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Insight: South Korea hunts tungsten treasure in race for rare minerals




© Reuters. An employee guides inside a tungsten mine in Gangwon Province, South Korea, March 31, 2022. Picture taken March 31, 2022. REUTERS/ Heo Ran


By Ju-min Park and Joe Brock

SANGDONG, South Korea (Reuters) – Blue tungsten winking from the walls of abandoned mine shafts, in a town that’s seen better days, could be a catalyst for South Korea’s bid to break China’s dominance of critical minerals and stake its claim to the raw materials of the future.

The mine in Sangdong, 180 km southeast of Seoul, is being brought back from the dead to extract the rare metal that’s found fresh value in the digital age in technologies ranging from phones and chips to electric vehicles and missiles.

“Why reopen it now after 30 years? Because it means sovereignty over natural resources,” said Lee Dong-seob, vice president of mine owner Almonty Korea Tungsten Corp.

“Resources have become weapons and strategic assets.”

Sangdong is one of at least 30 critical mineral mines or processing plants globally that have been launched or reopened outside China over the last four years, according to a Reuters review of projects announced by governments and companies. These include projects developing lithium in Australia, rare earths in the United States and tungsten in Britain.

The scale of the plans illustrates the pressure felt by countries across the world to secure supplies of critical minerals regarded as essential for the green energy transition, from lithium in EV batteries to magnesium in laptops and neodymium found in wind turbines.

Overall demand for such rare minerals is expected to increase four-fold by 2040, the International Energy Agency said last year. For those used in electric vehicles and battery storage, demand is projected to grow 30-fold, it added.

Many countries view their minerals drive as a matter of national security because China controls the mining, processing or refining of many of these resources.

The Asian powerhouse is the largest supplier of critical minerals to the United States and Europe, according to a study by the China Geological Survey in 2019. Of the 35 minerals the United States has classified as critical, China is the largest supplier of 13, including rare earth elements essential for clean-energy technologies, the study found. China is the largest source of 21 key minerals for the European Union, such as antimony used in batteries, it said.

“In the critical raw material restaurant, China is sitting eating its dessert, and the rest of the world is in the taxi reading the menu,” said Julian Kettle, senior vice president for metals and mining at consultancy Wood MacKenzie.


The stakes are particularly high for South Korea, home of major chipmakers like Samsung Electronics (OTC:SSNLF). The country is the world’s largest consumer of tungsten per capita and relies on China for 95% of its imports of the metal, which is prized for its unrivalled strength and its resistance to heat.

China controls over 80% of global tungsten supplies, according to CRU Group, London-based commodity analysts.

The mine at Sangdong, a once bustling town of 30,000 residents that’s now home to just 1,000, holds one of the world’s largest tungsten deposits and could produce 10% of global supply when it opens next year, according to its owner.

Lewis Black, CEO of Almonty Korea’s Canadian-based parent Almonty Industries, told Reuters that it planned to offer about half of the operation’s processed output to the domestic market in South Korea as an alternative to Chinese supply.

“It’s easy to buy from China and China is the largest trading partner of South Korea but they know they’re over-dependent,” Black said. “You have to have a plan B right now.”

Sangdong’s tungsten, discovered in 1916 during the Japanese colonial era, was once a backbone of the South Korean economy, accounting for 70% of the country’s export earnings in the 1960s when it was largely used in metal-cutting tools.

The mine was closed in 1994 due to cheaper supply of the mineral from China, which made it commercially unviable, but now Almonty is betting that demand, and prices will continue to rise driven by the digital and green revolutions as well as a growing desire by countries to diversify their supply sources.

European prices of 88.5% minimum paratungstate – the key raw material ingredient in tungsten products – are trading around $346 per tonne, up more than 25% from a year ago and close to their highest levels in five years, according to pricing agency Asian Metal.

The Sangdong mine is being modernised, with vast tunnels being dug underground, while work has also started on a tungsten crushing and grinding plant.

“We should keep running this kind of mine so that new technologies can be handed over to the next generations,” said Kang Dong-hoon, a manager in Sangdong, where a “Pride of Korea” sign is displayed on a wall of the mine office.

