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Visualizing China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals

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China's rare earth metals exports

China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals

Did you know that a single iPhone contains eight different rare earth metals?

From smartphones and electric vehicles to x-rays and guided-missiles, several modern technologies wouldn’t be what they are without rare earth metals. Also known as rare earth elements or simply “rare earths”, this group of 17 elements is critical to a number of wide-ranging industries.

Although deposits of rare earth metals exist all over the world, the majority of both mining and refining occurs in China. The above graphic from CSIS China Power Project tracks China’s exports of rare earth metals in 2019, providing a glimpse of the country’s dominating presence in the global supply chain.

China’s Top Rare Earth Export Destinations

Around 88% of China’s 2019 rare earth exports went to just five countries, which are among the world’s technological and economic powerhouses.

Export DestinationShare of China's Rare Earth ExportsTop Rare Earth Import (tons)
Japan36.0%Cerium
United States33.4%Lanthanum
Netherlands9.6%Lanthanum
South Korea5.4%Lanthanum
Italy3.5%Cerium
Rest of the World12.1%Cerium

Japan and the U.S. are by far the largest importers, collectively accounting for more than two-thirds of China’s rare earth metals exports.

Lanthanum, found in hybrid vehicles and smartphones, was China’s largest rare earth export by volume, followed by cerium. In dollar terms, terbium was the most expensive—generating $57.9 million from just 115 metric tons of exports.

Why China’s Dominance Matters

As the world transitions to a cleaner future, the demand for rare earth metals is expected to nearly double by 2030, and countries are in need of a reliable supply chain.

China’s virtual monopoly in rare earth metals not only gives it a strategic upper hand over heavily dependent countries like the U.S.—which imports 80% of its rare earths from China—but also makes the supply chain anything but reliable.

“China will not rule out using rare earth exports as leverage to deal with the [Trade War] situation.”

—Gao Fengping et al., 2019, in a report funded by the Chinese government via Horizon Advisory.

A case in point comes from 2010 when China reduced its rare earth export quotas by 37%, which in part resulted in skyrocketing rare earth prices worldwide.

average prices of rare earth imports

The resulting supply chain disruption was significant enough to push the EU, the U.S., and Japan to jointly launch a dispute settlement case through the World Trade Organization, which was ruled against China in 2014.

On the brighter side, the increase in prices led to an influx of capital in the rare earth mining industry, financing more than 200 projects outside China. While this exploration boom was short-lived, it was successful in kick-starting production in other parts of the world.

Breaking China’s Rare Earth Monopoly

China’s dominance in rare earths is the result of years of evolving industrial policies since the 1980s, ranging from tax rebates to export restrictions. In order to reduce dependence on China, the U.S. and Japan have made it a priority to diversify their sources of rare earth metals.

For starters, the U.S. has added rare earth metals to its list of critical minerals, and President Donald Trump recently issued an executive order to encourage local production. On the other side of the world, Japan is making efforts to reduce China’s share of its total rare earth imports to less than 50% by 2025.

Increasing rare earth mining outside of China has reduced China’s global share of mining, down from 97.7% in 2010 to 62.9% in 2019. But mining is merely one piece of the puzzle.

Ultimately, the large majority of rare earth refining, 80%, resides in China. Therefore, even rare earths mined overseas are sent to China for final processing. New North American refining facilities are being set up to tackle this, but the challenge lies in managing the environmental impacts of processing rare earths.

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Mining

Charted: The Value Gap Between the Gold Price and Gold Miners

While the price of gold has reached new record highs in 2024, gold mining stocks are still far from their 2011 peaks.

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Line chart comparing gold price and gold mining stocks since 2000.

The Value Gap Between the Gold Price and Gold Miners

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on Apple or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Although the price of gold has reached new record highs in 2024, gold miners are still far from their 2011 peaks.

In this graphic, we illustrate the evolution of gold prices since 2000 compared to the NYSE Arca Gold BUGS Index (HUI), which consists of the largest and most widely held public gold production companies. The data was compiled by Incrementum AG.

Mining Stocks Lag Far Behind

In April 2024, gold reached a new record high as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell signaled policymakers may delay interest rate cuts until clearer signs of declining inflation materialize.

Additionally, with elections occurring in more than 60 countries in 2024 and ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, central banks are continuing to buy gold to strengthen their reserves, creating momentum for the metal.

Traditionally known as a hedge against inflation and a safe haven during times of political and economic uncertainty, gold has climbed over 11% so far this year.

According to Business Insider, gold miners experienced their best performance in a year in March 2024. During that month, the gold mining sector outperformed all other U.S. industries, surpassing even the performance of semiconductor stocks.

Still, physical gold has outperformed shares of gold-mining companies over the past three years by one of the largest margins in decades.

YearGold PriceNYSE Arca Gold BUGS Index (HUI)
2023$2,062.92$243.31
2022$1,824.32$229.75
2021$1,828.60$258.87
2020$1,895.10$299.64
2019$1,523.00$241.94
2018$1,281.65$160.58
2017$1,296.50$192.31
2016$1,151.70$182.31
2015$1,060.20$111.18
2014$1,199.25$164.03
2013$1,201.50$197.70
2012$1,664.00$444.22
2011$1,574.50$498.73
2010$1,410.25$573.32
2009$1,104.00$429.91
2008$865.00$302.41
2007$836.50$409.37
2006$635.70$338.24
2005$513.00$276.90
2004$438.00$215.33
2003$417.25$242.93
2002$342.75$145.12
2001$276.50$65.20
2000$272.65$40.97

Among the largest companies on the NYSE Arca Gold BUGS Index, Colorado-based Newmont has experienced a 24% drop in its share price over the past year. Similarly, Canadian Barrick Gold also saw a decline of 6.5% over the past 12 months.

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