The transition towards clean energy in combination with a shortfall in supply has seen the price of raw uranium, also known as ‘yellowcake’, rise almost 60 per cent in recent weeks. It is now trading at over $50 a pound – a nine-year high. The market has been described as being at a ‘tipping point’. Given the recent boom in the market, the current conditions could tip the balance towards an era of rising uranium prices.
What is uranium?
Uranium is a heavy metal which has been used as a source of concentrated energy for over 60 years. Uranium ore can be mined from underground, milled, and then sold. It is then used in a nuclear reactor for electricity generation. About 10% of the world’s electricity is generated from uranium in nuclear reactors. There are some 445 nuclear reactors operating in 32 countries. It is the most energy-dense and efficient fuel source we have, with just ten uranium pellets able to power the average household for an entire year.
In March 2011, Japan’s most powerful earthquake on record triggered a tsunami, which then caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. It forced residents from their homes as radiation leaked from the plant. Since the Fukushima accident, uranium prices had been on a downtrend trend – enough to force several miners to suspend or scale back operations.
However, there has been a 42 per cent increase in the price of the metal in the first nine months of 2021 alone.
Demand for uranium
Since launching in July, a new investment trust, run by Canadian asset manager Sprott, has snapped up about 6m pounds of physical uranium, worth about $240m. This aggressive buying has helped push prices of uranium to more than $40 per pound, up from $30 at the start of the year. In the first part of September alone, prices surged by around 40%, outperforming all other major commodities. In just a few weeks, millions of pounds of supply were scooped up by the Sprott Physical Uranium Trust. This puts pressure on utilities that need to secure supplies of the commodity for electricity generation.
This increased demand is occurring at precisely the same time as countries and companies around the world are committing to net-zero carbon targets. As a result, nuclear power companies are now facing competition for supplies of uranium from financial investors, who are betting on sharply higher prices and demand for the radioactive material used to fuel reactors. This boost in demand is said to be due to uranium being used as a low-carbon energy source, despite the radioactive waste problem that comes with it. Investors are betting that nuclear power will be a key part of the move away from fossil fuels.
Production from world uranium mines has in recent years supplied 90% of the requirements of power utilities for uranium, with the current global mine supply expected to be about 125m pounds for 2021. In addition, there are secondary sources such as commercial and military stockpiles. However, according to the World Nuclear Association, demand for uranium is expected to climb from about 162m pounds this year to 206m pounds in 2030, and to 292m pounds by 2040. This is largely driven by increased power generation in China. China is planning a big increase in its nuclear power capacity over the next decade as the country seeks to cut its emissions.
Supply of uranium
Although uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, not all uranium deposits are economically recoverable. While some countries have uranium resources that can be mined profitably when prices are low, others do not. Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium and in 2019 produced more uranium than the second, third, and fourth-largest producers combined.
The big issue is that supply to the market is falling significantly. For deliveries that would start in 2022, Kazakh producer, Kazatomprom, is now discussing the possibility of supplying the metal directly to Sprott. However, it also warned of the risk that its mines would not reach their output target for 2021, and it said earlier this year that it would keep its production at reduced levels through 2023. In addition to this, the recent surge in buying is also reducing the inventories that accumulated after the Fukushima accident.
The supply of uranium is set to fall 15 per cent by 2025 and by 50 per cent by 2030. This is mainly due to a lack of investment in new mines. The lack of new uranium mines will mean the price has to move higher. Namibian mines, accounting for 8 per cent of world supply, are approaching the end of their lives. Cameco of Canada, another important source, has shut one large pit because of uneconomic prices. According to BMO Capital, a mine supply deficit since 2019 will continue.
Supply has also been affected by the pandemic. The boom in demand has coincided with historically low prices and pandemic-driven mine disruptions, prompting uranium producers to buy from the spot market to fulfil long-term contracts with consumers. Some of the largest mining operations in Canada and Kazakhstan had to suspend production temporarily due to a shortage of workers.
Adding to the security of supply concerns is the role of commercial and state-owned entities in the uranium market. Uranium is a highly trade-dependent commodity with international trade policies highlighting the disconnect between where uranium is produced and where it is consumed. About 80% of primary production comes from countries that consume little-to-no uranium, and nearly 90% of uranium consumption occurs in countries that have little-to-no primary production. As a result, government-driven trade policies can be particularly disruptive for the uranium market. It is argued that the risk to uranium supply may create a renewed focus on ensuring availability of long-term supply to fuel nuclear reactors.
