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?

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