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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Lithium hopefuls find lenders wary about funding

Without more investment, supplies of the commodity could remain tight, sustaining a boom that already has seen prices triple since 2015.

An aerial view of the brine pools and processing areas of the Soquimich lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. Demand for the commodity is set to boom. Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
An aerial view of the brine pools and processing areas of the Soquimich lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. Demand for the commodity is set to boom. Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

After clinching a deal with a Chinese battery maker in 2016, James Brown figured bankers would be eager to fund his new lithium mine.

Altura Mining was racing to ship the raw material from Australia to the world’s biggest electric vehicle market as demand was surging.

Instead, while lithium prices kept rising, Mr Brown spent a Christmas holiday cold-calling lenders and jetted around the globe to raise the money. Eventually, Minneapolis-based Castlelake, a private equity firm, helped arrange $110 million in bonds. But there was a catch: an interest rate as high as 15 per cent, or almost double what banks normally charge for more conventional mining ventures.

“We’d been trying banks we’d known for years,” said Mr Brown, Altura’s managing director, who previously spent 22 years with coal producer New Hope. “They said: Guys we love it, we just don’t have a mandate [for lithium]. If you came to us with coal, gold or iron ore, you’d have no worries.”

Despite bullish forecasts for global demand - especially with accelerating production of electric vehicles - lithium may have a funding problem. Banks are wary, citing everything from the industry’s poor track record on delivering earlier projects to a lack of insight into a small, opaque market. Without more investment, supplies of the commodity could remain tight, sustaining a boom that already has seen prices triple since 2015.

Lithium companies will need to invest about $12 billion to increase output fivefold by 2025 and keep pace with the world’s growing appetite for batteries, according to Galaxy Resources, an Australian producer seeking to build further operations in Argentina and Canada. Developers say that, so far, projects aren’t getting financed fast enough to achieve that leap.

Battery producers and car makers “have absolutely no clue on how long it takes to be able to put a mining project into operation”, said Guy Bourassa, chief executive of Nemaska Lithium., which spent about 18 months piecing together a complex $830m funding programme for a mine and processing plant in Quebec. “There will be a big problem - it’s going to be an impediment” to raising supply, he said.

An “inability to access traditional funds has delayed the development of the sector”, said Richard Seville, CEO of Brisbane-based Orocobre, which began lithium sales in 2015 from northern Argentina, and experienced difficulty boosting output. “These projects aren’t easy -- so the banks just don’t want to go there.”

Part of the problem is that lenders remain cautious of the risk of another commodity slump, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the nation’s largest bank, said in an August presentation. It declined to comment specifically on the lithium market.

While the amount of debt raised by miners, including loans and bonds, rose in 2017 to about $255bn, project-specific financing of about $13bn last year is more than 70 per cent lower than in 2014, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. So far this year, about $6.1bn in total has been issued for projects.

Some new deposits are being developed in riskier emerging markets or countries on the edge of investment-grade credit ratings, such as Argentina, according to Lee Garvey at Marsh & McLennan, an insurance broker that has seen an increase in requests for polices related to lithium projects.

“With lithium, there is the added complexity that there is not much clarity around the end product and what the royalty should be,” Mr Garvey said from Singapore, where he’s head of Marsh’s lenders solutions group, political risks and structured credit in Asia. “This probably makes the whole thing more challenging, particularly in frontier markets.”

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There’s also concern about pricing. Australia & New Zealand Banking Group has no project finance exposure to lithium. It’s considering opportunities on “a very selective basis given the uncertainty over future prices, exacerbated by the opaque nature of the market, the inability to hedge and forecast oversupply in the medium term, and the small scale of some of the local players”, the bank said.

Developers of some lithium projects declined in Tuesday trading in Sydney. Lithium Australia NL fell 5.1 per cent, Global Geoscience Ltd. traded 5.3 per cent lower and Kidman Resources slipped 3.7 per cent.

It typically takes two years to build a lithium operation and five years to repay the project loan, according to Simon Price, a partner and co-founder at Perth-based Azure Capital, which has advised miners on financing. That means lenders need confidence in a seven-year outlook for the market, he said.

That price outlook is an industry flash-point. Morgan Stanley says there will be a surplus as soon as next year because of rising output and forecasts lithium carbonate prices to halve through 2021, according to a note. Citigroup also expects prices to decline as production increases.

But boosting supplies may not be easy. By 2020, it’s possible that only a third of planned new capacity will be available at the processing plants needed to convert mined raw materials into battery chemicals, Orocobre says. Lithium demand is also being underestimated, according to Pilbara Minerals, a producer starting a mine in Australia.

Some alternative funding sources for lithium have emerged, including hedge funds offering higher-yield debt or credit funds formed to lend to projects. They’re more expensive, but “you build your project and you are in business now when the market is very strong”, Mr Price said. The sector’s biggest players are readying an IPO blitz, in part to fund expansions.

Lithium users also are stepping in with funding. Posco, the South Korean steelmaker that’s ramping up its battery-making business, and Great Wall Motor, China’s top 4x4 producer, have both invested in Pilbara Minerals to speed up project development. Tesla in May signed a supply deal with Kidman, a boon for the Australian developer as it seeks to finance a mine and plant.

Supply deals and investments with end customers mean lithium projects are being financed differently from traditional commodities, according to Westpac Institutional Bank, a unit of Australia’s second-biggest lender.

Some banks are lending. Perth-based Galaxy last year secured a $40m general purpose debt facility with BNP Paribas. BNP declined to comment on its stance on lithium projects. As new developments begin output, banks will be more willing to refinance loans, according to Mr Price. Altura will seek to replace existing debt as soon as August, says Mr Brown.

Still, electrifying the world’s vehicle fleet will require vast sums for new mines, and funding will remain a challenge for smaller companies, according to Nemaska’s Bourassa.

Volkswagen alone plans to spend $58bn on batteries as it seeks to build electric versions of 300 models.

“Imagine how many tons of lithium salts it takes to make those batteries,” Mr Bourassa said.