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Wednesday, September 29, 2010 8:37 PM

Pentagon Loses Control of Laser Guided Bombs to China; Shades of "Avatar", Rare Earth Metals a Potential "Unobtanium"; The "Bright Side"

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Last Sunday in Prepare for Currency/Trade Wars; How Might China Respond to US Tariffs? I mentioned the possibility China might shut off exports of rare earth metals used in making glass for solar panels, motors that help propel hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, and laser guided bombs.

Indeed, it was the shutoff of rare earth metals to Japan that caused Japan to "cry uncle" and release a Chinese boat captain detained by the Japanese in disputed waters.

For details, please see Rare Earth Diplomacy: Japan Holds Chinese Boat Captain;China Blocks Rare Earth Exports to Japan;China Holds 4 Japanese on Spy Charges;Captain Set Free

Rare Earth Metals a Potential "Unobtanium"

In light of the above, it should be no surprise to see Bloomberg report about the sudden growing concern Pentagon Losing Control of Bombs to China’s Monopoly

“It’s a seller’s market now,” says Bai Baosheng, 43, puffing a cigarette in his office in Baotou, China, where his company sells bags of powder containing a metallic element known as neodymium, vital in tiny magnets that direct the fins of bombs dropped by U.S. Air Force jets in Afghanistan.

The U.S. handed its main economic rival power to dictate access to these building blocks of modern weapons by ceding control of prices and supply, according to dozens of interviews with industry executives, congressional leaders and policy experts. China in July reduced rare-earth export quotas for the rest of the year by 72 percent, sending prices up more than sixfold for some elements.

Military officials are only now conducting an inventory of where and how U.S. suppliers use the obscure but essential substances -- including those that silence the whoosh of Boeing Co. helicopter blades, direct Raytheon Co. missiles and target guns in General Dynamics Corp. tanks.

“The Pentagon has been incredibly negligent,” said Peter Leitner, who was a senior strategic trade adviser at the Defense Department from 1986 to 2007. “There are plenty of early warning signs that China will use its leverage over these materials as a weapon.”

While two rare-earth projects are scheduled to ramp up production by the end of 2012 -- one owned by Molycorp Inc. in California and another by Lynas Corp. in Australia -- the GAO says it may take 15 years to rebuild a U.S. manufacturing supply chain. China makes virtually all the metals refined from rare earths, the agency says. The elements are also needed for hybrid-electric cars and wind turbines, one reason supply may fall short of demand in 2014 even with the new mines, according to Kingsnorth of Imcoa.

Just how far U.S. manufacturing has waned is apparent at a factory in Valparaiso, Indiana, where dogs skitter across a bare concrete shop floor, their nails clicking. This brick plant on Elm Street once made 80 percent of the rare-earth magnets in laser-guided U.S. smart bombs, according to U.S. Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana. In 2003, the plant’s owner shifted work to China, costing 230 jobs.

Now the plant houses Coco’s Canine Cabana, a doggy day care the current tenants started to supplement sagging income from their machine shop.

It’s taking as long as 10 weeks to get neodymium magnets, double the previous wait time, said Joe Schrantz, group supply chain manager at Moog Inc. in East Aurora, New York.

For Western companies, China’s policies are creating the real “unobtanium,” the fictional mineral fought over in James Cameron’s 2009 film “Avatar.”

Rising neodymium prices are forcing up the price of magnets, which typically cost between $2 and $30 apiece. That’s having a “significant” effect on profit, and suppliers say costs will keep going up, Schrantz said. The company is considering buying blocks of raw material and storing it.

“If everybody does that, then it’s going to get really crazy,” he said.
There is much more in the article. Please give it a look.

The Bright Side

Although "unobtanium" is a cause of concern for warmongers everywhere, being the ever-optimist that I am, I prefer to look at the bright side.

Prices are soaring. Isn't that what Bernanke wants?

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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