Uranium’s Tough Outlook

October 12, 2009

The problem with uranium investing is simple right now: Prices are cheap and mining stock prices are expensive. But opportunities exist in small-caps.
  • Government intervention = adverse material impact?
  • ‘Global nuclear renaissance’ put on hold
  • Whither the hedge funds?


Back in May this year, HardAssetsInvestor.com featured a story about an under-the-radar bull market in uranium. After having fallen along with everything else in the credit meltdown, uranium was beginning to show some strong gains in the first quarter, rising to $51/lb from the high 30's.

But then something strange happened: The bull market fell apart. Even as the global economy began to recover, boosting equity and commodity prices more or less across the board, the price of U3O8 plunged during the summer, falling around 15 percent.

In September, uranium spot prices fell an additional 7 percent, dragging down the price of the yellowcake powder to its lowest levels since March, at $42.75/lb.

While it is common for uranium prices to fall during the summer periods, such a big fall is worrying for producers of yellowcake, given that it was already 60 percent below its June 2007 peak before the summer.

For some companies, the scenario of continued lower prices has translated into production cuts and layoffs. For example, privately held Encino, Texas.-based Mesteña Uranium has had to terminate 90 employees, and reduce production by a quarter, to 650,000 lbs a year.

"The global nuclear renaissance has been put on hold," Paul Goranson, Mesteña's vice president and operations chief, told The Statesman recently. "We ramped up [on employees], but we've had to cut them back fast."

Larger firms have also had their ups and downs. Despite a rise this year, shares of Cameco, the world's second-biggest uranium miner, have been volatile. Analysts are concerned that the company will not hit annual production targets of 20.1 million lbs, after output in the second quarter dropped 27 percent, to 3.8 million lbs.

Situation: Abnormal 

Toronto-based Paradigm Capital analyst David Davidson is one of those analysts. "To hit the target, things really have to go normal," Davidson told Bloomberg in August. "And for Cameco, things haven't often gone normal."

To complicate matters further, it's difficult to know for sure whether there is much value lying around in the uranium equity space right now, since the bulk of uranium producers have soared along with the rest of the stock market since March. For example, year-to-date Cameco has jumped around 70 percent, while the world's largest uranium miner Rio Tinto has more than doubled.

In the nuclear energy ETF space, performances are similarly strong. Market Vectors Nuclear Energy (NYSE Arca: NLR), iShares S&P Global Nuclear Energy Index (Nasdaq: NUCL) and PowerShares Global Nuclear Energy (NYSE Arca: PKN) have all risen in line with broader indexes, by 18 to 25 percent.

While it's true that there is somewhat of a commodity bull market getting under way, uranium prices remain relatively weak, not to mention unstable. The U.S. Department of Energy recently stated that it will transfer $200 million of excess government uranium to the United States Enrichment Corp. The move would effectively flood the market for uranium with excess supply and harm prices, similar to the way the introduction of former Soviet uranium did in the early 1990s.

"The loss of mining and mining-related jobs in Wyoming and elsewhere will be a direct outcome of the Department's present course," wrote Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal in a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu petitioning for a veto of the transfer last Monday. "Given the already softening commercial market, I find it hard to envision that a determination of ‘no adverse material impact' can be achieved relative to these transfers."

Find your next ETF

Reset All