Canada Nickel Co Inc.
- TSX-V: CNC
- Shares Outstanding: 57M
- Share price C$0.92 (02.07.2020)
- Market Cap: C$52M
Stay ahead with our weekly Nickel Market Insights with Mark Selby, Nickel Market Commentator and CEO of Canada Nickel Company (TSX-V: CNC). Stay up to date by listening to our weekly market roundup on Nickel.
What has been going on this week in the world of nickel? This week, we talk to Selby about market fundamentals, both in terms of base metals and battery metals like nickel. The Chinese market is absolutely key to nickel demand and with the price of nickel creeping up with inventory reducing, what geopolitical events will unfold in the near future? China is driving most of its investment into manufacturing, infrastructure and primary industry. There has been an utter startling 17% increase in the consumption of the nickel 300 series (chromium-nickel alloys). The Philippines is currently the only source of nickel supply and Selby covers the potential ramifications of this.
In addition, we ask Selby some questions about the nickel space that have been provided by our Crux Investor viewers. We also cover Canada Nickel Company’s Crawford Nickel-VMS Project in relation to Elon Musk’s recent quarterly conference call. Canada Nickel is one of the few nickel players than can produce with no carbon footprint, but are nickel investors attributing value to this and do they even understand it?
- 2:51 – Week Overview
- 6:02 – What’s Happening in China?
- 7:59 – Price Up, Inventory Down: Who’s Providing More Nickel?
- 11:00 – Demand and Intermediate Material Solutions
- 14:10 – Efficiency and Innovation in the Nickel Space
- 17:48 – Elements of Control: “Control the Mill, Control the District”
- 21:00 – Forward Guidance: Why Do Nickel Producers Need it?
- 22:43 – Shaky Economics: Manipulations of AISC
- 27:14 – Clean vs Dirty: Lower Mining Ethics Mean Lower Cost?
- \30:43 – Understanding NetZero: Are People Buying it?
- 32:28 – Funding Nickel Companies: Changing Criteria
- 34:21 – Insight into Partnerships: Orford Minerals
CLICK HERE to watch the full interview.
Matthew Gordon: Mark Selby, how are you doing, sir?
Mark Selby: Very well, Matthew Gordon, how are you?
Matthew Gordon: Not bad, but then I haven’t had the car journey you have just done. Tell us all about it? You told me before we started, I was impressed. Where are you?
Mark Selby: I am in Timmins which is an 8-hour car journey North of Toronto. I had stopped in Sudbury on the way up and got up here. It’s trying to minimize contacts. Things in Ontario are pretty good, but it’s safer to drive than to fly at this point. So rather than take any additional risks with contact at home with some higher risk people I got to see a good chunk of Northern Ontario that I hadn’t seen before.
Matthew Gordon: That’s rather gorgeous. And a lot of thinking time, a lot of phone calls made I suspect. That would be like the entire length of Britain and some. In fact, a little bit more, about an hour into The North Sea. So that’s very impressive. We’re here for our weekly catch up. What’s going on in the world of Nickel? We talked for the last 2-weeks about fundamentals. We have also talked about price in the market and this week has not disappointed.
Mark Selby: Nickel continues to surprise, and I was wrong once. What we’d seen the last 4 to 6-weeks, you have seen some momentum stuff come in. Last week was obviously the Elon Musk comment that popped Nickel prices up about 4%. And then. just yesterday, in the last 72 hours, Nickel prices have moved up another 4% or 5%. And in this case, we’re finally seeing some real fundamental numbers come through. What was amazing was Chinese stainless-steel production. And, 2/3rds of Nickel goes into stainless-steel. So that’s the big number and China is about two thirds of all stainless steel these days. Their year over year, 300 series, which is the one that has the most Nickel, was up 17% year over year.
I’ve ranted on a few prior conversations about analysts being very, very nervous about stepping away from a 2% to 3% growth number. The reality is in Nickel, it has these kinds of moves. So all of a sudden, people’s demand forecasts for Nickel and then, what you’re going to use this year as a base and then go forward, all of a sudden the base is going to be materially higher the amount of extra Nickel that will now need to be consumed in an analyst forecast is going to be raised by several hundred thousand tons over the next 4 or 5-years.
