allow producers to resume profitable operation. Therefore when you see a commodity traded far below its production cost, it is the best investment you can buy. You can just sit back and wait for it to appreciate soon, in inflation adjusted term, knowing for certain that the price just has to recover regardless of the demand side.

Looks like the supply destruction is indeed happening at neck-breaking pace, in all commodity sectors, and many analysts have noticed the phenomena and openly discussed the idea of supply destruction. As I am a precious metal investor with particular interest in palladium, two news happened yesterday caught my attention and made me very happy, as things that I predicted are happening far sooner than I expected. The news involves two of my favorite stocks, North American Palladium (PAL) and Stillwater Mining (SWC).

PAL announced today that they are temporarily suspending the production at the Lac Des Illes mine, and suspending metal sales due to current low metal prices. I am pleasantly surprised that the new CEO, Mr. Bigger, could act so quickly. I openly called for PAL to suspend operation due to current low palladium price. It's not an easy decision to let 350 hard working mining workers go, through no fault of their own, but the company must preserve precious mineral reserves and liquid assets, and ultimately it is also good for the workers themselves.

I believe that PAL, as the only palladium producer who sells to the spot market, has enough leverage power on its own to turn the palladium market around, and major stake holder George Kaiser also has a capacity on his own to move palladium price. Now PAL is not selling, who will sell in the palladium spot market? Who has the metal to sell? Are they going to sell paper palladium now? The market must realize that it must pay a fair price to get the physical metal. Unfair prices can only buy you paper, as producers simply can not operate at heavy loss to produce metals like a charity organization.

But the next piece of news shocked me so much that I jumped up, could not believe what I just read!!! Russia's Norilsk Nickel (NILSY.PK), the world's largest nickel and palladium producer, 55.4% stake holder of America's Stillwater Mining (SWC), is now offering to sell their SWC stake!

This is incredible! This says the Russian Checkmate in palladium, which I discussed before, is playing out right today, right in front of our eyes. This is incredibly bullish for the price of palladium. Let me explain.

Norilsk Nickel produces 45% of the world's palladium. In 2004, they acquired a majority stake in SWC, America's ONLY mine of palladium and platinum, two strategic metals of critical importance to the security and survival of the United States, through quite some political maneuvers that involved direct negotiations between President Bush and President Putin. Norilsk's strategic acquisition obviously was aimed at achieving a 50% dominance of global palladium supply in order to assert monopoly power. Norilsk never sold a single share of SWC. Such a strategic asset is never to be sold for some cheap money.

Not for sale, UNLESS Norilsk is in a desperate need of cash urgently. Norilsk is huge, producing 20% of the world's nickel, 45% of palladium and 12% of platinum. Last year, Norilsk was on a buying spree, spent US$6.3B in CASH to acquire a small nickel player, LionOre, among other purchases. And today Norilsk needs to sell its strategic SWC stake for maybe a meager $230M cash for lunch money?

They are in a terrible liquidity squeeze if they are so desperate they need $230M in cash now. Current low nickel price really hurts them. My estimate is they probably lose $1B to $2B per quarter. So $230M is probably good to last them another 2 or 3 weeks. I see that shutting down the Norilsk Mine, is an inevitable decision they are forced to make urgently, regardless what they say publicly. They either shut down, or go broken then shut down. Not to mention Norilsk Mine is an environmental catastrophe that needs urgent cleanup.

That would be fantastic news to SWC and PAL, the only primary palladium producers in the world. Shutting down Norilsk would remove 45% of the world's palladium supply. When it comes to PGM metals, look at rhodium! A mere 4% shortage was enough to drive rhodium price from $300 to $10000 per ounce!!! What will a 45% shortage do to palladium? Would the Russians boost palladium price so they can get a better deal on SWC?

It is outrageous Norilsk is suggesting another foreign buyers to take over its SWC stake. It was heart breaking to see our precious national treasure sold out to the Russians, by our president. Do we want to sell SWC to a foreign country again? If an American billionaire investor reads this, please consider seizing this opportunity to buy up the SWC stake, not just because of patriotism, but because of the huge profit opportunity. The nation needs our treasure back! Senator McCain: You can demonstrate you are not Bush No. 2. You can take SWC back from the hands of the Russians.

