AVZ Minerals Limited (ASX AVZ) is a mineral exploration company that acquires, develops, mines and produces lithium, tin, tantalum and other base metals.
AVZ Minerals shares floated at A$0.15 in 2007, fluctuated between A$0.10 and A$0.20 FY07-FY11, before declining sharply to A$0.01 in FY12 and stayed at that level for more than four years.
In FY16, AVZ Minerals completed the acquisition of the Manono Project in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the largest lithium deposit in the world. The acquisition pushed the AVZ Minerals share price up more than 3000% to A$0.34 within two years.
Since then the share price has declined to around A$0.10. At this point, AVZ Minerals is a play on the Manono project, of which only 50% has been explored.
AVZ Minerals shares is a typical high risk and high reward stock. Manono was recently confirmed to be the world No.1 lithium deposit in scale and No. 2 in grade. However, lots of risk and uncertainty exist in the short-to-medium term, as AVZ has not even begun commercial mining.
As illustrated in the table, AVZ is not profitable for five years as its activities were merely an initial investment in exploration.
AVZ is winning Chinese government support. Huayou Cobalt Group, China’s largest cobalt chemicals producer, owns 9.85% of AVZ. The largest shareholder, Dathomir Mining Resource, controls 12.71% of AVZ. In addition to equity ownership, China is a key player in arranging deals with the DRC government, including the transfer of the Manono license to AVZ.
Chinese influence in AVZ could be a cause for concern due to the opaqueness of the lithium market. Lithium is a fast-growing market, but it is far from liquid or transparent. There are very few institutions that report lithium price, and there is no futures market on lithium.
Furthermore, transactions mostly proceed in bulk volume between suppliers and EV manufacturers through long-term supply agreements. Moreover, customer relationship plays a significant role for such an opaque and contract-based market and the Chinese government could help AVZ secure its early success with its dominant position in the supply of lithium.
Adequate Funding from China. China controls AVZ along with many other lithium companies as the mineral is strategic to future Chinese growth. It currently controls 50% of the global production of lithium and is seeking to control the supply of this strategically important resource.
Such dedication to lithium means there will potentially be more funding from China to AVZ to assist in the exploration and future development of mines, as China is currently the biggest shareholder of AVZ. AVZ primarily raised capital through issuing shares, and thus it bears almost no debt, with its debt ratio at 13.18% in FY18.
Moreover, AVZ is burning cash at a much slower rate, from A$-0.01 to -0.0021, as illustrated below. At its current price at A$0.10, it is highly unlikely that AVZ will need to raise capital in the short term for exploration expenses. This will be very beneficial to AVZ, as its early-phase Manono project is very capital-intensive. However, a much lower cash-burning rate may also indicate that the progress of Manono Project may have slowed.
Lithium’s booming demand and price. The global demand for lithium is forecast to rise significantly over the next five years, mainly due to the increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. Lithium can be applied to mobile devices such as smartphones, tablet computers, and electric vehicles. Electric car manufacturers prefer lithium batteries to nickel-metal hydride batteries because of their higher power output, greater durability and cost advantages. Electric cars are expected to overtake traditional vehicles that are powered by gasoline and diesel (See illustration).
According to Wood Mackenzie, the energy consultancy firm, demand for lithium will rise due to the electric vehicle segment. Demand is expected to rise from 233,000 tonnes of LCE (lithium carbonate equivalent, an industry measurement) to 330,000 tonnes in 2020 and 405,000 tonnes in 2022. That represents a 42% increase over just two years and 74% over four years. A consensus EV and Lithium Outlook made by Morgan Stanley, UBS, Goldman Sachs and more predicted that an average CAGR of demand would be at 18%.
Global Peer Comparison
The biggest lithium producers in the world are Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (Chile), Talison (Australia), Chemetall (Germany), and FMC (U.S.). It is worth noting that many of the Chinese producers, including Tianqi, operate overseas or own considerable shares in mines in foreign countries. Therefore, these Chinese companies control roughly 40% of global lithium production without directly producing them in China (See the first and the third graph below). As seen in the second graph, Australia (44%, 18,700Mt), Chile (33%, 14,100Mt) and Argentina (13%, 5500Mt) are the three biggest lithium production countries in FY17.
Compared to these oligopolistic incumbents (Chinese Tianqi, SQM, FMC, etc.) who in total supplied 98% of output worldwide, AVZ has negative earnings each year and zero production. Most of the value of AVZ derives from its potential and only grade and tonnage of resource can be evaluated and compared to its competitors. AVZ’s Manano Project has 259.9Mt@1.63% compared to the second largest lithium producer Albermarle Corp’s 60.3Mt@2.20% in hard rock.
For a rough comparison, AVZ sits on approximately four times of Albermarle’s lithium hard rock resource and Albermarle’s net sales of lithium sits at $1.17B with TTM Adj EBITDA $504M and TTM Adj EBITDA Margin 43%.