I don’t think this one month is a blip; the good thing is you have seen stainless prices go up during that timeframe. People are really demanding it. You are seeing inventories drop. There’s a whole set of now fundamental numbers that are finally pointing in the right direction. We didn’t see those fundamental numbers showing up, which could suggest that there was a bunch of hidden stocks that are taking care of whatever additional demand is coming through. And maybe that was the case, but now obviously the call has gone out.
In terms of the Nickel market, the other part that is constructive in terms of where we are at this point is you’re seeing ore prices also move up with the stainless price, the Nickel price, and the ore price has moved up. If there was enough Nickel pig iron floating around right now, the NPI producers wouldn’t necessarily be bidding up ore prices to produce a bunch more. So that suggests that as things are produced, they are buying more ore at higher prices because they need to.
These moves are good. We’ll see how the fundamentals hold up here. But, holding USD$60, if we end up with between USD$6.25 and USD$6.50 through the end of the year here, then that is a great position for what’s coming down the pipe.
Matthew Gordon: What’s happening in China. What is happening in China? Because there’s a lot of stimulus, but they’re coming out at a different way from the West where we’re just helicoptering money in, dropping it, scattering it and throwing it in a very random fashion. These guys seem to be driving it towards infrastructure, manufacturing, and obviously, primary industry we’re seeing we’re seeing here. Because to get 17% year over year on the Nickel 300 series – that’s nuts. It’s insane. So what’s happening?
Mark Selby: The Chinese, the way they reflate their economy is to basically get a bunch of infrastructures built, get a bunch of housing built. Social housing is a big driver in China. And so, we see that the East coast, which is very well developed now, but there’s still hundreds of millions of people who still haven’t fully participated in what Shanghai and Beijing look like today. So, the overall macro theme you see in a bunch of numbers, so Copper production, they’re running at 101% of capacity right now, year over year. Steel production is in very healthy growth territory. So, they’ve done it in 2003, 2008, 2009, there’s been a number of cycles where there is the button that the Chinese government hits to try and build up their economy. This is going to continue for a good 6 to 12 months and perhaps longer. And we’ll just have to see where the Chinese economy lands.
Matthew Gordon: We will also be able to work out who got it right in terms of their approach to stimulating the economy, which is a fascinating one. We are going to talk to a couple of US funds about next week. But prices are up, inventories are down. Imports are on the rise, where are they getting it all from?
Mark Selby: Right now it’s just the Philippines. The catalyst for the end of the year is that they need to build inventory, or inventories, because the Philippines has the rainy season from November through February. And if they haven’t built their stockpiles up, things will get even tighter by the end of the year.
There was news yesterday: New Caledonia approved 2 mines: Agoro and another mine to export about 2Mt each of ore. That will work out to, depending on the grade, 50,000t to 70,000t of additional Nickel ore availability. But we lost several hundred thousand tons of availability from Indonesia when they put the ban in place in January. It will help a little bit, but it’s not going to change the fundamental picture.
And New Caledonia is really the only proximal source of large volumes of additional materials. So, that’s it that can come to the market, from the biggest potential supplier, then that’s a good medium-term view. You may see some additional quantities from West Africa, Guatemala and a couple other locations, but there’s not another Indonesia they’re waiting with ore ready to go to China. It really does help the end of the year picture and into 2021.
Matthew Gordon: New Caledonia is 2 x 2Mt – that’s 4Mt in the market, but it doesn’t touch the sides. If Indonesia continues with this ban on exports, things are going to get tight for sure. Is there any chance that the Indonesians say, ‘well, actually, we’re going to come back on online. We are going to be supplying to the market’. Is there any chance of that?
Mark Selby: No, that would be zero. This has probably been the most successful developing country mining investment program ever. They’ve literally seen tens of billions of dollars of investment pour into the country. And, I would love to see someone put a chart together of what that investment looks like over the last 5-years. And they’ve got to be top of the list in terms of attracting investment. They flipped themselves and in 2014, and that was really in response to a short-term issue where that the home team player, PTN Tam who the government also owned, was really struggling to produce enough of ore to meet Chinese demand from the plants that had been built at that point. And they pulled the ban forward this time to make sure that they were going to get the investment that they wanted. So there’s zero chance that they would flip it back at this point in time.
