Prime Meridians – The Mystery Behind The Market’s New Top Metal

This week in Pierce Points:

Iran’s new oil contracts got a hard look. A review by the country’s top security officials could affect a planned bid round this year

Japan readied to drill a new energy source. The world’s first commercial test of methane hydrates will begin in weeks.  

Ruthenium prices jumped 30% in a week. Producers of the rare metal say they are sold out for “a couple of months”. 

China finally opened a mega-pipeline. The 770-km import line across Myanmar is a gamechanger for global crude flows.

Strikes hit another major copper mine. Grupo Mexico’s Toquepala complex in Peru is the latest victim of labor action

The Mystery Behind The Market’s New Top Metal

Further to the third item above, it’s been a wild week for ruthenium.

Many investors have never heard of this minor metal, produced alongside platinum and palladium in spots like South Africa. 

But a 30% single-week price spike has suddenly brought a lot of attention to the tiny ruthenium market. Although even industry insiders are mystified by what’s happening in the space.

Platinum group experts like Johnson Matthey have said the sudden ruthenium spike is mysterious. With no clear indication from the fundamentals as to why buying has suddenly surged — to the point where miners are apparently sold out of supply for the foreseeable future.

As I discussed earlier this week, ruthenium prices have been subdued the last few years. Which normally might be a cause for supply to dwindle, causing a price shock.

But ruthenium doesn’t really function that way. With the majority of this metal produced as by-product — meaning that output is more tied to platinum prices than to its own price.

So if supply and demand aren’t to blame for ruthenium’s big jump, what is?

One clue may help solve this mystery: a little-followed scientific study released earlier this year.

In February, South Korean researchers published an academic paper reporting that ruthenium could function as a chemical catalyst, similar to platinum and palladium.

Here’s why that’s important. Even after this week’s big jump, ruthenium sells for just $60 per ounce. An order of magnitude less than platinum’s current $970 or palladium’s $800.

If ruthenium really can replace those other platinum metals — in applications like catalytic converters for diesel cars — it would be a coup for end users. Reducing input costs for these components by 90% or more, at current prices.

Such a scenario would result in a surge of ruthenium buying. And buyers would likely reach up a long way — even if ruthenium prices went up ten-fold, the metal would still be cheaper than platinum or palladium.

So is this week’s price action due to a sea change coming for ruthenium demand? Probably not. Most researchers agree that while the results from the February study are interesting, the metal is still a long way from being ready for prime time in catalytic applications. 

As such, there’s no indication that end users are the ones buying right now. And rumours in the industry suggest it might instead be a now-familiar culprit.

Investors.

Over the last ten years, minor metals have gained a cult following from investment funds. Starting in 2005, when funds realized they could single-handedly run up prices in the tiny uranium market by buying up just a fraction of overall supply. 

The results of that exercise were spectacular. With fund buying propelling uranium from $20 per pound to $140 in just two years. Investors who bought the metal did great — and those who loaded up on uranium mining stocks prior to running the price did even better. Some uranium juniors saw 15,000% gains.

Since then, the same game has been on in other metals. At various times, there have been attempts to run molybdenum, rhodium, and more recently cobalt (which is succeeding, with investment buying having already doubled prices for that metal over the last year). 

Pulling off this kind of trade requires a good story backing the metal of choice — a grain of truth to make the pump credible. In cobalt’s case, it’s the use of the metal in batteries for electric vehicles. 

And in ruthenium, the recent scientific study may have nudged big buyers to take a run.

The recent buying looks suspiciously like people trying to push up the price. After all, why would any serious consumer drive a key commodity up 30% in a week, in a market that’s been languishing for years? Ruthenium buyers simply don’t need supply that quickly — they could wait a few weeks or months for prices to relax.

If it is investors driving the past week’s spike, this might be just the beginning. With the news of ruthenium’s gains now percolating to the market, other financial buyers may be enticed into the market — remember, the push on cobalt has been steady for over a year now.

If so, we could well have a new top-performing metal over the coming months. Keep an eye on the ruthenium price at sources like Infomine to see if the game really is on.

Here’s to buying it up,

Dave Forest

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