Uranium has been hammered by the supply-and-demand cycle that affects all commodities, sending prices of the radioactive metal from $100 a pound five years ago to around $43 today. Yet the phase of declining prices for uranium appears set to change, which should fuel a heady rebound in both the underlying commodity and the ETFs that track it.
It’s easy to see why demand has been weak, particularly following last year’s Fukushima disaster in Japan that caused many countries to question their commitment to nuclear power. But as a research note from Morningstar stated, it’s unwise to simply write off nuclear power because the Energy Information Administration projects electricity demand to grow by roughly 25% through 2035 and the recent market turmoil isn’t likely to affect the long-term viability of nuclear power.
Prior to Fukushima, both China and India had ambitious plans to build more than 50 new nuclear reactors over the next five years. Though both countries froze those plans in 2011, they are now again moving forward with their long-term shift to nuclear power (and away from coal), and over the next six to 12 months are expected to line up fresh supply commitments from the world’s top uranium producers.
Other fast-growing economies in Asia, such as Indonesia and Thailand, are also drawing up plans for new nuclear reactors to meet their projected energy needs. “The growth is clearly in emerging markets, and not as much in the West,” notes Alex Ashby, a research analyst with Global X Funds.
Nuclear power’s appeal remains quite simple: It has a minimal carbon footprint and can deliver massive amounts of power compared to clean energy technologies such as wind or solar. And one pound of uranium can generate as much power as 100,000 pounds of coal, according to uranium mining firm Cameco.
The anticipated steady rise in demand should coincide with a big drop in uranium supply: Russia had been a reliable supplier of uranium to the U.S. thanks to a landmark agreement signed in 1993 to de-commission hundreds of nuclear weapons. That Russian supply agreement is now set to expire by the end of 2013, and the U.S. power companies have begun to seek replacement sources. “It’s a significant source of current supply, and to make up for that, you’ll see an increase in [uranium] production,” Ashby says.
With the expectation for rising demand and falling supply, the ETFs that focus on uranium and nuclear power look set for a long-awaited rebound. The biggest beneficiary could be the Global X Uranium ETF (URA), which was launched two years ago at $17 a share and recently traded below $6.
This ETF, which tracks the Solactive Global Uranium Index, has mirrored the slumping fortunes of the world’s top uranium miners and refiners. Fifteen of the fund’s 19 holdings are companies that operate outside the U.S., and Canada’s Cameco (19% of the fund) and Australia’s Paladin Energy (14%) are the top holdings. Companies from those two countries represent more than 75% of the portfolio.
This fund charges a mid-range expense ratio of 0.69%.
A pair of other ETFs take a slightly different approach, focusing on both uranium producers and companies in the nuclear power industry. The Market Vectors Uranium+Nuclear Energy Index ETF (NLR), for example, has 8% of its assets tied up in U.S. power producer Exelon (EXC) and a similar amount invested in Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a builder of nuclear power plants.
The fund’s 22 holdings also comprise uranium transportation, enrichment and storage companies. Less than 20% of the fund is invested in the uranium producers themselves, which means its performance isn’t as closely correlated with uranium prices but instead is a proxy for global nuclear power production and development.
The 0.57% expense ratio is the lowest in its peer group.
The PowerShares Global Nuclear Energy Portfolio (PKN) takes a similar approach, but with even greater diversification with stakes in 58 companies across the nuclear food chain. These companies are tracked in the WNA Nuclear Energy Index, which aims to represent a market-weighted balance among the different niches of the nuclear industry. For example, one quarter of the fund is tied up in power generation, another 25% in technology, equipment and services, and 20% in uranium producers. The remaining is focused on the construction and operation of nuclear reactors.
The 0.75% expense ratio is the highest in the peer group.
Although the supply and demand factors are poised to alter course, the process may take a year or two to play out. As such, uranium and nuclear power are most suitable as long-term investments.