South Africa is another catastrophe waiting to happen, benefiting the two North America based producers. Current platinum and rhodium price is simply too low for any South African PGM mine to make ends meet, not to mention the on going electricity crisis in the country and ongoing limit of only 90% power supply to the mining industry. SA's PGM industry has entered a Survival Dimension, facing a choice of either cut production to boost metal prices, or a certainty of bleeding to death. Many analysts and shareholders have openly called for production cutback. PAL has already made the right move; South Africa should move soon to cut.

That, of course, is a great incentive for investors to buy and hoard physical palladium and platinum. The investment buying will boost prices so buying begets more buying. History has proven in 1980 that when people need to buy safe haven assets during financial crises, they buy every precious metal, not just gold and silver. When there is strong investment buying, weak industry demand becomes irrelevant.

I am not totally dismissing the factor of industry demand of PGM metals, especially in the auto sector. But the weaker auto sale has been exaggerated. Owning a car is a necessity, not a luxury. How you can walk 30 miles to work or 10 miles to shop? Tight family budget may postpone buying a new car for a while, but only till the old car breaks. You may turn down a customer's request for a car loan but you can not remove the need for a car. Gasoline consumption in the USA hardly reduced, year over year. From the fundamental point of view of the mobility needs, suppression of auto demand is only temporary, not permanent.

More over, history has shown when the industry demand of PGM metals weaken, the extra supply has always been absorbed by jewelry demand as the metals become more affordable.

Out of all precious metals, gold is the least I like. I have not purchased any GLD so far. The current gold price is still well above profitability of most gold mines. Humanity has been digging this almost useless yellow metal for thousands of years till today. There's too much gold sitting there just to collect dusts. If we do need more gold, maybe we can all quit our day time job and go to the beaches panning for gold, like the folks at Jamestown.

Silver is a different story. 70% of silver today is produced as a by-product from base metal mining. Even for the 30% silver that's produced as main product, base metal by-products are also important part of the revenue. The whole silver industry is suffering not only from current low silver price, but also low base metal prices as well. Production cut is expected, reducing supply, at a time when physical silver investment products are in high demand. I believe physical silver price will go up much more than gold. I own SLV and recently increased my SLV stake on the dip to the low $9 area. The silver industry has continuously announced news of mine shut downs recently. Even mentor of the most famous silver bug, Israel Friedman, has openly called for CDE to suspend silver sales.

Silver mining companies are different stories. I have purchased a few silver stocks like SIL, PAAS, SSRI, HL, CDE. But after carefully examine them one by one, I find that all of them are hurt from low base metal prices, not just low silver price. None of they are pure silver play. So instead of providing a leveraged gain over silver, these mining companies provided a leveraged loss over silver. If I am already invested in silver itself, why do I need to buy any silver mining share? I wish there are pure silver players around.

Silver Wheaton (SLW) claims to be a pure silver play. I bought SLW a couple of years ago before I knew better. But once I figured out SLW's business model I never touched it again. It's a holdings company basing its value purely on some contracts. Basically they borrow a ton of money from banks to pay to the mining companies in exchange for the mining companies to sell the by-product silver to SLW for only $3.90 per ounce. SLW will pocket the difference. Sounds good? But I don't see how physical fortune can be made in playing paper contracts, instead of digging real mines. Now the danger of SLW, a danger not unlike sub-prime loans, has been exposed: What prevents these contracted mining companies from shutting down their un-profitable base metal operations, hence cut off SLW's silver supply?

In current turbulent commodity market, the mining world is a world of survival of the fittest. Who has the richest mineral reserves, the most cash and the least debt, will survive and prosper. The long term bullish cycle of commodities will continue, as Jim Rogers pointed out, due to the damage of producers thanks to the credit crunch. A whole bunch of unfit commodity producers will probably be eliminated. But the survivors will get to enjoy the next wave of commodities rally, which I believe is not too far away, despite of a weakening global economy, because the damage to supply is much worse than the damage to demand.

The fundamental bullishness of commodities attribute in large part to the fundamental bearishness of the world's fiat currencies, notably the US dollar, but not just the US dollar.

