A World of Chinese Boxes

“Total use for greater wealth.” That was the triumphant banner under which the newly formed Bureau of Reclamation would parcel out and industrialize the water resources of the western United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, as we are forced to appreciate just how scarce and precious freshwater and other resources really are, and as industrial civilization itself verges on collapse, it reads more like a fool’s epitaph.

We are, of course, still in the grip of the old industrial-era logic. I see it clearly in the arguments advanced in support of Lake Superior mining. When not pushing the jobs argument — or when an economist like Thomas Power calls their bluff — mining industry proponents and apologists regularly appeal to the utility (and the necessity) of mining around Lake Superior.

“These minerals,” one Michigan labor leader explained to me, “are gonna be extracted at some time. They have to be,” he continued, because they are “important for a lot of uses.” An imperative, mining carries certain duties with it: “The world needs the minerals” of the UP, he went on to explain, “and I think we have a responsibility to develop it right, extract it right, and share it.”

At least he acknowledges that the ore extracted from Lake Superior mining operations is destined for international markets. On the Public Television show Almanac a couple of months ago, at the start of the comment period on the Polymet EIS, Executive Director of Mining Minnesota Frank Ongaro asked us to pretend that mining Minnesota “copper, nickel, platinum” would somehow make us less “import-dependent” on those metals “for everything we use, every day in our life.” That was pure jingoism, and these arguments are misleading.

Just consider the news lately around the falling price of copper, which hit an eight-month low last week. The biggest story by far has to do less with slowing Chinese demand for manufacturing and building, and more with the “use” to which copper imports are now put by Chinese players in the commodities market. According to a Reuters story focusing on these “secretive” Chinese funds, “traders estimate more than half of copper imports into China were to raise funds using the metal as collateral over the past two years.” In a tweet that Aaron Klemz shared with me, CNBC’s Deirdre Wang Morris said it was more like sixty to eighty percent of all Chinese copper imports that were being “used as loan collateral.”

A March 13 Reuters article on the last week’s sell-off of copper by Polly Yam, Fayen Wong and Melanie Burton quotes “traders who structure financing deals” saying that “the selling of copper was due to speculators not breaches of financing deals. ‘Speculators are the main driver.'” I suppose that’s meant to be reassuring.

In a typical copper financing deal, an importer puts down nearly the full value of the copper in yuan as a deposit to a bank for a letter of credit.
The importer resells the copper into the domestic market to raise cash that can be used for other investments such as real estate.
The importer can also strike a hedged deal where the metal is stored in a bonded [or LME] warehouse in China or overseas in return for a loan from a foreign bank. In both cases, the importers no longer are exposed to the copper price.

And in all cases, copper — mined everywhere at great risk to water, watersheds, wetlands and the surrounding environment — is not being put to anything like the productive uses that most people imagine, or mining companies promote. From this angle, Polymet looks like Glencore’s bid to bring Minnesota into a Chinese collateral game. Things get even weirder when you consider the case of Eagle Mine in Michigan, where Lundin Mining has secured a $600 million credit facility to mine Lake Superior copper that will ship to LME warehouses owned by big commodity players and banks, and then serve as an object of financial speculation or as collateral in return for loans. It’s a world of Chinese nested boxes: credit swaps and derivatives will be spun around loans to mine copper to back loans in a huge urbanization scheme designed to move the Chinese toward a consumer society — and so on. It’s an unsustainable scheme, and after last week some analysts believe it’s already unraveling.

Orwell wrote in the industrial era about the critical role of mining in the “metabolism” of civilization. Now, in our post-industrial world, it appears that new mining will only hasten the cancer of financialization.

Update, 19 March 2014: For more on this theme, see Tyler Durden’s discussion of copper and “hot money” flows into China, here and here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s