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Molycorp’s IPO Aims at Chinese Grip on Smart Bombs

The company is seeking $478 million
Molycorp Inc chief executive officer Mark Smith. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Molycorp Inc. is trying to convince investors it can loosen China’s grip on everything from smart bombs to hybrid cars by reopening the largest non-Chinese deposit of rare-earth metals in the world.

The company is seeking $478 million in a U.S. initial public offering today to start its mine in the Mojave Desert, which was shut down eight years ago, its regulatory filing showed. Molycorp hasn’t made a profit since its inception in 2008 and will use the IPO to refurbish the facilities and compete with Chinese producers that supply 97 percent of the metals, which are used to make magnets found in Raytheon Co.’s Tomahawk cruise missiles and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius sedans.

Molycorp is counting on buyers to fund a mine that may lose money for two more years as it tries to revive a site that once met almost all the world’s demand for the metals. While the company’s IPO may benefit from a lack of U.S. competitors and concern from lawmakers that China’s export limits will cause a shortfall, Molycorp hasn’t proven it can process the elements commercially and faces environmental standards that raise costs.

“It’s very much a leap of faith,” said John Stephenson, a Toronto-based money manager at First Asset Investment, which oversees about $1.6 billion. “Having a deposit is not enough. You have to be able to bring it in on time and on budget.”

Even so, the U.S. government may “decide that this is critical in their national interest to have a domestic supplier and lock that up,” he said.

Neodymium, Ytterbium

The rare-earth elements are 17 chemically similar metals, such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium and ytterbium. They are used in magnets for everything from cell phones and electric cars to guided missiles and targeting systems for tanks.

Each Toyota Prius requires four kilograms of rare-earth materials for its motor and battery, according to Jack Lifton, an independent commodities consultant and strategic metals expert who has studied mining for more than 47 years.

While they are relatively abundant in the earth’s crust, finding deposits large enough to mine is less common, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Global demand for the elements may increase 45 percent by 2014 from its level in 2008, Molycorp’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission showed.

Molycorp of Greenwood Village, Colorado, is selling 28.13 million shares for $15 to $17 each to restart U.S. production just as China, the world’s biggest supplier of the metals, is planning further export restrictions.

Power Play

Shipments from China, which began reducing output in 2006 to cut pollution, will decrease by 72 percent in the second half of this year, a Ministry of Commerce statement on July 8 showed. That gives China “market power” over the U.S., a report from the Government Accountability Office in April showed.

U.S. Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in April called for an inquiry after the GAO report exposed vulnerabilities for the American military because of its use of Chinese metals.

About 80 percent of magnets made from neodymium are produced in China, with most of the remainder coming from Japan. Almost none are produced in the U.S.

“If there was any effort on the part of producers to limit the supply, that’s where the main concern would come in,” said Belva Martin, the GAO’s acting director of acquisition and sourcing management, who oversaw research for the April report.

Molycorp’s IPO is part of a half-billion dollar plan at its mine near Mountain Pass, California, to replace equipment and facilities that are more than 20 years old and ramp up production in two years.

History Lesson

The 2,222-acre site, an open-pit mine located 60 miles southwest of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert, produced a majority of rare-earth materials from 1965 to 1985, the GAO report said.

While U.S. deposits also exist in several states such as Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, they are still being explored and could take as many as 15 years before becoming fully operational, according the GAO report.

Private-equity firms Resource Capital Funds of Denver and Pegasus Capital Advisors in New York bought Molycorp’s predecessor Molybdenum Corp. of America from Chevron Corp. in 2008 to restart rare-earth mining as global demand increases.

After falling about 50 percent during the global economic crisis, prices for rare-earth oxides have climbed about 70 percent on average since October, the filing showed.

Supply-Side Advantage

“It’s an asset play where the supply and demand is skewed very heavily towards the suppliers,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Chicago-based Harris Private Bank, which oversees $55 billion. “It may be more of an opportunistic play on the future as demand for these materials continues to grow.”

The mine may yield 19,050 metric tons of rare-earth oxides annually at full production, equal to 38 percent of the amount that China exported last year, Molycorp’s SEC filing showed.

The company may get about 57 percent of its revenue in 2013 from neodymium iron boron alloy, which is used in magnets for electric car motors and lasers, according to London-based researcher Independent International Investment Research Plc.

Until that time, Molycorp expects to lose “substantial” amounts of money. The company’s first-quarter net deficit widened 38 percent to $7.75 million from a year earlier after selling its stockpiles at a loss. It lost $28.6 million in 2009.

Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine also doesn’t have substantial amounts of “heavy” rare-earth elements, which command higher prices and are used in many defense-related projects.

Lottery Ticket

“It may be an interesting concept, but it’s a highly risky deal,” said Josef Schuster, the Chicago-based founder of IPOX Capital Management LLC, which oversees $3 billion. “The likelihood of finding a big winner from this kind of deal is probably as high as buying a winning lottery ticket.”

At an IPO price of $16, the company would be valued at 2.61 times its net tangible assets of $6.12 a share, a measure of shareholder equity that excludes assets that can’t be sold in liquidation, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Based on the current value of Molycorp’s future cash flows, the stock is valued at $14.19 each, 11 percent less than its midpoint IPO price, according to Independent International Investment Research.

The share sale will come after two U.S. companies this week postponed or delayed their IPOs and one company, Envestnet Inc. of Chicago, cut the size of its offer by as much as 36 percent. Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Midstream Partners LP is also selling shares in a $446 million IPO today.

Radioactive Spill

Molycorp will also spend $187 million, almost 40 percent of the IPO proceeds, through 2012 to meet federal, state and local environmental laws to limit pollution. The company uses acids to leach rare-earth oxides from ore before they are processed into alloys to make magnets, its filing showed.

Processing at the site was halted in 1998 after a pipeline to carry away effluents leaked radioactive waste. The mine closed four years later after it couldn’t get permits to build additional waste storage facilities, according to its filing.

The regulations Molycorp faces may raise costs and inhibit growth, while China’s dominant position allows its producers to undercut competitors on price if it decides to ease export quotas, according to Peter Sorrentino, who helps oversee $13.3 billion at Huntington Asset Advisors in Cincinnati.

“The regulatory process drags on, and it drags on for much longer than you think it’s going to,” he said. “There are people who are going to make a lot of money on this. I don’t need to be the pioneer.”

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