Silver Series Part 3: The World’s Growing Demand For Silver
Silver is the most versatile metal in the world. Not only does it have the highest thermal and electrical conductivity of all metals, but it also has many other impressive properties: silver is antibacterial, durable, reflective, and malleable.
With such a multitude of significant material qualities, it is no surprise that now more than half of silver used today is in industrial processes. Last year, it is estimated that 53% of silver was used in industry – an increase from a total of 46% a decade ago.
Perhaps the most notable industrial sector for silver demand is photovoltaics, where 2.8 million oz of silver is used for every gigawatt of solar energy capacity. The total installed capacity of solar globally is at around 178 GW in 2014, and growth in global installs is also significant, gaining 14% between 2013 and 2014.
The metal’s other main industrial uses include brazing and soldering as well as fabrication. In the former category, using silver for brazing and soldering helps produce leak-tight and corrosion-resistant joints when combining metal parts.
In terms of fabrication, silver-containing vehicles, batteries, and chemical processes are the most important categories for future growth. For use in automotive manufacturing, which has the highest project growth (4.9% CAGR) of categories other than solar, silver is used to coat electrical contacts to ensure the most efficient energy flow. Silver batteries, which have similar energy densities to lithium-ion batteries, are used in military and aerospace applications because they are more reliable and safe. Lastly, silver catalysts are also used to help combine ethylene and oxygen together to create ethylene oxide, which is used in medicine, anti-freeze, and cosmetics.
While industrial uses are the most prominent for the metal, it is investment that has been the real growth engine for silver demand over the last decade.
In 2014, 20% of all silver is used for investment purposes, compared to only 7% a decade ago. The demand for silver coins and bars has more than quadrupled since the early 2000s, and the coin sales of Canadian Maple Leafs and American Eagles have been soaring for years.
It is also interesting to note, especially at a time of such market vulnerability, that the ratio of silver to gold ounces bought in the market increases. This ratio peaked recently during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, and in the last 12 months it has jumped up to comparable levels.
Jewelry is also a crucial market for silver, and the category is considered by some to serve as an investment and store of wealth as well. Lower prices for silver in recent years have helped jewelry rebound in Asia and the United States in particular.
Globally, silver jewelry fabrication experienced its second year of consecutive growth, increasing 1.5% to achieve a new record high. This was a reflection chiefly of the strong performance of silver jewelry demand from India, which surged 47% from 2013 levels.
A record of 7,063 tonnes of silver were imported to India in 2014, up 15% from 2013. The country imported more silver in November 2014 than they did in all of 2009. This is partially due to India’s rising population and per capital income, and also due to import restrictions on gold in the world’s second most populous country.
Silver demand is multi-faceted, with just over half of demand coming from industry and the rest split between mainly investment and jewelry demand. We will cover the historical returns of investing in silver in-depth with our final part of the Silver Series in the coming weeks.
Don’t miss out on the last part of the Silver Series by connecting with Visual Capitalist.
The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns
Which individual commodities were the best performers in 2019, and how do those numbers compare to the past decade of data?
The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns 2019
In 2019, every major asset class finished in the black.
And although the broad commodity market finished up 17.6% on the year, the performances of individual commodities were all over the map. For those familiar with the sector, that’s pretty much par for the course.
That said, the lack of an obvious correlation in commodity markets also makes for a thought-provoking and humbling exercise: comparing the annual returns of commodities against the data from the past decade.
A Decade of Commodities (2010-2019)
Today’s visualization comes to us from U.S. Global Investors, and it compares individual commodity returns between 2010 and 2019.
You can use the interactive tool on their website to toggle between various settings for the table of commodity returns, such as breaking them down by category (i.e. energy, precious metals, etc.), by best and worst performers, or by volatility over the time period.
Let’s dive into the data to see what trends we can uncover.
Palladium: The Best Commodity, Three Years Straight
In 2019, palladium finished as the best performing commodity for the third straight year — this time, with a 54.2% return.
You could have bought the precious metal for about $400/oz in early 2010, when it was a fraction of the price of either gold or platinum.
Nowadays, thanks to the metal’s ability to reduce harmful car emissions and an uncertain supply situation, palladium trades for above $2,000/oz — making it more expensive per ounce than both gold and platinum.
Oil and Gas: Opposite Ends of the Spectrum
As key energy commodities, oil and natural gas have an inherent connection to one another.
However, in 2019, the two commodities had completely diverging performances:
Crude oil prices gained 34.5% on the year, making it one of the best commodities for investors — meanwhile, natural gas went the opposite direction, dropping 25.5% on the year. This actually cements gas as the worst performing major commodity of the decade.
“That’s Gold, Jerry!”
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that gold and silver had a bounceback year.
