Usually around this time of year I would have already posted an update on the export quotas issued by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) to rare-earth element (REE) producers in China.
Not so this year.
The twice yearly announcements on the specifics of the allocations were always met with a degree of interest that far outweighed their real importance. It was the illusory nature of the export quotas and the complete misreading of the 2010 quota allocations, by entities outside of China, that led to the completely unnecessary, yet unfortunately destructive run up (and subsequent crash) in prices for these materials in 2010 and 2011.
On December 31, 2014 MOFCOM announced that dozens of products previously subject to export quotas would instead now be subject to an export licensing regime. Perhaps the fact that REEs can be found cheek to jowl alongside live cattle, frozen meat, tungsten, sand, motorcycles and paraffin, to name but a few of the commodities listed, will finally correct the notion that some folks have of REEs as unique, precious snowflakes in the grand scheme of nefarious Chinese strategy. Or perhaps not...
We must remember that the export quotas were only one aspect of the overall export regime for REEs and other commodities, subject to the 2014 WTO ruling against China and a subsequent rejected appeal. Another important aspect was the imposition of export tariffs on REE products. The mid-December announcement from the Chinese Ministry of Finance, detailing the export tariffs for REEs in 2015, shows that such tariffs are still alive and well. At the very least, they indicate that China is taking a phased approach to the elimination of its export-control system for REEs in a manner that satisfies the WTO ruling. The continuation of export tariffs on REEs comes in the face of reported recent discussions on the imposition of a new value-added tax on REEs, as a replacement for the revenues generated by export tariffs. There are some indications that a switch over may occur later in 2015, but for now, the export tariffs are here to stay.
Since the announcement on the elimination of export quotas, we have seen dozens of inevitable headlines proclaiming the death of Chinese control over its exports of REEs. The reality is that China is still as much in charge of its REE supply chain as it ever was. An additional MOFCOM announcement indicated that REEs are now to be exported through only 9 designated ports. Export licenses will be "handled" through a Special Commissioner's Office within MOFCOM, on a case-by-case, shipment-by-shipment basis. A number of sources in China indicate that to date, there is little guidance available to would-be exporters on the criteria to be fulfilled, for an export license to be issued, beyond the presentation of a sales contract with a buyer outside of China.
Such ambiguity would seem to resonate with the third aspect of the WTO complaint and ruling against China, concerning the lack of transparency internally with respect to specific rules and regulations pertaining to exports. Perhaps more details will be officially forthcoming, or perhaps not.
It is unlikely that the announced changes will have any meaningful impact on the "bandwidth" of REE exports that are exported from China via non-official channels (i.e. smuggled out). A number of the recent news stories have lamented that the elimination of export quotas will see increased exports and further decreases in REE pricing. I disagree. Perhaps some of the smuggled materials will now go through official channels, especially in the wake of the ongoing consolidation of the Chinese REE industry into six conglomerates; but the overall supply, through official and non-official channels, is unlikely to be affected.
Furthermore, the discussed new VAT proposed would be at similar levels to the existing export tariffs for REEs, thus the ongoing imposition off export tariffs and the subsequent change over, if and when it happens, is not likely to affect FOB China (export) prices either.
So for the time being at least, it is business as usual for Chinese REE exports.