The dollar staged the strongest rally in recent years, just as the global credit crisis deepens, and the Fed is printing money like crazy to inject huge liquidity into the market. Every bit of liquidity the Fed injects simply disappeared once it's absorbed by the market. It totally defies logic and stunned many market observers. Is it manipulation? Conspiracy theory is always an easy answer. But we must look for the real reason behind the logic-defying dollar rally, to make correct investment decision.

The real reason is that the global credit crunch creates such panic that most people retreat to the basic instinct of "Cash Is King". Liquidity is being hoarded away, instead of circulating in the market. The velocity of money approaches zero, making the dollar seem more valuable relative to surplus goods squeezed out of supply chains. This is a temporary aberration and can NOT be allowed to last. When the velocity of money approaches zero, so does the velocity of goods movement. If goods are not moving, then the society will collapse. The money printing will get both money and goods to move again. Once that happens, the dollars will suddenly flood the market while the supply of goods will dry up, leading to the sudden collapse of the US dollar.

Let me use an analogy. We are riding on a car rushing up a high cliff overseeing the ocean underneath. You will panic and your intuitive response is buckle up your safety belt to strip yourself in. You think you are safe in your safety belt. Well at impact point, you go from no liquidity to hitting an ocean of liquidity in a split second. There is absolutely no time for you to untie your safety belt before you are drowned. The safety belt is the US treasury bonds. Warren Buffet recently sees danger in treasury bonds and he is all out spending cash to load up equities. Follow the Oracle of Omaha as he is the one with market wisdom!

Full Disclosure: The author is fully invested in SWC, PAL, and OMG. I am also loaded in SLV and traded in and out in a few selected silver stocks like SSRI, HL, PAAS and SIL.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

True Safe Haven Investments: Inflation or Deflation?

Is it deflation, stagflation, or hyperinflation, in the current global economic crisis? That's the quadrillion dollar question investors must get right. This article will answer that big question but it is also meant to be a sequel to part one and part two of the serial articles talking about valuations of physical and non-physical assets as well as currencies. Please read the first two parts of the articles if you have not. It's critical to understand valuation of commodities and currencies first, before the big question of inflation versus deflation.

Recently, as the credit crisis unfolds, we saw the worst commodity price plummet in history, while the US dollar index rallied amid the unfolding financial crisis. Many people wonder that the commodity bull market has ended as the global economy enters a recession. Their reasoning is that due to credit squeeze, people cut back on spending as they could not borrow any more.

Such notion is wrong. While people looked at the weaker demand side, they failed to notice the destruction on the supply side! On the consumer spending side, people are NOT cutting back in TOTAL spending. Actually people are squeezed to spend every dollar from their monthly income, just to keep heads above water. More and more people are living from paycheck to paycheck, meaning they have to spend every dollar of they take in, and have nothing to save. They might be forced to cut spending on some specific items and spending more money on other things. The total spending in dollar terms is up.

Recent commodity price plummet is NOT a fundamental change in the supply/demand relationship. Fundamentals do not change abruptly in just three months.

The real reason is that the global credit crunch squeezes out inventories in the supply chains, causing a temporary and false supply surge, depressing the price. Such price depressing effect is only momentarily. It will be corrected violently to the bullish side once the false surge of supply is exhausted and the effect of supply destruction becomes evident.

In any commodity market, besides the supply side and the demand side, there is a long supply chain connecting the supply and the demand. In different parts of the supply chain, there are sizeable stockpiles of the materials. Under normal supply, the stockpiles at different parts of the supply chain will buffer out supply disruptions and ease out price shocks. That's why when a commodity is in adequate and abundant supply, the price will be flat.

However, stockpiling materials requires operational capitals. Often time money tied up in inventories is credit provided by banks, in the form of so called commercial papers. Things work fine if the credit market is healthy and adequately funded.

Unfortunately in a credit crunch, borrowing money is expensive or virtually impossible even for good businesses. Faced with a liquidity squeeze, businesses must raise cash for operational needs or to merely service debts. That means selling off inventories and cut spending in purchase of raw materials and equipments. When producers cut spending in productive activities, the supply destruction is in the pipelines!