Matthew Gordon: Let’s talk about where the demand is coming from. You mentioned a few of the places that that’s going to come from, and you have got lots of different grades and scales of operations, but something that you mentioned in the past, and it’s question that has been sent in. We’ve talked about intermediate material and how that may be a solution for this demand that’s coming, coming down the line. Can you just remind people of what the intermediate solution is and perhaps how that could affect the market?
Mark Selby Yes, so over the 3 or 4-years, and as capacity starts to get built, to continue to supply the EV market, what you’re going to see and what makes most sense from the supply chain for the auto industry, what’s the lowest cost to get it out of the ground and into an EV is to really make the highest quality intermediate product that you can from either a laterite or a sulphide deposit, and then take that product and then put it into a plant, that then takes it down the path into a product that’s much closer to what can be used for the auto company. There are 2 main reasons for that. One is, if you’re going to make a Nickel sulphate, there’s a huge amount of the cost is crystallizing the sulphate out of solution. You use a massive amount of energy, and then the first step in the next process that uses the sulphate then re-dissolve it all. In terms of that end to end cost, that’s a very wasteful step. The other piece of it is a lot of Nickel intermediates on the laterite side. You can have material that’s 45% to 50% Nickel and other ones that are 65% Nickel. But a pure Nickel sulphate, just because you stick a bunch of…it ends up effectively water molecules in there. It’s only 22% or 24% Nickel.
If you then have to ship it somewhere, it’s much more expensive per unit of Nickel to ship that material around. And all you’re doing is at taking a bunch of sulphate, paying for a bunch of sulphate ions to travel around the world.
So for those 2 reasons, the companies that I’ve been discussing, that’s very much conceptually where they see the industry going. And so producers who are looking to get into production over the next 3, 4, 5-years, that needs to be where you head to.
Matthew Gordon: We have interviewed a few companies recently who are looking to, because the market is tightening, and they’re seeing the ability to capture value further down the supply chain. Nickel is seemingly a quite expensive industry, just the mining component. You need to raise a lot of capital. The CAPEX is vast. Are there solutions that you think, looking forward, this is stemming from my question for someone saying, well, could innovation, is there innovation, that’s going to come into the Nickel space from the likes of people like Elon Musk, with that comment last week saying, well, there must be a more efficient way to capture Nickel, to be able to provide high-grade Nickel to battery manufacturers. Are you seeing much innovation? Are you seeing people wanting to move down the supply chain or just is it miners focus on mining and processors focus on processing?
Mark Selby: There was a whole flurry of people talking about making Nickel sulphate at their mine site or somewhere in between, if you’re in production right now you still have avoid the ‘cartel’, the oligopoly that really manages Nickel supply. It is good to have some downstream path, but don’t build the plant at your mine site. The industry is definitely talking about it. That’s where they want to go. it will be the next generation of plants that get built, will be built with that concept in mind. The challenge for them is, there isn’t a lot of intermediate. It’s a bit of a chicken egg: there’s not 5 x 50,000t p/a Nickel production plants coming online outside of our mines coming online outside of Indonesia. And the Chinese are busy basically getting their plants in place in Indonesia, so that they’re going to own the entire chain right through to final product, so it won’t be available to Western suppliers.
Matthew Gordon: Talk to me about this next generation of plants. What do you mean? What are they going to do that the current plants don’t do?
Mark Selby: Right now, they’ve been quite happy to buy sulphate from Glencore, Vale, other producers. But right now, we’re just in the baby stages of Nickel in the market; it’s basically 3% or 4% of overall Nickel demand, and we’re talking about going from 80,000t to 400,000t to 500,000t by 2025, and 1Mt to 1.5Mt by 2030. They were thinking about, ‘how do I make the 8x, the 5x the amount of Nickel I need by 2025’. And as they gear up to get that level of production in place, they’re thinking about, ‘I was fine when I was buying 20,000t of Nickel sulphate, but then when I need 5x that then I need to start to think about what that cost looks like and how I want to position myself I going forward.
One thing that Tesla has been really focused on is just scale. The Gigafactory’s: they are huge, they are built to be expanded even further. Because they realise there’s a scale curve to this production. And they just want to make sure they’re as far out in front of the rest of the pack as possible to be able to have a cost advantage versus them. And in the production of the products that are necessary for the chain, scale will help, because in the auto industry, it’s all about trying to be the lowest cost supplier and continuing to modify your supply chain. It’s the absolute lowest cost possible.
