Skyrocketing Costs of Sulfuric Acid

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Interesting how certain threads come together… I read recently that copper producers are complaining about the skyrocketing costs of sulfuric acid. A few days later, I read about Mosaic, a fertilizer company – about how the rising cost of sulfuric acid could impact its profit margins. Then last week, I came across a piece about how the cost of treating water is “going through the roof.” The main culprit is, once again, the rising price of sulfuric acid.

As one water utility rep said: “As sulfuric acid prices increase, so do the products that contain this ingredient. The U.S. has also seen a shortage in supply of sulfuric acid. The U.S. has imported the majority of sulfuric acid from China in the past, but recently, China has slowed the trade of sulfuric acid to the U.S. because its own demand is greater than what China can produce for both the U.S. and itself.” In short, demand is swamping supply. Sulfuric acid prices in March hit a record high of $329 per ton, according to Purchasingdata.com, after trading at $90 per ton as recently as October. Sulfuric acid shortages?

Hmmm… Well, time to take a look at this, think I.

“Sulfuric acid is one of those unheralded lubricants that keep the gears of the industrial economy spinning,” says Chemical and Engineering News. “Although less in the limelight than petrochemicals such as ethylene or polyethylene, it is, in fact, the largest-volume chemical in the world.”

We use sulfuric acid in mining to extract copper, nickel and uranium. We use it in steel production and in making fertilizers. We use it to refine oil and to treat wastewater. It goes into the plastics we make, and a bunch of other things. The biofuel boom has kicked off a big increase in the demand for sulfuric acid. In fact, some 60% of the sulfuric acid ends up in agriculture. The surge in ethanol production is a doublewhammy on sulfuric acid. First, all that corn needs fertilizers. And second, the ethanol facilities themselves also use sulfuric acid in their own processing. A typical ethanol facility requires 2,000 4,000 tons of sulfuric acid per year.

Then there is that great demand pull from China and India. Traditionally, these two countries produced what they needed. But now their own rapid industrialization has turned the tables. They’ve switched from being exporters to importers of sulfuric acid.

The boom in metals such as copper and nickel also drives the demand for sulfuric acid. Smelting operations typically throw off sulfuric acid as a byproduct. But even here, metals companies need more than they can produce.

Supply is also tight. As with many commodities, there was a long period when sulfuric acid prices went nowhere. This led to a decrease in production facilities. I found one example of a closure as late as November 2006, when GenTek shut down a sulfuric acid facility due to “adverse market conditions.”

There also seems to be little new capacity on tap. Industrial Info Resources, in Sugar Land, Texas, tracks this sort of thing. According to IIR, of the $89 million invested in sulfuric projects in the U.S. in 2007, most of the funds went toward planned maintenance, rather than expanded capacity. It also turns out that not only is supply tight, but there are all kinds of transportation bottlenecks in delivery – such as a shortage of rail cars. Key Compton, president of a sulfuric acid producer in Texas, said toward the end of last year that customers soon “may be paying prices for sulfuric acid that they’ve never seen before.”

So how can you play it? Well, there are a number of producers of sulfuric acid. Most are big chemical companies that you wouldn’t own because you want exposure to sulfuric acid. Owning them is like buying Home Depot because you think it sells a great lawn mower. The only “pure play” on the idea I could find is a little company called Chemtrade Logistics in Canada, one of the world’s largest suppliers of sulfuric acid. It trades in Toronto under the ticker symbol CHE. You can find a quote on Yahoo using CHE-UN.TO.

It’s a Canadian income trust and pays a monthly distribution of about 10 cents. Based on a price of $11.44, that’s a yield of 10.5%. The company appears to be in good financial condition and throws off a lot of cash flow, much of which investors pocket in the distribution. It’s not a sexy business, but it looks like an interesting play on what seems to be at least a temporary scarcity of a key chemical. Chemtrade is not a one-trick pony. It also produces liquid sulfur dioxide and sodium hydrosulfite. The company also sells into a wide range of end markets, so you’re not tied to the fortunes of any single sector. The company has an excellent presentation of its business, complete with slides, on its Web site.

Since I have not completed my research on either Chemtrade or the overall sulfuric acid industry, I do not recommend Chemtrade. But since this sector is red-hot at the moment and appealing on many levels, I decided to share the insights I’ve gleaned so far. I plan to do more research on the idea. I would advise all investors do the same.

Chris Mayer
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

Chris Mayer
Chris Mayer is a veteran of the banking industry, specifically in the area of corporate lending. A financial writer since 1998, Mr. Mayer's essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, from the Mises.org Daily Article series to here in The Daily Reckoning. He is the editor of Mayer's Special Situations and Capital and Crisis - formerly the Fleet Street Letter.
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