Not only corporations are selling, hedge funds invested in commodities are also selling like there is no tomorrow. Every one is liquidating everything to raise cash and stuck the money in safes. That is absolutely foolish! While governments around the world are printing astronomical amount of money out of thing air, people are hoarding the funny papers in their pillows? We are in the making of a Weimar Republic on a planetary scale, and you hoard the fiat money?

When businesses at all levels suddenly sell off the inventories and at the same time halted purchase of new feedstock materials, prices are depressed prompting more sell offs. This leads to the false illusion of supply surplus, while hiding the fact that production of further supply is being suffocated. It's an extremely dangerous situation, as it could lead to a sudden onset of supply disruptions just as every one cheer at cheaper prices, without realizing that the supply chains have been squeezed empty.

My wife told me the best sell always happen right before a store goes out of business! When you go shopping this weekend and enjoy the lowest prices you haven't seen in a long while, you'd better ask the manager when will the next delivery truck arrive, or will it arrive at all! It's economic 101, all businesses are for profit. No one can operate at loss sustainable.

What do you expect when the supply chain stockpiles are depleted? There is no longer a buffer to absorb supply disruption and price shock. The market will suddenly discover that the supply has dried up. So the price will rally violently, in an extreme volatile way. That is what I predict will happen in all commodities in the coming weeks, including oil, food grains, and metals.

The market of platinum and palladium metal (PGM) is probably a good case study. About half of these metals are used in making the catalytic converters on vehicles. To reduce the risk of price volatility and supply disruptions, auto makers normally maintain a stockpile of PGM metals worth about 6 months to one year's consumption. Jack Lifton from Resource Investors described a very interesting case when one man's attempt to modify that inventory level caused dramatic reaction in the tightly traded rhodium and platinum market.

I am a big fan of palladium and platinum investment due to these metals bullish prospects. After the headline news of South African electricity crisis in early January caused the platinum and palladium prices to shot up, they stayed at the relative high level till the end of June. And then, at the onset of global financial crisis, they plummeted in a free fall fashion, all the while South Africa's PGM production continue to suffer from tight electricity supply. What gives? Who is selling? Every metals analyst is puzzled by the mind boggling fall of platinum and palladium.

The Big Three US auto makers, General Motors (GM), Ford (F) and Chrysler are facing a severe liquidity squeeze. They have been aggressively reducing inventory levels for months. When you are in a liquidity crisis, you sell whatever asset you can sell quickly to raise cash. The most liquid asset, of course, is the platinum and palladium precious metal stockpile.

In the narrow platinum and palladium spot market, when inventories from auto makers were sold out, it creates a lot of downward pressure. If industry users are selling, speculative hedge funds will be selling as well. The only buyers therefore must be the value-based long term investors. A recent Resource Investor article by Nathan Becker also provided explanation that hedge funds have to sell their precious metal hoardings due to liquidity squeeze.

I agree with Nathan Becker mostly but I must point out that he only considered the demand side and failed to recognize the damage that low metal prices may inflict on the supply side. No one can produce metals at heavy loss sustainable. Businesses must scale back production or shut down, if they can not make a profit. Anglo Platinum (AAUK) is currently producing at an average cost of US$1250 per ounce basket PGM metal (60% of Pt, 33% of Pd and 7% Rh) while the current market price of the PGM basket is only US$778 per ounce. It's only a matter of time before South African producers must start to reduce production if the prices do not improve to profitable level soon.

Last week's market plummet creates one of the rarest buying opportunities in our times for savvy investors with cash at hands ready to buy. How often do you get to go to an out of business sale and pick up things at prices far below their cost? Nickel is on out of business sale, copper is on out of business sale, grains like wheat, corn and rice are all suddenly on nose bleeding out of business sales. Grab them while you can. It may not be there tomorrow.

Do you think mining companies and farmers can continue to sell you nickel at $5.00 a pound, wheat at $5.53 per bushel, corn at $3.84 per bushel, and expect to continue the business at all selling things well below cost? It's the same out of business sale like what your wife told you!