Matthew Gordon: Talk to me about this oligopoly, because when you say words like that, it says, well, they can control pricing in the market. They can control supply processing which may affect my decision making as an investor. So was it tongue in cheek, or do you mean there is something that we should be aware of?
Mark Selby: It’s tongue in cheek, but 10 and 20-years ago the reality was there was really only a handful of downstream smelter refiners, but unlike Copper and Zinc where you have benchmark treatment terms that are negotiated with some competitive tension between producers and suppliers, in the Nickel space. They effectively had a lot of pricing power over miners in terms of who got what share of the profit from digging it out of the ground. That has been loosening as these alternative production channels open up in China, pricing terms have moved higher. But we’re still, we’re only about 20% of the way down that path. In another 3 or 4-years, you’ll see a lot more capacity come on in China to handle Nickel intermediates to get them into a form that can be used by the auto industry. That this is exactly what happened in Cobalt in the mid-2000s, and I expect a similar thing to happen in the Nickel space here.
Matthew Gordon: There’s a saying in mining, which is: ‘he who controls the mill controls the districts’. Been around for a long time. There is certainly something to it. Is that even more the case with things like Nickel? We’ve talked about it in the context of Cobalt previously and Copper, but is that the case now with Nickel or is there a bit more to it?
Mark Selby: It was definitely the case like 15, 20-years ago. In the past, the Inco and Falconbridges’ of their time, it really helped limit supply. As a miner, couldn’t really get a path to market for your product other than selling it to them at a price that ensured they made a lot of money on it. Today, that’s less the case, but you need to further process your material to actually get cash. When I was with RNC, when we looked at Dumont, that’s where we came up with this roasting approach, effectively that gave us a channel to bypass the existing smelters and refiners to get material into a much more competitive market where there’s dozens and dozens of Nickel pig iron producers to take advantage of. Miners need to think that way, but over the next 3 or 4-years, that hold on the market that the existing players have is going to continue to diminish as these alternate paths to market start to appear from China.
Matthew Gordon: Just a few questions that have been sent in by people who listen to the series. A lot of questions around the same thing. I’m going to paraphrase them. People want to try and understand what do you mean by, and in one case, ‘would challenge your assertion’ around the need for forward guidance in the automotive industries. Shouldn’t you be able to just stand on your own 2 feet and get on with it in a bear or a bull market? Why do you need guidance from the automotive industry?
Mark Selby: I was talking about it when Nickel was USD$6/lbs. At $6.50, it’s better for the miners, but at USD$6/lbs, there are no projects outside of Indonesia that can move forward at a USD$6/lbs price. Elon Musk, in his set of comments, he said, ‘don’t wait for prices’. One of them was, don’t wait for prices to go back to prior levels, and that is a reflection of there aren’t projects that can go ahead at the current level. They do need higher prices to be able to get going. And, it’s fine for him who’s not investing a billion dollars in capital, to say, ‘trust me, we’re going to use all the Nickel you need just go ahead and spend that billion dollars and yes, don’t worry about it’. If they want the Nickel, they’re going to really need to provide guidance to the market as to how much Nickel the market is really going to need in that 2025 time period to 2030 time period, to be able to help shift the investment community. To be ready to write a cheque to the mining companies, to be able to build these projects that’s the bottom line and that’s why I made that assertion.
Matthew Gordon: ‘No companies outside Indonesia are going to be economically mining Nickel for under USD$6/lbs’. That is what you just said. Because you and I’ve been on the finance side of things for long enough, and we’ve done enough in mining to know when a company’s going to splurge the AISC numbers. Those numbers can be managed, manipulated to a degree. We’ll just say that. That’s just a big macro statement, not a reflection on your companies or any company specifically. I’ve been in rooms where that happens and things can look economic when you’re using a AISC. It gets really difficult when you have got companies that are saying: hey, we’re economic at USD$5/lbs Nickel. But the underlying reality is that they need USD$6 Nickel to actually be profitable. So that happens. And I’m talking about Gold and Copper, Silver, all companies play, that game. So your assertion that no companies can economically mine for under USD$6 is what?