“We have been lost in the mining industry for 30 years. If we lose this chance, then there will be no more.”

Almonty Industries has signed a 15-year deal to sell tungsten to Pennsylvania-based Global Tungsten & Powders, a supplier to the U.S. military, which variously uses the metal in artillery shell tips, rockets and satellite antennae.

Yet there are no guarantees of long-term success for the mining group, which is investing about $100 million in the Sangdong project. Such ventures may still struggle to compete with China and there are concerns among some industry experts that developed countries will not follow through on commitments to diversify supply chains for critical minerals.


Seoul set up an Economic Security Key Items Taskforce after a supply crisis last November when Beijing tightened exports of urea solution, which many South Korean diesel vehicles are required by law to use to cut emissions. Nearly 97% of South Korea’s urea came from China at the time and shortages prompted panic-buying at filling stations across the country.

The Korean Mine Rehabilitation and Resources Corporation (KOMIR), a government agency responsible for national resource security, told Reuters it had committed to subsidise about 37% of Sangdong’s tunnelling costs and would consider further support to mitigate any potential environmental damage.

Incoming President Yoon Seok-yeol pledged in January to reduce mineral dependence on “a certain country”, and last month announced a new resource strategy that will allow the government to share stockpiling information with the private sector.

South Korea is not alone.

The United States, European Union and Japan have all launched or updated national critical mineral supply strategies over the last two years, laying out broad plans to invest in more diversified supply lines to reduce their reliance on China.

Mineral supply chains have also become a feature of diplomatic missions. 

Last year, Canada and the European Union launched a strategic partnership on raw materials to reduce dependence on China, while South Korea recently signed collaboration deals with Australia and Indonesia on mineral supply chains. 

“Supply-chain diplomacy will be prioritised by many governments in the coming years as accessing critical raw materials for the green and digital transition has become a top priority,” said Henning Gloystein, director of energy and climate resources at the Eurasia Group consultancy.

In November, China’s top economic planner said it would step up exploration of strategic mineral resources including rare earths, tungsten and copper


Investment globally of $200 billion in additional mining and smelter capacity is needed to meet critical mineral supply demand by 2030, 10 times what is being committed currently, Kettle said.

Yet projects have faced resistance from communities who don’t want a mine or smelter near their homes.

In January, for example, pressure from environmentalists prompted Serbia to revoke Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO)’s lithium exploration licence while U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration cancelled two leases for Antofagasta (LON:ANTO)’s copper and nickel mines in Minnesota. 

In Sangdong, some residents are doubtful that the mine will improve their lives.

“Many of us in this town didn’t believe the mine would really come back,” said Kim Kwang-gil, 75, who for decades lived off the tungsten he panned from a stream flowing down from the mine when it operated.

“The mine doesn’t need as many people as before, because everything is done by machines.”

GRAPHIC-S.Korea’s reliance on China for critical minerals (jpeg)

GRAPHIC-S.Korea’s reliance on China for critical minerals (interactive)


Stock Markets

Analysis-Crypto crash leaves El Salvador with no easy exit from worsening crisis



© Reuters. FILE PHOTO – A sign reading “Pay with Bitcoin here” is set in a furniture store in San Salvador, El Salvador March 10, 2022. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Nelson Renteria, Sarah Kinosian and Rodrigo Campos

SAN SALVADOR/NEW YORK (Reuters) – El Salvador’s big bet on bitcoin, which the Central American nation has been buying since September, has soured in recent weeks as a cryptocurrency rout shaved over a third of the value of the government’s holdings, Reuters calculations show.

Under populist President Nayib Bukele, a vocal cheerleader for the currency, El Salvador went all-in on bitcoin, not just becoming the world’s first country to adopt it as a legal tender but also sketching out plans for a volcano-powered crypto mining hub and plans to issue the first sovereign bond linked to the coin.

With global borrowing costs on the rise and a big debt repayment on the horizon, El Salvador has other fiscal headaches than the impact of the currency’s swoon. But the crypto slump has also closed some potential off-ramps from the crisis, including the now-postponed bitcoin bond.

