On September 7, a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. The collision sparked a chain of events that led to an apparent cutoff of China's shipments to Japan of rare earth elements (REEs), vital ingredients in many high-tech products. Suddenly the world became aware that China, home to some 95% of global REE production, held an alarming strategic monopoly.
The episode raises several economic questions. What factors allowed China to become the world's leading producer of REEs? Does China's current 95% market share represent a true natural monopoly? What factors could undermine China's current REE dominance? Application of a few basic economic concepts can go a long way toward providing answers.
We can begin by revealing what everyone already seems to know: Rare earths are not really rare. All 17 rare earth elements are more abundant in the earth's crust than gold, and some of them are as abundant as lead. The thing that makes them hard to mine is the fact that they are not found in highly concentrated deposits like gold and lead are. Even the best REE ores have very low concentrations. On the other hand, such ores are found widely throughout the world. Until the 1960s, India, Brazil, and South Africa were the leading producers. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Mountain Pass Mine in California was the biggest source. China's dominance of REE production dates only from the late 1990s.
So, what explains China's big market share? Good ore deposits, but not uniquely good, are one factor. Second, low labor costs help China's REE mines just as they help its toy factories. A third consideration may have been most important of all. Mining of REEs can produce very nasty waste products. Up until recently, Chinese authorities were willing to turn a blind eye to environmental devastation caused by primitive, often illegal, but low-cost small-scale mines. Meanwhile, environmental problems were a major factor leading to the shutdown of the Mountain Pass Mine. Following a big spill of radioactive waste, US authorities demanded new environmental safeguards. Already facing low-cost Chinese competition, the mine closed rather than undertake the needed investments.
The abundance of REE ores suggests that China's 95% market share does not represent a true natural monopoly, that is, one based on ownership of unique resources. However, that does not mean it lacks short-run monopoly power. In the short run, supply of REEs is much less elastic than in the long run. Any short run increase in supply can only come from mines that are already open or, to a very limited extent, from "urban mining"--recycling of REEs from scrapped computers and the like.
Short-run demand is also inelastic. High-tech production lines are set up to produce hybrid cars and computer hard drives using well-tested but REE-dependent technologies. You can't just substitute nickel for the neodymium in a magnet and expect the product still to do its job.
Given highly inelastic short-term supply and demand, it is not surprising that China's cutback in supplies this year sent market prices soaring. Bloomberg reports that prices of Neodymium jumped from $41 per kilogram in April to $92 in October, and Cerium oxide from $4.70 to $36 per kilo over the same period.
In the long run, all evidence points to much greater elasticity of both supply and demand. The press is full of news about old mines reopening or new ones under development. California's Mountain Pass Mine is expected to come back on line in 2011. Canadian companies are moving rapidly forward with projects in Wyoming and Tanzania, among other places. Australia, a supplier of nearly every other mineral, may also become a player.
On the demand side, it is not quite true to say that REEs are irreplaceable ingredients of today's high-tech products. At least in many cases, current REE-dependent technologies were chosen not because they are the only way to do something, but because they are a good way to do it given reasonable prices and reliable availability of the raw materials. Finding alternative technologies can take time, but the clock is now ticking. Japanese researchers are reporting success with REE-free technologies for electric car motors. Several new technologies are competing to replace conventional hard drives for computers, until now another big REE user. The Korean government is encouraging research into REE substitutes, as well.
The bottom line: China has a big market share, but no natural monopoly. Any efforts it makes to exploit its advantage based on low short-run elasticities only accelerates the development of alternative sources and new technologies.
Instead of trying to keep prices at the current high levels, once the ripples from the fishing-boat episode die down, China is likely to practice "limit pricing." Limit pricing is a classic monopoly tactic that involves holding prices high enough to give moderate but steady profits, while still low enough to discourage the growth of competition. At the same time, expect China's own rapidly expanding high-tech industries to absorb more of its REE output. In fact, encouraging them to do so seems to be an element of Chinese policy. Preferential access to low-cost REE supplies could give those industries a competitive advantage on world markets over a longer time horizon than that over which China could hope to maintain its near monopoly as a supplier of raw REEs.
Meanwhile, China's competitors in Asia, North America, and Europe should get serious with incentives to develop alternative sources and REE-free technologies. Targeting research funds would be helpful. Military research dollars should be included, since REEs have key applications in helicopter blades, laser gun sites, radars, and other military hardware.
The issue of environmental harm from REE mining also needs to be addressed. Relaxing environmental regulations in the United States and other new source countries is not the way to go. We do not want the Mountain Pass Mine to go back to spilling radioactive waste water in the California desert. China is showing signs of cleaning up its own worst REE polluters, and if it follows through, this may become a non-issue. If it does not, one option for consideration would be countervailing environmental tariffs, to the extent these are allowed by WTO rules.
With or without major government action, however, market forces appear unfavorable to China's continued dominance of REE production. After the East China Sea incident, concerns over reliability of supply, as much as concerns over price, are triggering research and investment to an extent that suggests that the long run--as in "long-run elasticity"--is fast approaching.
Follow this link to download a slide show with charts and additional analysis related to China's fragile rare earth monopoly.