World Trade Organization probe? What World Trade Organization probe?
Last July, the WTO opened an investigation into whether China is unfairly restricting the export of rare earth metals - the substances vital not only to your iPod and smartphone, but also to so many other important things, from missiles to cars to wind turbines to light bulbs.
So how has China responded?
In the quiet of the Western world’s Christmas holiday, it blew a raspberry, tightening export restrictions once again.
“China, the world’s biggest rare earths supplier, cut the first-batch export quota for next year by 27 percent as overseas demand for the elements waned,” Bloomberg News reported in the Taipei Times on Dec. 29.
China’s Ministry of Commerce sets rare earth export limits twice a year. It pegged the first allotment for 2013 at 15,501 tonnes, down from 21,226 tonnes for 2012’s first setting.
To be fair, China had loosened restrictions last August, soon after the WTO began its investigation after the U.S., European Union and Japan complained about Chinese limits and tariffs on the metals. The 9,700 tonnes that China allowed in 2012’s second half brought the full-year limit to a three-year high of 30,996 tonnes, Bloomberg noted.
For historical reasons including a disregard for environmental concerns in toxic rare earth mining and processing procedures, China controls about 95 percent of the world’s rare earth market.
Change is afoot in the industry. As Bloomberg noted, one of the reasons China curtailed exports is that worldwide demand has dropped off. You can probably attribute that to the sluggish global economy. Also, companies in Japan and elsewhere are finding ways to reduce their reliance on rare earths. And Western companies like Molycorp in the U.S. have started up rare earth operations, although Molycorp has faced criticism for selling to China rather than to the U.S.
With demand down, prices have fallen. China is not only limiting exports, but it has also limited production - all of which should choke supply and in the rules of supply and demand, help lift prices.
China has also started a massive consolidation of its rare earth industry, led by Baotou Steel Rare-Earth. It says it is doing this for among other reasons, to assert more control over cleaner industrial practices. With China’s central planning prowess, it should also give it greater ability to control the global market that it already dominates.
This year will be a busy one for rare earth developments in China and internationally. Rare earths are of double importance to the economy, not only for their direct use in products, but also because they occur in minerals that contain thorium and uranium, two nuclear fuels that could help move the world off of CO2- emitting hydrocarbons.