“The government’s financial problems are not because of bitcoin, but they have gotten worse because of bitcoin,” said Ricardo Castaneda, senior economist and country coordinator for El Salvador and Honduras at think tank Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI). For the government, he said, “bitcoin ceased to be a solution and has become part of the problem.”

Bitcoin has fallen 45% since El Salvador officially adopted it in early September, and 26% from its May high as crypto assets have been swept up in a risk-off investing environment.

The combined market value of all cryptocurrencies recently fell to $1.2 trillion, less than half of where it was last November, based on data from CoinMarketCap.

El Salvador’s debt stood at $24.4 billion as of December, from $19.8 billion at end-2019, after the Bukele administration allocated millions of dollars to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects over the past couple of years.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the current account deficit for its remittance and external financing-reliant economy will hover near $2 billion through 2025.

But adopting bitcoin set the country at loggerheads with multilateral lenders like the IMF, from which Finance Minister Alejandro Zelaya said last year the government was seeking $1.3 billion.

The fund has recommended that El Salvador ditch bitcoin altogether. Any deal for a credit line would have to address risks including “those related to the adoption of bitcoin as legal tender as well as risks related to economic governance,” an IMF official said on Wednesday.

Ratings agencies have warned bitcoin adoption could facilitate money laundering, and importantly, the bitcoin risk has given bond investors another reason to demand higher returns

As of Wednesday, they were seeking a record-high premium of 2,445 basis points over U.S. Treasuries.

Bukele’s moves to centralize power, from removing all the top judges on the country’s supreme court to muscling through authorization to seek immediate re-election despite constitutional term limits, have helped drive the risk premium higher.

“If there isn’t potential for bitcoin-growth dividends or innovative bitcoin-financing, then the Bukele administration will have to prioritize spending priorities and identify financing options,” according to Siobhan Morden, head of Latin America Fixed Income Strategy at Amherst Pierpont.

Reuters calculations of a $36 million paper loss in bitcoin, enough to make at least some of those coupon payments, is based on Bukele’s tweets and an estimate of prices on the purchase dates. The government has spent some $104.2 million on 2,301 coins now worth just $67.9 million using Wednesday’s volume weighted average price.

The country has to service $329 million in interest due on its international bonds this year as well as $800 million in a bond set to mature in January.

ICEFI’s Castaneda listed financing options including the Central American and Latin American development banks – CABEI and CAF, respectively – as possible patches for financing the $800 million payment due in January. Another option, he said, is to nationalize the country’s pension fund to cover the fiscal deficit – which could be done by transferring the public’s savings to a government account.

A debt restructuring for El Salvador is “inevitable” if the country continues with the “current policy mix,” said Polina Kurdyavko, head of emerging markets at BlueBay Asset Management. “Debt in El Salvador could be sustainable with the right (IMF) program. But they have to act now.”

The country’s finance minister, Zelaya, declined to comment for this story.

Salvadoran bonds trade between 43.5 cents and 34 cents on the dollar except for the January maturity at 75 cents, reflecting cautious optimism that the country could make that payment.

The cost to insure investors against a Salvadoran sovereign default over the next five years on Wednesday hit its highest level since 2020, according to S&P Global (NYSE:SPGI) data.

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Stock Markets

Generali posts smaller-than-expected net profit drop after Russia impairments



© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The emblem of Italy’s insurer Assicurazioni Generali is pictured in Rome, May 13, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

MILAN (Reuters) – Italy’s top insurer Assicurazioni Generali (BIT:GASI) said on Thursday it posted a smaller-than-expected drop in Q1 net profit after impairments on its Russian investments for 136 million euros ($142.75 million).

Net profit came in at 727 million euros, down 9.3% year-on-year, above an analyst consensus provided by the insurer of 651 million euros.

Generali said its operating profit, closely watched by the market, grew 1.1% to 1.63 billion euros, topping an average analyst consensus of 1.55 billion euros.