Gold gained 18.3% to finish with the best return the yellow metal has seen in a decade. Silver followed suit with a similar story, rallying 15.2% over the calendar year.
Precious metals now sit at multi-year highs against an interesting economic and geopolitical backdrop to start 2020.
Where do you see the above commodities ending up on next year’s edition of the rankings?
Breaking the Ice: Mapping a Changing Arctic
As the Arctic becomes more accessible due to reduced ice cover, countries with polar real estate increasingly viewing the region through an economic lens.
Breaking the Ice: Mapping a Changing Arctic
The Arctic is changing. As retreating ice cover makes this region more accessible, nations with Arctic real estate are thinking of developing these subzero landscapes and the resources below.
As the Arctic evolves, a vast amount of resources will become more accessible and longer shipping seasons will improve Arctic logistics. But with a changing climate and increased public pressure to limit resource development in environmentally sensitive regions, the future of northern economic activity is far from certain.
This week’s Chart of the Week shows the location of major oil and gas fields in the Arctic and the possible new trade routes through this frontier.
A Final Frontier for Undiscovered Resources?
Underneath the Arctic Circle lies massive oil and natural gas formations. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic contains approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and about 30% of its undiscovered natural gas resources.
So far, most exploration in the Arctic has occurred on land. This work produced the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in Alaska, the Tazovskoye Field in Russia, and hundreds of smaller fields, many of which are on Alaska’s North Slope, an area now under environmental protection.
Land accounts for about 1/3 of the Arctic’s area and is thought to hold about 16% of the Arctic’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources. A further 1/3 of the Arctic area is comprised of offshore continental shelves, which are thought to contain enormous amounts of resources but remain largely unexplored by geologists.
The remaining 1/3 of the Arctic is deep ocean waters measuring thousands of feet in depth.
The Arctic circle is about the same geographic size as the African continent─about 6% of Earth’s surface area─yet it holds an estimated 22% of Earth’s oil and natural gas resources. This paints a target on the Arctic for exploration and development, especially with shorter seasons of ice coverage improving ocean access.
Thawing Ice Cover: Improved Ocean Access, New Trading Routes
As Arctic ice melts, sea routes will stay navigable for longer periods, which could drastically change international trade and shipping. September ice coverage has decreased by more than 25% since 1979, although the area within the Arctic Circle is still almost entirely covered with ice from November to July.
|Northern Sea Route||4,740 Nautical Miles||6 weeks of open waters|
|Transpolar Sea Route||4,179 Nautical Miles||2 weeks of open waters|
|Northwest Passage||5,225 Nautical Miles||Periodically ice-free|
|Arctic Bridge||3,600 Nautical Miles||Ice-free|
Typically shipping to Japan from Rotterdam would use the Suez Canal and take about 30 days, whereas a route from New York would use the Panama Canal and take about 25 days.
But if the Europe-Asia trip used the Northern Sea Route along the northern coast of Russia, the trip would last 18 days and the distance would shrink from ~11,500 nautical miles to ~6,900 nautical miles. For the U.S.-Asia trip through the Northwest Passage, it would take 21 days, rather than 25.
Control of these routes could bring significant advantages to countries and corporations looking for a competitive edge.
Competing Interests: Arctic Neighbors
Eight countries lay claim to land that lies within the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark (through its administration of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.
There is no consistent agreement among these nations regarding the claims to oil and gas beneath the Arctic Ocean seafloor. However, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides each country an exclusive economic zone extending 200 miles out from its shoreline and up to 350 miles, under certain geological conditions.
Uncertain geology and politics has led to overlapping territorial disputes over how each nation defines and maps its claims based on the edge of continental margins. For example, Russia claims that their continental margin follows the Lomonosov Ridge all the way to the North Pole. In another, both the U.S. and Canada claim a portion of the Beaufort Sea, which is thought to contain significant oil and natural gas resources.
To Develop or Not to Develop
Just because the resources are there does not mean humans have to exploit them, especially given oil’s environmental impacts. Canada’s federal government has already returned security deposits that oil majors had paid to drill in Canadian Arctic waters, which are currently off limits until at least 2021.
In total, the Government of Canada returned US$327 million worth of security deposits, or 25% of the money oil companies pledged to spend on exploration in the Beaufort Sea. In addition, Goldman Sachs announced that it would not finance any projects in the U.S.’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The retreat of Western economic interests in the Arctic may leave the region to Russia and China, countries with less strict environmental regulations.
Russia has launched an ambitious plan to remilitarize the Arctic. Specifically, Russia is searching for evidence to prove its territorial claims to additional portions of the Arctic, so that it can move its Arctic borderline — which currently measures over 14,000 miles in length — further north.
In a changing Arctic, this potentially resource-rich region could become another venue for geopolitical tensions, again testing whether humans can be proper stewards of the natural world.
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