Lithium doesn't resonate in the same way that "plastics" did in the film The Graduate, but it soon may because it is in the forefront of the electric car and energy storage industries.
Beyond its use in cell phones and laptops, lithium is a key component used in the the manufacture of electric cars. Worldwide demand for lithium, the lightest metal, is growing. Equity analyst Brian P. Chase of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., in a recent research report predicted that demand for electric vehicle batteries alone "could cause the current market [for lithium] to at least double or triple by the end of the decade."
Lithium may also play a key role in advancing solar, wind and hydro power. One key barrier to widespread adoption of renewable energy sources in the electric grid is that they are intermittently generated and require a solution for modulating power to meet instantaneous demand from consumers. Lithium ion batteries may be able to store power from these sources so its available for later use, when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing.
In July, Global X Funds, a New York provider of exchange-traded funds, launched the Global X Lithium ETF (NYSE Arca: LIT), the first lithium ETF, further evidence of lithium's growing momentum.
A number of advisors and wealth managers are testing the waters. "After what happened in terms of wealth erosion in 2009, investors want to find upside in a sector similar to the real estate or Internet boom," said Ralph Fogel, portfolio manager for Fogel Neale Wealth Management, based in New York. "We are looking into companies and commodities such as 'green oriented' ones like lithium that play into the green sector and subsectors to help develop moderately aggressive green portfolios."
How can investors and advisors get in on the ground floor and play this market? There's the Global X Lithium ETF, which tracks the Solactive Global Lithium Index. The index reflects the performance of the largest and most liquid lithium battery producing and mining and refining companies. The ETF consists of 20 different companies, with a market capitalization of $29.8 billion.
"The Global X Lithium ETF is an efficient way to invest in what we refer to as a 'green' commodity because of its direct correlation to the renewable energy market, such as electric cars and energy storage for power sources like wind, solar, and hydro," said Bruno del Ama, CEO of Global X Funds.
Any of the three top holdings in the ETF might provide a good single-stock play. They are fertilizer and chemical companies SQM from Chile (SQM:NYSE) and FMC Corp. (FMC:NYSE) and Rockwood Holdings Co. (ROC:NYSEC) from the U.S.
Another alternative for lithium-market exposure: Some mining stocks hold lithium as a component of their portfolios. North Arrow Minerals Inc. of Canada (TBX-V:NAR), for example, manages a diversified portfolio of lithium, gold, base metal and diamond properties. Another Canadian mineral exploration company, Rodina Lithium Inc. (TSX-V: RM) (OTCQX: RDNAF), focuses on lithium exploration and development in North and South America.
Advisor Ron Rowland, who manages an RIA firm in Austin, Texas, says the Global X Lithium ETF is a potentially attractive investment "likely to exhibit low correlation to the materials, technology, industrials, consumer discretionary, and energy sectors."
In a recent newsletter report, he notes lithium production has been growing for decades due to its use in small batteries, and that production is increasingly popular since oil prices remain high. He also notes that SQM plans to invest $350 million to bolster its lithium production, which is good news for Chile, where SQM is based.
Since lithium is mined all over the world (Chile being the largest lithium producer), there are inherent risks: political and country risk, for example. There is also the potential for safety issues-any small problem could turn public opinion against electric mobility and set back industry development for months or years. Finally, any sudden decrease in oil prices could threaten the demand for lithium ion batteries.
Key Points On Renewable Energy
Here are six general points from various research reports that may help advisors select renewable energy investments for clients:
1. The U.S. is aggressively developing a coherent national energy policy and renewable energy sources are the central theme.
2. Less than 5% of energy in the U.S. is generated from renewable resources, but that amount is expected to double by 2020 and grow to more than 30% by 2030.
3. Wind and solar power, currently about 2% of U.S. energy consumption, is projected to grow to 20% by 2030.
4. Oil generates less than 5% of electricity, but powers most motor vehicles and home heating systems.
5. Efficient energy storage and sophisticated distribution/collection systems are an important part of renewable energy systems and the computers that control them.
6. The current U.S. energy distribution grid was built nearly 100 years ago. It was designed for the industrial era, powering factories, homes and vehicles from large fossil fuel centralized power plants. The information era requires sophisticated, highly reliable, intelligent, decentralized generation and collection systems. Renewable resources will play a key role in these new systems, and reliable energy storage will be critical.