Precious Platinum to Shine

07/05/2011 10:43 am EST


Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

The metal’s price has pulled back of late, but an economy currently hungry for “virtual goods” should soon warm to its many uses, writes senior editor Igor Greenwald.

Can an economy that spends $100 million a month on “virtual goods” from Zynga be considered to be living hand-to-mouth?

I suspect not.

In any case, unlike the imaginary tractors you can buy in FarmVille, the real ones now deployed to harvest crops run on diesel, which means they’re made (in small part) of platinum.

Platinum is the rarest of the precious metals—for every ounce of the stuff lifted out of the ground, we mine roughly 15 ounces of gold and 120 ounces of silver. It’s also traditionally the most expensive, though gold has been catching up rapidly in recent years.

Like gold, platinum is used as a store of value, though like silver (but even more so) it’s more geared to industrial demand.

It’s used in catalytic converters to control air pollution, and the metal’s catalytic properties are also prized in the refining and chemicals industries. Platinum’s essential to the manufacture of modern Liquid Crystal Display screens, and its expense is the major factor limiting the adoption and use of fuel cells.

Like other commodities, platinum has pulled back of late out of concern about a global economic slowdown. It’s down 8% from April’s high (and some 24% from the record set in early 2008.)

The recent market rebound suggests that our economic worries may be overblown. If growth in emerging markets surprises the skeptics once again, this may prove a good entry point.

Platinum has been weighed down by:

  • Declining demand out of Japan, after the twin disasters there crimped auto production;
  • Its biggest market, Europe, has been slowing notably of late as the European Central Bank hikes rates despite the worries about sovereign debt;
  • Even China, the anticipated source of much future demand, has seen auto sales cool off this summer.

All of these demand drags, however, are likely to prove much more temporary than the longer-term risks to supply. South Africa accounts for 76% of platinum’s global output, with much of the rest coming from Russia and Zimbabwe.

South Africa’s economy is growing but not thriving, with unemployment running at 25% and mining unions demanding a pay hike of 14% in current wage negotiations with the major metals producers.

The economic orthodoxy practiced by the ruling African National Congress party is under serious challenge from the left. The firebrand in charge of ANC’s Youth League has called for nationalization of mines and banks, and the government is studying the option.

The received wisdom is that it’s only doing so to defuse pressure for such takeovers. But top South African executives are sure spending a lot of time trying to explain what a terrible idea this would be.

At any rate, the possibility is now at the center of legitimate political debate, and will only advance if the economy can’t shake the blues.

Nationalization would be disastrous for long-term platinum production prospects and an immediate boon to platinum prices. And even if it doesn’t happen any time soon, South African output remains inordinately vulnerable to labor strikes and power cuts.

It takes well over a ton of ore to produce the three grams of refined platinum required by a typical catalytic converter. That makes the metal one of the scarcest and least accessible commodities on earth, the polar opposite of the virtual bric-a-brac Zynga cranks out with such regularity.

Right now, the public can’t get enough of Zynga’s games, while Wall Street salivates at the prospect of a public offering of its shares.

But in the long run, platinum’s much more useful than play credits and super-duper magic rings. Right now, it’s not getting the respect it deserves. As Asia and Africa catch up to the developed world, expect that to change.

The most straightforward way to invest in platinum is via the Physical Platinum Shares ETF (PPLT).

Interest in platinum as an investment has grown rapidly before the recent correction. Open interest in platinum futures on the Nymex was at a record late last month.

Professional traders, it seems, are more bullish than the recent price action. I expect the price to start moving up.

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