($1 = 0.9527 euros)

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Rogue trader, euro zone crisis and war, Socgen’s CEO ends ‘bumpy’ ride at top




© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: French bank Societe Generale Chief Executive Officer Frederic Oudea attends a news conference to present the company’s 2015 annual results La Defense near Paris, France, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier//File Photo


By John O’Donnell and Julien Ponthus

FRANKFURT/LONDON (Reuters) -Societe Generale CEO Frederic Oudea, who navigated the French bank through a rogue trading scandal and the euro zone crisis, will leave next year, ending a tumultuous 15 years at the top.

The longest-serving chief executive of a major European bank, Oudea took charge at the height of the 2008 financial crisis as the bank grappled with the multi-billion-euro fallout of a rogue trading scandal.

A student of France’s elite Polytechnique engineering school and of the National Administration School, whose graduates include French presidents Jacques Chirac and Emmanuel Macron, Oudea started his career in the civil service before becoming one of the country’s best-known bankers.

He prepares to leave as the bank struggles with the aftermath of a pandemic and the economic uncertainty created by war in Ukraine.

“It’s been a very bumpy ride,” said Jerome Legras of Axiom Alternative Investments, who said some investors were frustrated by what they deem the bank’s modest progress.

In common with many European peers, the share price of Societe Generale (OTC:SCGLY) never recovered from the 2008 debt crisis and at about 24 euros ($25.24), is less than half of its level when Oudea became CEO.


Oudea became Societe Generale’s finance chief in 2003 but long played a secondary role to Jean-Pierre Mustier, then head of Socgen’s investment bank and considered the likely future CEO.

The scandal in 2008 over a 4.9 billion euro loss triggered by trader Jerome Kerviel turned the tables in favour of Oudea, who became chief executive at the age of 44.


The euro zone debt crisis hit French banks in particular because they were heavily exposed to debt in Greece and other countries at the periphery of the euro zone. This triggered speculation, including that the French government could be forced to nationalise lenders.

In 2011, as Greece struggled to cope with debt repayments, jitters swept through Europe over the future of its banks.

France and its lenders were considered vulnerable. A flurry of media reports and speculation, including that Societe Generale even faced collapse, rocked its shares, putting Oudea to his toughest test.

Pressure abated on the industry when Mario Draghi, who was European Central Bank president at the time, pledged to do “whatever it takes” to back the euro.

2015 SALES

Oudea is credited with shoring up the bank’s capital base, its weakness after the 2008 crisis, selling some businesses and paring back its Eastern Europe arm.

The sale of the bank’s stake in Amundi in a 2015 multi-billion-euro stock-market listing granted Oudea a windfall. He later sold the exchange-traded funds specialist Lyxor to Amundi.

He made Boursorama the top French online bank while cutting branches through a merger with the Credit du Nord network.

Oudea’s arguably boldest move was at the start of this year when Societe Generale’s car leasing division ALD, which he floated in 2017, signed a 4.9 billion euros deal to buy Dutch rival LeasePlan.

Nonetheless, some remained underwhelmed by Oudea. “Investors felt there was a lack of a clear strategic goal,” said Legras.

The risks from trading continued to overshadow the bank. In early 2020, it posted a surprise first-quarter loss after a revenue wipeout at its equity trading division after market volatility caused by the pandemic.

The bank has since overhauled that division.


The bank paid $1.3 billion in penalties for wrongdoing, including bribing Libyan officials, an episode for which Oudea apologised.

Between 2004 and 2009, Socgen paid more than $90 million in bribes through a Libyan broker to secure 14 investments by Libyan state-owned financial institutions, the U.S. Justice Department had said.


Last month, Socgen became the first major Western bank to announce its departure from Russia, navigating a highly charged standoff between Russia and the European Union, which has been ratcheting up sanctions in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Socgen announced it would sell its Rosbank business to Interros Capital, a company linked to Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin, writing off roughly 3.1 billion euros.

Socgen was one of a handful of European banks with a significant presence in Russia and the sale was seen as a coup by investors despite the heavy cost because it drew a line under its involvement with Russia.

($1 = 0.9508 euros)

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