Carmakers follow road to lithium

Shareholders already have snapping up stakes in miners

Electric automobiles charge at Tesla Inc. supercharger points at Ullevaal stadium in Oslo, Norway, on Monday, March 6, 2023. Norway's economy will grow at a slower pace than previously estimated, according to forecasts published by the finance ministry on Sunday. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Fredrik Solstad
Electric automobiles charge at Tesla Inc. supercharger points at Ullevaal stadium in Oslo, Norway, on Monday, March 6, 2023. Norway's economy will grow at a slower pace than previously estimated, according to forecasts published by the finance ministry on Sunday. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Fredrik Solstad

As automakers seek stakes in lithium miners to lock in supplies for electric vehicle batteries, they're following a path already forged by their shareholders.

Take Tesla, which is reportedly interested in buying Toronto-listed Sigma Lithium. If Tesla succeeds, it would follow prominent funds including Manulife Financial, 1832 Asset Management, Maven Securities, DZ Bank and several others that have been snapping up shares of Sigma, even as they cut exposure to the EV-maker.

It's not hard to see the attraction. Policymakers and governments around the globe have ratcheted up calls to move toward cleaner transportation and poured billions into developing EV infrastructure, which has caused the price of lithium -- used in the batteries that power electric cars, buses and trucks -- to skyrocket. Overall, lithium has been the top performing commodity in the past two years.

"Lithium offers investors an opportunity to get an exposure to the EV expansion at much lower valuations, and without ancillary exposure to a CEO selling billions of dollars in stock," said Will McDonough, the CEO of EMG Advisors, which runs the Element EV & Solar Battery Materials Futures ETF, investing in the futures of lithium, cobalt, copper, and nickel.

"The underlying technology of all EV batteries requires lithium," he said. "There is yet to be a prominent player that does not require lithium as the cornerstone metal."

General Motors sent Lithium Americas shares flying when it became the Canadian headquartered miner's largest investor, which helped the company break ground on a new mine this week. Other carmakers stalk mining conferences in an effort to secure supply.

"You're only as strong as the weak point in your supply chain, which is lithium," Sprott Asset Management CEO John Ciampaglia said in an interview, adding that a supply crunch has led investors playing the electric vehicle transition to move their capital upstream, buying up undervalued lithium producers. Sprott launched a lithium miners exchange-traded fund in February in an effort to capitalize on investor interest.

Despite the surging price of the metal, the stock prices don't necessarily reflect the booming demand. Albemarle -- the largest producer of the metal -- has seen sales and income surge. Still, the stock trades at a roughly 11-times price to earnings multiple -- below the 14.8-times multiple of the S&P 500 Materials Index and just a fraction of Tesla's 56-times multiple.

In addition to cheap valuations, fund managers and analysts see a catalyst for the stocks as new buyers for the equities emerge, including U.S. auto giants. "These are probably not the last deals that we're going to see in the space," Pedro Palandrani, head of research for Global X ETFs, said in an interview, referring to carmakers buying lithium-mining stocks.

Palandrani anticipates that more auto companies will take stakes in miners because the market for lithium is expected to quintuple to 3.7 million metric tons per year over the next decade from the current 800,000 metric tons.

"Lithium miners have margins of a 'software as a service' company," Palandrani said, adding that EV investors are taking notice as the outlook for most EV-making start-ups flounder, and the legacy carmakers' gas-fueled auto businesses make the opportunity from battery-driven cars murky.

Even so, investing in early-stage mining companies is fraught with a different type of risk than car manufacturers -- and their shareholders -- generally face, including the potential that a proposed mine doesn't produce at the expected rate or mineral grade. Goldman Sachs's commodities research head, Jeff Currie, recently warned carmakers against buying lithium miners by saying "it always ends in tears" when commodity consumers move upstream.

Still, investors and carmakers continue to bet on lithium miners, wagering that a shift toward EVs will become a permanent trend that will boost demand for the metal. "Lithium is today the common denominator across all battery technology and it's likely going to stay that way for the next 10 to 15 years," Global X's Palandrani said, adding that he expects lithium producers to outperform.


As automakers snap up lithium supplies, another crucial metal for batteries remains in a growing state of surplus.

A record surge in cobalt supplies last year coincided with weaker demand for it during the second half of 2022, delivering a superabundance of the crucial battery metal, according to specialist trading house Darton Commodities.

The mined cobalt supply grew by 23%, helping wipe out a big deficit from a year earlier, according to Darton's annual cobalt report. At the same time, consumption was affected by a slowdown in demand from the electronics sector, which vies with the EV industry as the biggest consumer of the metal.

The glut in cobalt stands in sharp contrast to lithium. Rising EV sales helped fuel a sharp rally in prices for both early last year, but cobalt has since slumped more than 60% from a June peak, while lithium has fallen far less aggressively.

The surge in cobalt production was driven by increases in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- which accounts for about 75% of the global supply -- as well as Indonesia, an emerging cobalt powerhouse, according to Darton.

Cobalt, a byproduct of copper and nickel mining, has caused frequent headaches for automakers during prior bouts of undersupply, alongside persistent concerns about hazardous working conditions in Congo's informal mining sector.

While large-scale industrial miners accounted for the bulk of last year's supply increase, output from so-called artisanal miners also rose sharply during the run-up in prices early in 2022, Darton said.

Global mine production grew 42% between 2020 and 2022 as covid-19 related supply chain constraints eased, existing operations ramped up and several new mines were commissioned. Glencore was by far the world's largest cobalt miner last year, mainly from its two operations in Congo. Eurasian Resources and China's CMOC, which also have large Congo operations, followed the Swiss company as the biggest producers.

Information for this article was contributed by Mark Burton and Michael Kavanagh of Bloomberg News (WPNS).

Upcoming Events