The role of financial players
Financial players have been accelerating the recent recovery in the price of uranium, with large-scale speculative buying and withholding of supply. But it can be argued that this would not have occurred if there were not a fundamental and substantial shortage.
If investors keep buying uranium, analysts expect utility companies will come under pressure to replace long-term supply agreements before they expire. At the moment, long-term contracts cover 98 per cent of the uranium needed by US utility companies. But that figure drops to 84 per cent next year, and 55 per cent by 2025, according to uranium investment company, Yellow Cake.
As annual supply declines, demand for uranium from producers and financial players increases, and with trade policy potentially restricting access to some markets, it is believed the pounds available in the spot market will not be adequate to satisfy the growing backlog of long-term demand. As a result, companies expect there will be increased competition to secure uranium under long-term contracts on terms that will ensure the availability of reliable primary supply to meet growing demand.
What will the future look like?
Many countries are turning their attention to nuclear power in order to become net-zero economies. Even in Japan, nuclear generation has slowly been returning. It is argued that nuclear power is needed to some degree for the country to achieve its pollution-curbing goals. However, not all nations are re-embracing nuclear. Germany, for example, is set to shut its last reactor next year.
The concern is whether the recent gains in investor demand is enough to underpin the market. It can be argued that even before the recent price rally started, demand for uranium from the investment sector was already growing. However, observers of the market have suggested that just as quickly as uranium skyrocketed, prices may now be hitting the brakes. Producer stocks that got swept up in the frenzy seem to have peaked. In addition, the world’s top uranium miner Kazatomprom has warned that the recent price action was being fuelled by financial investors rather than the utilities that use the radioactive metal as fuel in their reactors. On the other hand, it is argued that this pickup in the spot market will be the catalyst to push more utilities to get involved in term contracting.
Despite the impact of the pandemic on global energy demand, it is now growing again. Gas and other energy shortages are being seen and the price of gas has been rising rapidly. This rise in energy prices plus a focus on carbon-free generation is likely to continue driving demand for nuclear power and hence for uranium. In addition, producers have warned of supply shortages in the long term as investors scoop up physical inventory and new mines are not starting quickly enough. Thus nuclear’s growing role in the clean energy transition, in addition to a supply shortfall, could turn the tide for the uranium industry.
House prices are soaring throughout the world, making them unaffordable for many first-time buyers. In the UK, for example, according to the Nationwide, the annual house price increase was 13.4% in 2021 Q2. In the USA, house prices are rising by over 23% per annum.
The reason for this rampant house price inflation is that demand is rising much faster than supply. What is more, with inelastic supply in the short term, a given percentage rise in demand leads to a larger percentage increase in prices.
Reasons for rapidly rising house prices
But why has demand risen so rapidly? One major reason is that central banks have engaged in massive quantitative easing. This has driven down interest rates to historic lows and has led to huge asset purchases. Mortgage lenders, awash with money, have been able to increase the ratio of lending to income. Borrowing by house purchasers, encouraged by low interest rates and easy access to mortgages, has thus increased rapidly.
Another reason for the increased demand is that economies are beginning to recover from the COVID-induced recessions. This makes people more confident about their future financial positions and more willing to take on increased mortgage debt. Another reason is that, with increased working from home, people are looking for larger houses where rooms can be used as studies. Another is that, with less spending during the lockdowns, people have built up savings, which can be used to buy larger homes.
Some countries have deliberately boosted demand by fiscal measures. In the UK, the government introduced a stamp duty ‘holiday’. Previously a 3% ‘stamp duty’ tax was applied to purchases over £125 000. Under the holiday scheme, the rate would only apply to purchases over £500 000 until 30 June 2021 and then to purchases over £250 000 until 30 September 2021. This massively boosted demand, especially as the deadlines approached. In the USA, there are various schemes at federal and state level to support first-time buyers, including low-interest loans and vouchers. Supporting demand is counterproductive if it merely leads to higher prices and thus does not make it easier for people to buy.
Speculation has played a major part too, with many potential purchasers keen to buy before prices rise further. On the supply side, some vendors have held back hoping to get a higher price by waiting. Gazumping has returned. This is where vendors accept a new higher offer even though they have already accepted a previous lower one.