Mark Selby: I wouldn’t say economically mined. It’s basically to get a project financed. So, if you need a billion dollars…Voisey’s Bay underground, Voisey’s Bay is USD$1.5Bn. Onapping Deepest Glencore’s project, that’s USD$800M. Those are the scale of the tickets that are required to bring new Nickel production in. And the cash costs can, using Dumont Feasibility Study numbers as an example, the cash costs are around USD$3/lbs, the All in Sustaining Cost is well below USD$4/lbs. They will print money at a USD$6/lbs Nickel price in the future. It’s just a matter of getting enough, getting a billion dollars to be able to build the plan, to be able to make that quantity of Nickel to generate a return on that billion dollar investment.
This is something you bring up the case of the C1 and AISC, I would really encourage investors… high grade is sexy and it looks great, but I would really encourage investors, if you’re looking at a high-grade operation to go to the free cashflow page, because the issue with a high-grade mine is that you have the exploration costs. You then have to develop the mine to get out to where you just found the Nickel that you just drilled, and that number piles up pretty quickly. And they might say, ‘oh, we’ve got this cost and then we’ve got this cost’, and you think, they should be making USD$2/lbs to USD$3/lbs. And then you go to free cash cashflow statement, and you look to see actually how much free cash flow they generate, and none of it’s there. Because when you do All in Sustaining Costs, that’s one of those things where companies play a little shell game in terms of, ‘well, that’s not sustaining capital, that’s exploration and development, so we’ll leave it on that side of the fence’. So their AISC number looks lower.
So yes, I would highly encourage people to do that. There’s one example in the industry that has very much twisted the definitions of C1 costs more than –
Matthew Gordon: we all know who you are talking about.
Mark Selby: a lot of people would be uncomfortable with this.
Matthew Gordon: Let’s definitely not mention any names, but I don’t think it’s unusual; it happens all the time. I see it across all commodities, it’s the dance that the CFO plays and that’s why fundamentals have got to be there. You do need to look through them.
Mark Selby: The cash flow statement never lies. That is the best of all of the financial statements.
Matthew Gordon: So maybe that’s something we can pick up on another time, just to maybe help people understand it and go through that more in the actual reality of what some of these costs are.
The next question was: since you have come up with your ‘NetZero’ trademark, or pending concept, and you’re starting to talk about it in the marketplace and we’ve seen it everywhere. You have got some amazing coverage from that from mainstream press as well. It was really good. People are starting to come to us and talk about the difference between clean Nickel and dirty Nickel, and some are saying that sulphites are cleaner than laterites. And somebody was saying some of the practices are cleaner than others. This whole ESG component is so, so important. Elon Musk said it was so it’s got to be true. I’m thinking for example of practices, what is the actual cost of trying to be a clean, responsible, ethical miner v miners who don’t have those problems in some jurisdictions where they’ve got deep-sea tailings, where they are literally dumping stuff out deep into the sea, ‘but at very big volume so it shouldn’t be a problem’! How do you balance that off? Because obviously with lower ethics come lower costs, potentially, and with the ESG come higher costs, potentially. What’s your take on it?
Mark Selby: Yes. And that’s the thing, it is the opportunity, and this is why we want it to be so far out in front of it is, there are situations, and our project is there. There are other projects that have a set of an intersection of things that make sense that allow them to do it. When we look at the ability of the location where we’re at with the hydroelectricity, and then the nature of the rocks themselves to absorb CO2. What we need to do to get there is because we’re starting out and we’re going to design it in from the beginning, our expectation is as we go through the engineering here that we’ll have basically, minimal to no impact on capital cost and minimal to no impact on operating costs.
Every operation can’t say that, but it’s those opportunities and that’s where people, one of the dimensions now, as you start to look at mining projects is to say, okay, is it a good deposit? Is it in a good location? And then the next question, and if you want to really make a lot of money in mining is to identify those opportunities where you can mine at zero or close to zero carbon going forward. It is an equal pillar in the the pillars of what you need to look at as you look at new projects.
