Billionaire Miner Friedland Warns of a Copper ‘Train Wreck’ as Supply Stalls

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(Bloomberg) — Copper is poised to follow other commodities upended by recent price surges as the mining industry struggles to expand ahead of accelerating demand, warns the man behind some of the world’s biggest mines.

Demand for critical raw materials is set to jump as nations mandate clean energy and transport while clambering to develop their own supply chains. But a combination of factors suggests supply won’t keep pace, according to billionaire Robert Friedland. They include the fact that deposits are getting pricier and tricker to find and dig up, funding is scarce and societies have yet to grasp mining’s role in the shift from fossil fuels.

“We’re heading for a train wreck here,” the founder and executive co-chairman of Ivanhoe Mines (OTC:) Ltd. said in an interview at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters. “My fear is that when push finally comes to shove” can go up 10 times.

Friedland, who made his fortune from Canadian nickel and is behind massive copper finds in Mongolia and the Congo, has long championed the importance of the metal used in everything from wires to weaponry. Some analysts share his concern about a looming copper crunch, but consensus is for far more gradual price gains in the coming years.

Read More: The China-Driven Metals ‘Super Cycle’ Is Over, Jefferies Says

Futures are down 10% from a January peak as an uneven post-pandemic recovery in China — the world’s biggest metals consumer — and inflation-fighting efforts by central banks restrains demand. Still, Friedland sees copper’s longer-term prospects supported by decarbonization, ongoing Chinese demand, the emergence of India and re-militarization in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On the supply side, output in top producer Chile has plateaued as ore quality deteriorates. The industry in general is having to dig deeper and contend with an uptick in resource nationalism and far more stringent environmental and social standards.

Read More: Giant Chile Mines Are Struggling Just as World Needs More Copper

Investors have yet to grasp the significance of a global rush for the building blocks of clean energy, Friedland said. He points to very low physical inventories of copper coinciding with historically low relative valuations of mining companies. Large premiums paid in recent acquisitions indicate the mining industry understands where the market is headed, he said, although consolidation won’t solve the dilemma of how to boost production. 

Friedland points to other commodities as examples of what may be in store for a tightening copper market. Chinese spot prices of molybdenum doubled from August to February amid supply disruptions and growing demand from the renewables and military sectors. One gauge of semi-processed lithium shot up 422% in 2021.

“When metals are required, the prices go crazy and nobody’s willing to sell them,” he said. “We’re heading into that sort of situation.”

The 72-year-old magnate is making his latest mining bet on the US. Ivanhoe Electric Inc., which has BlackRock Inc (NYSE:). and BHP Group (NYSE:) as investors, is exploring in Arizona when the US is starting to realize the importance of domestic sources of raw materials and supply chains for greening the economy.

Read More: Billionaire Friedland Says US Must Brand Copper a Critical Mineral

China is a dominant player in processing of nickel, copper, cobalt and other resources that are key to economic growth and clean-energy technologies. With initiatives such as the Inflation Reduction Act, the US is seeking to curtail global dependence on China as competition between the two nations increases. The European Union has already proposed classifying copper and nickel as critical raw materials in legislation designed to bolster supplies, alongside other metals key to the energy transition.

“Europe is in a panic about where their raw material is going to come from,” Friedland said. “The US is in a panic about where their raw material is going to come from. And so we’re going to see a lot of volatility and change in the way our supply chain is organized.”

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