Effects of higher house prices
Higher house prices have had a knock-on effect on rents, which have also soared. This has encouraged house purchases for rent both by individuals and by property investment companies. The effect of rapidly rising house prices and rents has been to increase the divide in society between property owners and those unable to afford to buy and forced to rent.
Increased housing wealth is likely to lead to greater housing equity withdrawal. This is where people draw on some of their equity in order to finance increased consumer spending, thereby boosting aggregate demand and possibly inflation.
Will the house price boom end soon?
One scenario is that there will be a gradual slowdown in house price increases as quantitative easing is tapered off and as support measures, such as the UK’s stamp duty holiday, are unwound.
There is a real possibility, however, that there will be a more severe correction, with house prices actually falling. This could be triggered by central banks raising interest rates in response to higher inflation caused by the recovery and by higher commodity prices. In the UK, labour shortages brought about by Brexit could make the inflationary problem worse. With high levels of mortgage debt, even a half percentage point rise in mortgage interest rates could have a severe effect on demand. Falling house prices will then be compounded by speculation, with buyers holding off and sellers rushing to sell.
In its latest Commodity Special Feature (pages 43 to 53 of the October 2020 World Economic Outlook), the IMF examines the future of oil and other commodity prices. With the collapse in oil demand during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, oil prices plummeted. Brent crude fell from around $60 per barrel in late January to below $20 in April.
However, oil prices then rose somewhat and have typically been between $40 and $45 per barrel since June 2020 – still more than 35% lower than at the beginning of the year (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). This rise was caused by a slight recovery in demand but largely by supply reductions. These were the result partly of limits agreed by OPEC+ (OPEC, Russia and some other non-OPEC oil producing countries) and partly of reduced drilling in the USA and the closure of many shale oil wells which the lower prices had made unprofitable.
The IMF considers the future for oil prices and concludes that prices will remain subdued. It forecasts that petroleum spot prices will average $47 per barrel in 2021, up only slightly from the $42 average it predicts for 2020.
On the supply side it predicts that ‘stronger oil production growth in several non-OPEC+ countries, a faster normalization of Libya’s oil production, and a breakdown of the OPEC+ agreement’ will push up supply and push down prices. Even if the OPEC+ agreement holds, the members are set to ease their production cut by nearly 25% at the start of 2021. This rise in supply will be offset to some extent by possibly ‘excessive cuts in oil and gas upstream investments and further bankruptcies in the energy sector’.
On the demand side, the speed of the recovery from the pandemic will be a major determinant. If the second wave is long-lasting and deep, with a vaccine available to all still some way off, oil demand could remain subdued for many months. This will be compounded by the accelerating shift to renewable energy and electric vehicles and by government policies to reduce CO2 emissions.
For the majority of people, a house (or flat) is the most valuable thing they will ever own.
It is important to understand the role that house prices play in the economy and how much of an impact they have.
The Bank of England monitors changes in the housing market to assess the risks to the financial system and the wider economy. The housing market employs large numbers of people in construction, sales, furniture and fittings, and accounts for a sizeable percentage of the value of GDP. The market is closely linked to consumer spending and therefore is a crucially important sector of the economy.
The concepts of supply and demand can be applied to understand house price changes and the impacts on the economy.
What is the housing market?
The housing market brings together different stakeholders, such as homeowners who are selling their properties, people seeking to buy a property, renters, investors who buy and sell properties solely for investment purposes, contractors, renovators and estate agents, who act as facilitators in the process of buying or selling a property.
In the UK, two-thirds of households own the property in which they live, and the remaining third of households are renters, split fairly equally between private and social renting. We can thus divide people into:
Homeowners – either outright owners or with a mortgage;
Private renters – people renting from private landlords;
Social renters – people renting from local authorities and housing associations.
There are many determinants of demand and supply in the housing market, many of which are related to demographic factors. Such factors include the size of the market, rate of marriages, divorces, and deaths. However, factors such as income, availability of credit, interest rates and consumer preferences are also important.
Why is the housing market important for the economy?
Changes in the housing market are always given such importance due to the relationship house prices have with consumer spending. Changes in house prices and the number of sales affect how much money people have to spend. Given that household spending accounts for two-thirds of Britain’s total economic activity, any changes in consumption is likely to have a major impact on the wider economy. Observing the housing market helps us to assess the overall demand for goods and services.