This indicates phenomenal potential growth in AVZ’s sales and profit once exploration is finished and production is scalable. However, Albermarle was founded in 1887 while AVZ only started in 2007, so Albermarle has a much longer operation history and expertise in metal and chemicals. Nevertheless, Albermarle did not enter the lithium market until 2016, and there are great opportunities for AVZ to catch up.
Geological and technical risks posed to exploration. AVZ is still in the early phase of investigation with only 50% of geological exploration completed. Although the result of assays looks favourable and estimation of tonnages exceeded expectation, a potential risk exists as the assay is only an indication of grade and tonnages and may change when the result comes out. Furthermore, there is no fast-tracking of the project, targeting annual average production or any accurate estimation of future cash flow.
Lack of Expertise and High Cost of Production. There are two primary means of extracting lithium: from brines in evaporated salt lakes known as salars, and hard rock mining, where the lithium is mined from granite pegmatite. AVZ is the latter. Few hard rock projects have been put into production for the last two decades, and they are completed by the major lithium producers. This means that there is a lack of skilled personnel in mineralogy/metallurgy and the engineering side of production in this industry. AVZ is more prone to the shortage of talent due to its size and short operating history.
Moreover, AVZ has a higher cost of production when compared to salars miners. First, hard mining must have significant capital costs for start-up and secondly the production cost is roughly twice what it is for the brine exploitation process. Many of the big miners of lithium nowadays are brine miners, including SQM. Compared to brine mining which can be as easy as scraping from rocks, hard-rock mining is more complicated, as illustrated in Simplified Concentrator Flowsheet.
Nevertheless, skyrocketing lithium price makes hard rock mining profitable despite its high production cost, and three spodumene operations in Australia and two brine operations each in Argentina and Chile accounted for the majority of world lithium production. High demand for lithium incentivizes technological advancement, and it is possible that the production cost of hard-mining can be further driven down soon.
Unpredictability in Commodity Price and Market Demand. Figure 14 showed the joint estimation of Roskill, BMO Capital Markets, Citi Investment Research, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Instine, Nomura, Morgan Stanley, UBS, Oppenheimer, SQM, and FMC. It showed that lithium demand ranges from less than 600 kT LCE to more than 1000 kT LCE and EV penetration varies between 8% to 16% in FY25, which all see almost 100% variance.
Morgan Stanley’s report is among the most pessimistic, predicting that lithium will see a glut in production and a massive fall of 45% in price by FY21. Moreover, the uncertainty market leader Tesla and other EV manufacturers and the fluctuation in lithium price make the demand of lithium extremely hard to predict, as reflected in the divergence of the estimate. This poses an enormous risk to AVZ’s future potential profit.
High political risk might hamper AVZ’s potential. The DRC is characterized as a non-democracy, as the state has a Freedom House Score in 2016 of 5.5 out of 7. This grade refers to military-backed dictatorship, authoritarian states, elitist oligarchies, and absolute monarchies. DRC also ranks 135 out of 150 in corruption control, 200 out of 214 in the rule of law and 141 out of 150 in political instability and the threat of violence or terrorism in FY17, according to World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators.
The drinking water access rate is 26%, and electricity is only 6%, showing a severe lack of robust infrastructure and reliable electricity supply. Despite all these challenges, the DRC’s mining sector is expected to see exponential growth due to foreign investments from mining companies, due to the untapped mineral reserves and perceived low mining cost. This is expected to result in further development of the transport network as well as infrastructure, including electricity and water supply.
However, there has been a fall in the infrastructure construction rate in DRC over the last thirty years due to internal conflicts. Vast geography and low population and foreign investment may not alleviate the problem.
AVZ Minerals shares have great potential but uncertainty in production and market
AVZ Minerals shares have great potential as well as high risk. It has the biggest lithium mine (Manono Project) on earth and close relation to the Chinese government. Although AVZ has not started commercial mining, the lithium market is booming, almost all lithium miners saw exponential growth, and AVZ should catch up once it finishes its exploration phase.
However, the lack of expertise in lithium mining industry and high costs involved in hard-rock mining may undermine AVZ’s future profitability. Furthermore, AVZ does not have any financial company guidance, or indicator of future lithium output and volatility in lithium price and divergence in estimation makes future profit unpredictable.
Nevertheless, increasing number of lithium-ion battery used in mobile devices, booming EV trend and the catching-up global supply of lithium would eventually reduce the fluctuation and uncertainty in lithium. In addition, AVZ Minerals shares have strategic Chinese backing which means that some of the geopolitical risks and funding can be better navigated since soveriegn interests have much more firepower and influence that regular investors.
Henry Fung is a Partner Managing Director and co-founder of MF & Co. Asset Management. He is a highly experienced equities, derivatives and financial markets professional with over 12 years of experience. Henry specialises in building trading algorithms & systems, quantitative & qualitative analytics across macroeconomic, fundamental and technical disciplines and currently runs the MFAM VPAC AU/US models portfolios. The management Partners and Adviser team have decades of experience between them, with experience from major Investment Banks and Brokers. Their Advisers are highly experienced, having dealt with some of the wealthiest clients in Australia.