The absolute best out of business sale is the palladium, metal of the 21st century, currently at $185/ounce bid. Gold mines are every where, silver is mined everywhere. But only four places in the world produce significant amount of platinum and palladium: Norilsk Nickel (NILSY.PK) in Russia; the Bushweld Complex in South Africa; Stillwater Mining (SWC) in USA; and North American Palladium (PAL) in Canada.

None of the four palladium producers are operating at a profit at current prices of nickel, platinum and palladium. They must each or together decide to slash production to boost metal prices, or face eventual bankruptcy. Any of these four have enough leverage power to boost metal prices on their own, and I believe there will be strong will to do that, as no business wishes to operate at a loss if they have a choice.

That is reason enough for investors to purchase physical palladium at current price, as there is a virtual guarantee the price must go up to reflect real cost, regardless of industry demand. 1980 was a good historic example when auto industrial demand of PGM metals collapsed, but investment demand still pushed the metals to all time high, together with gold and silver.

Out of the four, Norilsk is in bad shape and is most likely to slash production, due to low nickel price, now stands at $4.93 per pound versus the high of $25 per pound last year. There are also huge political pressures to shut the mine down to clean up the environmental catastrophe.

But South Africa is in a much worse shape as Rand dropped nearly 20% in one day versus US dollar. When a country's currency can drops 20% in a day, it's pretty much a broken and bankrupt country. The light of South African will go out, so will the light for that country's PGM mining industry. I previously pointed out that ESKOM, SA's electricity company, has to keep borrowing money and burn lowest quality trash to keep operation going. Now the global credit crunch means they have lost the ability to borrow. It's soon before it all blows up.

South Africa blowing up, as hinted imminent by the Rand's 20% one day drop, means removal of 85% of world's platinum and 35% of palladium supply! You can not have a more bullish story than that, on any other commodities. Stillwater Mining (SWC), with their palladium sale protected by a hedge floor price well above current market, is the best to weather out current market and best to leverage the coming bull market in palladium and platinum.

The only other metal that is even close to the bullishness of palladium/platinum, is the metal cobalt. There are strong and rapidly increasing industrial demands due to alternative energy applications, and due to the need of more drilling equipments in the oil/gas industry, and due to the metal's strategic importance in military applications. I wish to dedicate one article just to talk about cobalt. But suffice to say for now I consider cobalt a better physical metal to buy than silver and it should appreciate at least 10 fold relative to silver. Like PGM metals, 90% of the world's cobalt supply is concentrated in one country, Congo, which has been in years of civil wars and the conflict looks like flaring up again. So the supply is vulnerable while the demand is strong and growing. That's a perfect making of a bull market.

The best cobalt play I found is a stock called OM Group (OMG) (Oh-My-God). It is current a very decent buy at ridiculous low valuation. If you know any other cobalt play, or know places other than BHP Billiton (BHP)'s Cobalt Open Sale that I can buy physical cobalt, tell me!

Now, back to the US dollar. We are creating trillions of dollars out of vacuum and throw them into a blackhole. Make no mistake; it is inherently hyper-inflational. It's a big dilemma the whole planet is facing today. Short term it is about liquidity preservation or die. A little bit longer term it is about valuation preservation or die. Hoarding fiat currency while new money is created out of thin air preserves liquidity but loses value. Hoarding physical assets preserves value but reduces your liquidity.

I think we will see a very sudden and abrupt switch from a false US dollar rally caused by every one hoarding the cash, to a hyper inflation scenario where every one wants to spend out the cash as fast as possible. In physics it's like a high pressure and high temperature phase transition. The credit will go straight from solid ice to rapidly expanding vapor, skipping the liquid phase altogether, blowing everything out. The phase change will come imminently and suddenly, so be prepared for it!

A few side notes: I called for shorting Coca Cola (KO) and Pepsi (PEP), now it looks like I was right. I called for selling coal stocks like ACI, ANR, BTU, CNX, FCL, FDG, JRCC repeatedly since June 20th and I continue to make such call as I see the US coal market is now bearish. I can see JRCC drops to near $10 or even below. Continue to watch DRYS as it is a good indicator of the global economy.

Full Disclosure: The Author is fully invested in SWC and PAL, and is also heavily loading OMG recently. I am also buying SLV, GLD, SSRI, PAAS, SIL.