When house prices increase, those consumers who own their own homes have now become better off as their houses are worth more. This ‘wealth effect’ increases the confidence of homeowners, which in turn increases consumption. Some of these homeowners will decide to acquire additional borrowing against the value of their home. The borrowing is then spent in the economy on goods and services, thereby increasing aggregate demand and GDP.
However, when house prices decline, homeowners lose confidence as their home is now worth less than before. This becomes a major issue if prices have decreased enough to make their house worth less than the remainder of the unpaid mortgage – known as ‘negative equity’. Homeowners will therefore reduce their consumption and will be less likely to undertake any new borrowing.
The vast majority of homeowners will have taken out a mortgage in order to purchase their home. Mortgages are the largest source of debt for households in the UK. More than 70% of household borrowing is mortgage debt. Half of all homeowners who live in the house they own are still paying off their mortgage. Therefore, households might suddenly hold back on their spending during times of uncertainty because they start to worry about repaying their debts. This has a knock-on effect on the rest of economy, and a small problem can suddenly become a big one.
In addition to affecting overall household spending, the buying and selling of houses also affects the economy directly. Housing investment is a small but unpredictable part of total output in the economy. There are two different ways in which the buying and selling of houses impacts GDP.
The first is when a new build is purchased. This directly contributes to GDP through the investment in the land to build the house on, the purchase of materials and the creation of jobs. Once the homeowners move in they also contribute to the local economy: i.e. shopping at local shops.
The second is when an existing home is bought or sold. The purchase of an existing home does not have the same impact on GDP. However, it does still contribute to GDP: i.e. from estate agents’ and solicitors’ fees and removal costs to the purchase of new furniture.
Why house prices change: demand and supply
Demand: the demand for housing can be defined as the quantity of properties that homebuyers are willing and able to buy at a given price in a given time period. Factors affecting the demand for housing include:
Real incomes: If real incomes increase the demand for housing increases due to a rise in the standard of living.
The cost of a mortgage: If there is a rise in interest rates in the economy, mortgage interest rates are likely to rise too. This makes the cost of financing a loan more expensive and therefore will see a decline in demand.
Availability of credit: The more lending banks and building societies are willing to provide, the more people will borrow and spend on housing and hence the higher house prices will be.
Economic growth: When the economy is in the recovery and boom stages of the business cycle, wages rise. This will increase the demand for houses.
Population: When the population increases or if there is an increase in single-person households, demand for housing increases.
Employment/unemployment: The higher the level of unemployment in an economy, the less people will able to afford housing.
Confidence: If consumers feel optimistic about the future state of the economy, they will be more likely to go ahead with purchasing a house, thereby increasing demand. House prices tend to rise if people expect to be richer in the future.
Supply: The supply of housing can be defined as the flow of properties available at a given price in a given time period. The supply of housing includes both new-build homes and existing properties. Factors affecting the supply for housing include:
Costs of production: The higher the cost of production, the fewer houses are built, reducing the supply of housese coming to the market. Example of costs include: labour costs, land for development and building materials.
Government policy: If the government increases taxation and/or reduces subsidies for new house developments, there will be fewer new houses built.
Number of construction companies: Depending on their objectives, the more construction companies there are, the more likely there is to be an increase in the supply of housing. The construction industry accounts for around 7% of UK GDP.
Technology and innovation: With improved technology and innovation in the construction industry, houses become cheaper and easier to build, thus increasing the supply.
Government spending on building new social housing: The government has the ability to influence the supply of housing by increasing spending on new social housing.
Price elasticity of supply
The supply of new housing in the short run is price inelastic. The main reason for this is the time it takes to build a new home. The production of a house can take many months, from the planning process to the project’s completion. Supply also relies on access to a skilled labour force and the availability of certain construction materials.
Because of the inelastic supply, any changes in demand are likely to have a significant effect on price. This is illustrated by the diagram, which shows a larger proportionate increase in price than quantity when demand increases from D1 to D2.
The current UK housing market
Despite the current economic climate and the effects of the lockdown restrictions on consumers, house prices have increased, and sales have now resumed. Rightmove, which advertises 95% of homes for sale, states that the housing market has seen its busiest month in more than 10 years in July. During the summer, the housing market usually sees a lull in activity. However, since the easing of lockdown, there has been a flurry of activity from buyers and sellers. Since July 2019, house prices have increased by 1.7%, according to the Nationwide Building Society.
