Chris Berry looks beyond exploration and mining to the battery supply chain
by Greg Klein
He dates it to what he calls “lithium’s Big Bang,” the February 2014 announcement of Tesla’s first gigafactory. New investment rejuvenated the juniors, as they set out in search of new supply. But “it’s not just the metals and mining space that’s seen an influx of capital,” Chris Berry points out. As an independent consultant to asset managers, he’s spent a lot of time over the last 18 months “talking to what I call new types of money that are trying to understand the lithium-ion space.”
He brought his perspective to Vancouver on the April 21 stop of the Benchmark Mineral Intelligence World Tour.
Although lithium prices continue their ascent, the battery-powered revolution is “really rooted in economics,” explained the president of House Mountain Partners and editor of the Disruptive Discoveries Journal. “I don’t think this technology-driven deflation in battery prices can really be stopped…. Lithium-ion battery prices have fallen 60% in the last three years alone, just since the gigafactory announcement.”
With more battery megafactories coming (Benchmark currently tracks 15 existing or planned projects), he believes price deflation will “continue, perhaps intensify, for the next five to 10 years.”
That can only encourage further electric vehicle sales. And apart from the practical advantages of EVs, driving them is “a really transformative experience. There really is nothing like it,” he maintains.
There’s no questioning future demand for energy minerals, he insists. But there is a question of whether supply “will overshoot or undershoot.”
Even so he sees “a very robust supply chain response” that goes beyond Albemarle NYSE:ALB, FMC NYSE:FMC and SQM NYSE:SQM to include, for example, Intel’s $15-billion takeout of driverless car designer Mobileye, Chinese EV/energy storage manufacturer BYD’s plans to boost its battery production to megafactory stature and Beijing-based search engine giant Baidu’s cash injection into NextEV. “This entire lithium-ion supply chain is continuing to grow, continuing to see huge investment,” Berry emphasized.
“The beauty of it is there are a number of different ways you can gain exposure.” Fund managers and others with deep pockets might compare Albemarle with SQM, but Berry suggested also comparing the “risk/reward paradigm” of such companies with an outfit like Nano One Materials TSXV:NNO, a Vancouver-based company working to transform battery design.
Of course the pace of new development raises questions about operating margins. “Does it make sense to focus on a company like Albemarle that has a 40% EBITDA profit margin?” he asked. “Or does it make sense to go further down the supply chain and think about a company like Panasonic, much different than Albemarle but still heavily invested and involved in the lithium supply chain? The challenge, I would argue, with Panasonic is that they are going to get a tremendous amount of competition from BYD, Tesla and a number of other battery manufacturers. So the profit margin of Panasonic, despite being one of the biggest players in the space, is going to shrink.”
Looking back at lithium exploration and development projects, Berry said different extraction technologies offer miners and would-be miners additional opportunities to leverage themselves to investors.
For all that, one of Berry’s concluding remarks must have taken many attendees by surprise. Benchmark managing director Simon Moores asked why attention so often focuses on lithium and not other battery materials.
Berry’s response? “I would actually be the most optimistic about nickel, cobalt and lithium in that order.” But noting China’s long-term strategy in building supply chains, he added, “The interesting thing about lithium relative to other niche metals is that China doesn’t have a stranglehold on it.”
Nevertheless, he cautioned, about 60% of battery capacity comes from China.