How rare earths got caught in the trade war

By IM Staff
Published: Friday, 21 June 2019

A look at Fastmarkets' latest rare earth coverage

Rare earths, a group of 17 elements with a unique magnetic and physical properties and a wide range of high-tech applications, have been thrust into the spotlight by the threat of export restrictions from China.

Relations between the United States and China have been souring ever since Donald Trump was elected US president after a running a campaign based in part on a pledge to boost domestic industry and exports.

Trumps promise's have bought him into conflict with the Chinese government, which he accuses of manipulating foreign exchange routes, stealing intellectual property and imposing excessive tariffs to the detriment of US industry.

The frosty relations have driven a series of tit-for-tat tariff increases - while the Chinese have been targeting US agricultural goods, the US imposed tariffs on a huge swathe of imports.

Matters came to a head in May 2019 when the latest failure of negotiations saw tariffs doubled to 25% on a wide range of goods.

At the same time, rare earth prices in China rose - a ban on imports of rare earth ores from Myanmar restricted supply. And the Chinese government started to make heavy hints that it could hit back at the US with a ban on rare earth exports.

China is the world’s leading miner of rare earth ores and is dominant in the production of rare earths. Most material mined globally is shipped to China for processing.

There are also concerns that other minor metals, even if they are not technically rare earths, could be caught up in the trade restrictions.

Market sources are skeptical about the real risk of Chinese export restrictions. The consensus is that even if a ban were enacted, and proved effective, it would only serve to increase production and processing outside China. Some even questioned if China had the ability to stop exports, given the relatively small volumes involved.

But if the threat of export restrictions has buyers unconcerned, it has proved a boon for non-Chinese miners and processors, including Australian miner Lynas, US company MPM and several juniors.

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