Matthew Gordon: So now I know what you have got. There are other companies who have similar capability and similar situations, spent on similar situations. I’m going to be careful. This is a macro show. I don’t want to say that some companies are perfectly capable of achieving the same goals as you, some a lot less. They’ve got a whole different set of problems. And we just want to talk about it, because we must have 40 questions here about clean and dirty Nickel and investing in ethical investing, and what’s going to get funded, what are institutions looking for? You have answered some of those questions over the past few weeks. Are you getting much feedback as part of your NetZero conversations? What are people trying to understand about NetZero, and do they buy your version of it?
Mark Selby: Yes, the feedback over the past week has been very positive in terms of making that an objective. And, I’ve had a number of conversations with a number of different mining companies and other groups in the last week and a half here. And, with people that I’ve known for quite a while and aren’t afraid to tell me that I’m full of something on something. And, I’ve had no pushback in terms of the concept itself, because, there’s no rocket science involved for our particular project. And given the location that it’s in, to be able to do that, there’s a couple of engineering issues in terms of how you would take off gas and what’s the right way to blend it in with the tailings. But other than that as an issue, there’s really not any anything particularly fundamental at that point.
And, there’s more operations now. You’re starting to get more electric mining fleet become available. For some underground operations that are going to an all-electric operation that opens up the possibility for those types of operations to be able to do it. It is just looking for the right set of opportunities: deposit, location, and now it has to be net zero carbon potential is one of the key colours as you look at projects that you want to get involved in.
Matthew Gordon: We’ve mentioned in the past people like KoBold and the BlackRocks of this world, are they actively now seeking like yours or making demands of projects, which perhaps aren’t, but could be, or should be? How are they affecting funding in the marketplace? Because they’re slightly unconventional in a way because they are coming from non-money backgrounds, but they’re seeing opportunities. They are hedge fund-ish in their approach, and saying, ‘well, if we put money into the right companies, but even we have standards’.
Mark Selby: Yes, in terms of the larger, there are more and more large investment funds that are, ESG is part of the large funds are deploying capital and they have added that 3rd column in terms of where they’re evaluating companies. If you’re a junior, if you’re now operating in that industry you are now being evaluated on that column, it would be good to take that column and put it into your day to day investment decisions. With the energy metal space. KoBold, it is good to see Silicon Valley money coming into the mining sector and think about ways to try and find more, they’re focused on looking at trying to find other sources of Nickel and Cobalt that aren’t in the Congo, and in the places that have some political and environmental challenges associated with them.
So, I’m hoping that is a sign of more capital to come from that space. We’ll see what happens over the next four months. We’re at day nine post-announcement so it’ll take a while for it to trickle through. But I’m hopeful as we go through the rest of the year here that we should have some pretty interesting discussions with a bunch of investors that we wouldn’t have been able to talk to before.
Matthew Gordon: I don’t like rumours, but I’ve heard one: Orford, West Raglan partnerships, what can you tell me?
Mark Selby: So yes, full disclosure: I’m chair of Orford as well as my role at Canada Nickel. Yes, the reality is there are very few high-quality Nickel sulphide projects globally. The West Raglan property we picked up at RNC in 2014. It was one of our first acquisitions of something else other than Dumont. We continue to look at all Nickel sulphite opportunities, and when it makes sense for us, we’ll look at doing something with that Nickel sulphite property. But at the current time, there’s no deal on the table or anything like that. But it’s great, as an Orford mining chair, it’s a great opportunity.
Matthew Gordon: I was looking for signs, Mark. You have got your poker face on, and I know you’re a very good poker player, so I got nothing from you. Mark, thanks for this week’s roundup. When we first started talking about it, we said, ‘well, things don’t move that much in the world of Nickel. We’ll see how it goes. It may not last’, but here we are 10 episodes later. It’s getting exciting.
Mark Selby: The thing with Nickel is it’s always been the most volatile base metal. I would encourage people to not wait for the perfect set of indicators to come in place. The mid-May trade in the base metals that I said was the right time to step your foot in. This has been great. And, now that we’ve got this momentum, the moves over the last 6-weeks, 8-weeks have been momentum based. This is real, solid fundamental, there’s a set of fundamental things that says, this level is going to be interesting for a period of time. And, now with New Caledonia just providing a little more and a lot more ore to the market. It will set up an interesting end of year 2020 to early 2021 timeframe. So yes, stay tuned.
You can watch, listen and read Mark Selby’s insightful weekly Nickel investing commentary at cruxinvestor.com/club
Company Website: https://canadanickel.com/
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