[LONDON] The world's mines and steel plants got so devalued during the commodity slump that some were just given away by owners struggling to cut losses or debt. But there's at least one metal that's been attracting a lot of attention.
Niobium - named for a Greek goddess who became a symbol of the tragic mourning mother - is used to produce stronger, lighter steel for industrial pipes and aircraft parts.
It is mined in only three places on Earth, and the price of every kilogram is seven times higher than copper.
China Molybdenum Co outmaneuvered at least 15 companies last month to purchase Anglo American Plc's niobium and phosphate unit in Brazil, agreeing to pay US$1.5 billion, or 50 per cent more than analysts expected.
The buying frenzy that included Vale SA, Apollo Global Management LLC and X2 Resources showcased the growing appeal of a market that may be worth US$4 billion for a soft, silvery metal many experts don't know much about.
"I didn't know what niobium was, and I had been in the minerals industry for 20 years before this opportunity came across my desk," said Craig Burton, the chairman of Cradle Resources Ltd, which is seeking to develop the US$200 million Panda Hill niobium project in Tanzania.
"I had to actually open up the periodic table just to double-check that it was an element. It definitely is a boutique space."
Niobium is hard to find and hard to value. More than 80 per cent of global supply comes from one company - Cia Brasileira de Metalurgia & Mineracao in Brazil.
Metal Bulletin Ltd, which publishes prices for metals as obscure as bismuth and germanium, says there's not enough liquidity to report one for niobium.
The metal averaged about US$40 a kilogram last year, according to Cradle Resources, which is based in Perth, Australia.
An equivalent amount of copper on the London Metal Exchange fetched about US$5.49. Global demand for niobium is about 90,000 to 100,000 metric tons annually.
Still, prices fell last year because of the weak demand for steel, as slumping oil and gas markets led to fewer metal pipe purchases, according to Anglo American, which wants to raise cash to cut debt after a collapse in commodity prices.
Almost all the metal comes from just three mines in Brazil and Canada, allowing dominant producer CBMM to match supply to demand and influence prices.
Among the companies outbid by China Molybdenum were Mosaic Co, the world's largest producer of phosphate fertilizer, South32 Ltd and Eurochem Group AG, people familiar with the process said.
The sale was highly competitive, said two people involved, who asked not to be identified because the matter was private.
The winning offer exceeded the estimates of analysts at Bank of America Corp and Investec Plc. RBC Capital Markets said the assets were among the best that London-based Anglo has offered.
What makes the business so attractive is that there are only a few operating mines. Anglo and Niobec account for about 9 per cent of production, and Brazil's CBMM supplies the rest, according to Argonaut Securities Pty. Both the US and Europe list niobium as a strategically important mineral.
"Niobium is a very unique business," said Kalidas Madhavpeddi, who heads the CMOC International unit of Luoyang, China-based China Molybdenum.
"We typically want to buy from people who regret selling it. We've been very carefully assembling a war chest in anticipation of a downturn in the industry."
CBMM, controlled by the billionaire Moreira Salles family, has mostly dominated supply since starting operations five decades ago. It sold a 30 per cent stake to a group of Asian steelmakers in two transactions valued at US$3.9 billion in 2011.
In another deal, Magris Resources Inc, founded by former Barrick Gold Corp chief executive officer Aaron Regent, agreed to pay US$530 million for the Niobec mine in Canada in 2014.
Unsuccessful bidders in Anglo's sale may turn their interest to Cradle's Panda Hill project in Tanzania, Argonaut said in a research report. Pending financing, it's expected to start producing in mid-2018.
The sales "have brought a lot of participants in," Cradle's Mr Burton said. "There was only one winner. That leaves lots of parties that might be interested in talking to us because we do need to raise some capital to bring this project on."