Playing Platinum And Palladium Ahead Of The ETF Launch

April 22, 2009

With ETF Securities lining up to launch platinum and palladium exchange-traded funds in the U.S., some investors are positioning ahead of the launch.
  • Could an ETF cause a shortage in demand?
  • What's changed since the last time they talked about a platinum ETF?
  • The best way to play platinum ahead of a launch


Earlier this month, London-based ETF Securities (ETFS) filed papers to bring the first bullion-backed platinum and palladium ETFs to the U.S. - a move that may shock many longtime precious metal investors.

After all, the last time the idea of stateside platinum and palladium ETFs was floated, way back in 2007, it met with so much resistance that ETFS chairman Graham Tuckwell personally quashed the rumors, telling Reuters, "I don't think there will be a listed platinum or palladium ETF in the United States."

This time, however, the filing was met with almost complete silence. What changed?

Blame it on the Big Three. The auto industry's collapse has changed everything, making it possible for ETFS to bring its platinum and palladium funds - already very successful in Europe - to the States.

But as investors grow increasingly hungry for safe havens and cold, hard bullion, could the new funds mean shortages ahead?


The Catalytic Converter Demand

Platinum and palladium aren't just for bridal rings, although their popularity as jewelry in China, Japan, the U.S. and elsewhere makes up roughly 20% of demand. Instead, platinum and palladium are primarily industrial metals, used in everything from computer hard drives to fertilizers to fiber optic cabling.

They're especially useful in auto manufacturing, where the metals-especially platinum-are key ingredients in catalytic converters, which clean up noxious car exhaust fumes. Car manufacturers now account for about 55% of global platinum and palladium use, making the industry extremely vulnerable to metal shortages and price increases.

That's why U.S. automakers became so concerned two years ago, when ETFS first introduced its European bullion-backed platinum and palladium ETFs. Similar funds in the U.S., they argued, would tie up so much bullion that shortages would be inevitable.

Platinum miners also protested, arguing that hoarding would drive up short-term prices and devastate long-term industrial and jewelry demand. Anglo Platinum and Impala, the world's largest platinum producers by volume, even publicly refused to supply platinum for the new funds.

Their worries weren't entirely unjustified, either: At 6 million troy ounces of demand in 2008, the platinum market is much smaller than gold's, at 107 million ounces; or silver, at 889 million ounces. Because an ETF would remove physical metal from the market, even a small one could considerably impact prices.

But a lot can happen in two years. The global auto industry has since collapsed, and for the moment, U.S. car makers clearly have larger problems at hand than the cost of their catalytic converters. That preoccupation has not gone unnoticed by ETFS, who has pounced on the opportunity to file its new funds.

If approved, ETFS' new funds would allow U.S. investors access to physical platinum and palladium bullion, with the share price of each equal to 1/10th the value of an ounce of the respective metals, according to the ETFS Platinum Trust and Palladium Trust registrations.


White Metal Supply And Demand

Of course, there's no guarantee that the SEC will even approve the filings, says the Wall Street Journal, given the debate over speculation in raw materials prices. And even if the funds are approved, they still face major supply and demand headwinds.

In 2008, platinum and palladium prices peaked and then tumbled into free fall, with palladium dropping 50% and platinum almost 65%. Shriveling auto demand accounted for much of the decline, but oversupply in both metals also depressed prices. Surpluses are expected to continue well into 2009, and perhaps even 2010. In that case, an ETF might actually prove beneficial, by removing some metal from circulation.

If and when auto sales will recover remains unclear. There are some bright spots in the industry, like China: In March, the country's car sales rose 10%, and minivan sales rose 40% over levels from the same time last year. German car sales have also gotten a shot in the arm from "cash-for-clunker" programs, in which the government offers consumers incentives to trade in their old vehicles for newer, higher-efficiency cars.


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