London estate agency, Hamptons, states that homeowners are now bringing forward their moving plans as the experience of lockdown has encouraged them to seek more space. The mortgage market is also very favourable right now in terms of interest rates, and rental demand is continuing to surge across the UK.
The increase in activity in the market has also been helped by the announcement of a stamp duty ‘holiday’ until March 2021. This sees the threshold above which stamp duty is paid rising from £125 000 to £500 000. Estate agency, Savills, has also seen an increase in the number of new buyers registering with its service, more than double the number registered in July 2019. It is thought that, along with the tax savings from stamp duty, people’s experiences in lockdown have made them evaluate their current living space and reconsider their housing needs.
However, given the that the economy is experiencing its deepest recession on record, there is concern about just how long the market can resist the economic forces pulling prices down.
Historically, a drop in house prices has been both a cause and a consequence of economic recessions. During the 2008 financial crisis, house prices fell by about 30%. As previously mentioned, for the majority of people, a house is the most valuable thing they will ever own and therefore consumers are extremely interested in its value. Consumer confidence is one of the key factors affecting the demand for housing. If consumers feel pessimistic about the future state of the economy, they will be less likely to go ahead with purchasing a house, thereby decreasing demand. Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility, the country’s fiscal watchdog, forecasts that during this downturn prices will fall 5% this year and 11% in 2021.
Various government schemes put in place to help during lockdown are starting to come to an end. The main one – the furlough scheme, which replaced 80% of eligible workers’ incomes – comes to an end in October. It is forecast that labour market conditions will weaken significantly in the quarters ahead, with unemployment predicted to rise for the rest of the year. If these predictions materialise, it would likely dampen housing activity once again.
Fluctuations in house prices and transactions tend to amplify the volatility of the economic cycle. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand what influences such changes. Understanding how supply and demand factors influence the housing market can enable key stakeholders to make better predictions about future activity and plan accordingly. The current market has seen a growth since the easing of restrictions but there is concern that this has been powered by pent-up demand. Therefore, the outlook for house prices is uncertain and the full effects of an economic downturn are yet to be realised.
Back in October, we examined the rise in oil prices. We said that, ‘With Brent crude currently at around $85 per barrel, some commentators are predicting the price could reach $100. At the beginning of the year, the price was $67 per barrel; in June last year it was $44. In January 2016, it reached a low of $26.’ In that blog we looked at the causes on both the demand and supply sides of the oil market. On the demand side, the world economy had been growing relatively strongly. On the supply side there had been increasing constraints, such as sanctions on Iran, the turmoil in Venezuela and the failure of shale oil output to expand as much as had been anticipated.
But what a difference a few weeks can make!
Brent crude prices have fallen from $86 per barrel in early October to just over $50 by the end of the year – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Explanations can again be found on both the demand and supply sides.
On the demand side, global growth is falling and there is concern about a possible recession (see the blog: Is the USA heading for recession?). The Bloomberg article below reports that all three main agencies concerned with the oil market – the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Paris-based International Energy Agency and OPEC – have trimmed their oil demand growth forecasts for 2019. With lower expected demand, oil companies are beginning to run down stocks and thus require to purchase less crude oil.
On the supply side, US shale output has grown rapidly in recent weeks and US output has now reached a record level of 11.7 million barrels per day (mbpd), up from 10.0 mbpd in January 2018, 8.8 mbpd in January 2017 and 5.4 mbpd in January 2010. The USA is now the world’s biggest oil producer, with Russia producing around 11.4 mpbd and Saudi Arabia around 11.1 mpbd.
Total world supply by the end of 2018 of around 102 mbpd is some 2.5 mbpd higher than expected at the beginning of 2018 and around 0.5 mbpd greater than consumption at current prices (the remainder going into storage).
So will oil prices continue to fall? Most analysts expect them to rise somewhat in the near future. Markets may have overcorrected to the gloomy news about global growth. On the supply side, global oil production fell in December by 0.53 mbpd. In addition OPEC and Russia have signed an accord to reduce their joint production by 1.2 mbpd starting this month (January). What is more, US sanctions on Iran have continued to curb its oil exports.
But whatever happens to global growth and oil production, the future price will continue to reflect demand and supply. The difficulty for forecasters is in predicting just what the levels of demand and supply will be in these uncertain times.