December 23, 2012

China’s rare earth monopoly bid goes smash

Filed under: Business, China, Economics, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:20

Remember the headlines from a few years back, when China was the source of a disproportional amount of the rare earth required for many of our modern electronic toys like iPhones and hard drives and such? China’s ham-handed attempt to constrain supply and jack up the prices has signally failed:

For I’ve been saying for years now that this “China will control all the rare earths” thing is nonsense and so it has turned out to be: nonsense.

Not that it hasn’t tried to control it all, mind, it’s just that it has failed. Failed for the reason we’d expect from communist state: its officials don’t understand free market economics. Specifically, it’s possible to successfully exercise monopoly power only if that monopoly is not contestable.

[. . .]

We were also continually reminded that China has 30 per cent of the world’s reserves: which simply shows that people don’t know what a reserve is. It’s not, as just about everyone assumes, the amount of something that’s available. It’s an amount whose exact location is known, which we’ve measured, drilled, sampled and baked a fluffy cake from – and which we can mine with current techniques AND with which we make a profit at current prices. Miss any of those steps (except maybe the cake) and it is not a reserve: it’s a resource. And resources of rare earths are vast: several are individually more common than copper for example. China has 30 per cent of the proven fluffiness, not 30 per cent of all that is available.

I will admit to a certain suspicion that the stories we heard were rather more a well-organised PR campaign to allow a couple of companies to suck subsidies out of the US taxpayer. Or perhaps even, given the conversation I had with a lobbyist about how to try to get on that gravy train, a plot to enrich lobbyists via companies paying to try to suck subsidies out of the US taxpayer.

So, now that I have finished puffing out my chest to “We Will Rock You”, on to what to economists is the blindingly obvious point of this story and what it means for the tech business. You might well have a monopoly: but it ain’t going to do you much good if, when you try to exercise your monopoly power, people come along and successfully contest your monopoly. We thus need to divide monopolies into two classes: those that are contestable and those that are not.

Back in 2010, I commented on Tim’s original debunking of the story:

So, if they have a monopoly on 95% of the world supply, why won’t it hold up? Because in spite of the name, they’re not as rare as all that … and there are substitutions that can be made for some or all of the current application needs. By restricting the supply and/or driving up the price, China will spur new competitors to enter the field and new sources of rare earths to be developed. In the short term, it will definitely create price increases (which, of course, will be passed on to the consumer), but in the medium-to-long term they will create a vibrant competitive marketplace which will almost inevitably drive the prices down below current levels.

Isn’t economics fascinating?

More copper to fight superbugs

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:01

Brass and other copper-alloyed metals may have a bright future in doorknobs, handles, and other frequently handled surfaces due to a recent discovery about the metal’s ability to fight bacteria:

Researchers have discovered that copper and alloys made from the metal, including brass, can prevent antibiotic resistance in bacteria from spreading.

Plastic and stainless steel surfaces, which are now widely used in hospitals and public settings, allow bacteria to survive and spread when people touch them.

Even if the bacteria die, DNA that gives them resistance to antibiotics can survive and be passed on to other bacteria on these surfaces. Copper and brass, however, can kill the bacteria and also destroy this DNA.

Professor Bill Keevil, head of the microbiology group at Southampton University, said using copper on surfaces in public places and on public transport could dramatically cut the threat posed by superbugs.

[. . .]

In research published in the journal Molecular Genetics of Bacteria, Professor Keevil and his colleagues found that compared to stainless steel bacteria on copper surfaces bacterial DNA rapidly degraded at room temperature.

Professor Keevil added: “We live in this new world of stainless steel and plastic, but perhaps we should go back to using brass more instead.”

Tim Worstall points out that much of the stainless steel came in through health and safety regulation:

But isn’t this just great? All that modernity, all that ripping out of the old and replacement with futuristic design actually kills people?

It’s almost as fun as the discovery that the wooden chopping boards, which they made illegal, contain natural antibiotics which the plastic chopping boards, which they made compulsory, do not.

The Man from Whitehall really does not know best. And given that, can we hang them all from the Christmas tree please? It would usher in such a jolly New Year.

Goldbugs, behold the CombiBar

Filed under: Business, Economics, Europe, Germany — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:48

If you’re a big gold fan, you might want to look at the CombiBar, which is a gold wafer that can easily be broken down into one-gram portions:

Private investors in Switzerland, Austria and Germany are lining up to buy gold bars the size of a credit card that can easily be broken into one gram pieces and used as payment in an emergency.

Now Swiss refinery Valcambi, a unit of U.S. mining giant Newmont, wants to bring its “CombiBar” to market in the United States and build up its sales presence India — the world’s largest consumer of gold where the precious metal has long served as a parallel currency.

Investors worried that inflation and financial market turmoil will wipe out the value of their cash have poured money into gold over the past decade. Prices have gained almost 500 percent since 2001 compared to a 12 percent increase in MSCI’s world equity index.

[. . .]

The CombiBar is particularly popular among grandparents who want to give their grandchildren a strip of gold rather than a coin, said Andreas Habluetzel head of the Swiss business of Degussa, a gold trading company.

Other customers buy gold for security reasons.

“Demand is rising every week,” Habluetzel said. “Particularly in Germany, people buying gold fear that the euro will break apart or that banks will run into problems.”

H/T to Tyler Cowen for the link.

We’re at “peak farmland”

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Health, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:17

Matt Ridley on an interesting paper from Jesse Ausubel and Iddo Wernick of Rockefeller University, and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station:

Globally, the production of a given quantity of crop requires 65% less land than it did in 1961, thanks to fertilizers, tractors, pesticides, better varieties and other factors. Even corrected for different kinds of crops, the acreage required is falling at 2% a year.

In the U.S., the total corn yield and the total corn acreage tracked each other in lock step between 1870 and 1940-there was no change in average yield per acre. But between 1940 and 2010, corn production almost quintupled, while the acreage devoted to growing corn fell slightly. Similar divergences appeared later in other countries. Indian wheat production increased fivefold after 1970, while wheat acreage crept up by less than 1.5 times. Chinese corn production rose sevenfold over the same period while corn acreage merely doubled.

Yet the amount of farmland in the world was still rising until recently. The reason is that increased farm productivity has been matched by rising demand for food, driven by population growth and swelling affluence. But the effects of these trends are waning.

[. . .]

Even with these cautious assumptions, the researchers find that over the next 50 years people are likely to release from farming a land area “1½ times the size of Egypt, 2½ times the size of France, or 10 Iowas, and possibly multiples of this amount.”

Indeed, the authors find that this retreat from the land would have already begun but for one factor so lunatic that they cannot imagine it will not be reversed soon: biofuels. If the world had not decided to subsidize the growing of energy crops on 3.4% of arable land, then absolute declines in the acreage of arable land “would have begun during the last decade.” The prospect of “the restoration of vast acreages of Nature” is enticing for nature lovers.

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