On Tuesday, since U.S. markets are closed on Monday, I’ll be adding shares of Albemarle (ALB) to my long-term 50 Stocks portfolio. The shares closed at $91.92 on Friday, February 17.
After the 2015 acquisition of Rockwood Holdings, Albemarle is the world’s largest producer of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries from smart phones to hybrid and electric cars. Albemarle controls about 35% of the world’s supply of lithium carbonate through its ownership of salt brine lakes in Chile and a 49% take in the Talison mine joint venture in Australia. The Chilean salt brine assets are a key to why I’m buying Albemarle for a long-term portfolio: They are among the lowest-cost sources of lithium in the world. Lithium mines, including Talison, are higher cost sources. The ownership of a low cost source–perhaps the lowest cost source–gives Albemarle solid protection against new competitors who are bringing new higher cost mines on line. Global lithium demand will grow at an annual mid-double-digit rate, Morningstar estimates. In the nearer term, the Rockwood merger will produce cost-cutting synergies estimated by Standard & Poor’s at $100 million in 2016. Earnings are projected by Standard & Poor’s to grow to $3.53 a share in 2016 from $3.00 a share in 2015. (Albemarle is scheduled to report earnings after the market close on February 27.)
Albemarle isn’t a pure play on lithium–which is why the shares trade at a price-to-earnings ratio of 18.14 times trailing 12-month earnings instead of some nose-bleed multiple. (The stock also pays a modest 1.32% dividend.)
Albemarle is also the world’s second largest producer of bromine, a chemical used as a flame retardant in electronic devices and in oil field completion fluids. Not a great combination of markets. In electronics, bromine use has been falling as smaller devices, such as smart phones, replace larger devices, such as desk top computers. Smaller devices require less fire retardant per device. And you can imagine what the global slump in oil drilling has meant for the demand for completion fluids. Still revenue is projected to increase in 2017 with the modest recovery in drilling rigs in use (at least in the United States), and because Albemarle is a low-cost producer of bromine, income from that business should rise faster than revenue.
And finally, Albemarle is a top global producer of catalysts used in oil refining. This is essentially a cash cow business (since catalysts are used up in refining oil and must be constantly replaced) that provides steady cash flows to buffer the ups and downs of the lithium market. Catalysts are tweaked to fit the requirements of individual oil refineries, which makes switching suppliers potentially risky.
Albemarle has a contract with the Chilean government to extract 200,000 metric tons of lithium from that country’s salt brine flats through 2030. A new contract would give Albemarle a license to extract 70,000 tons of lithium a year over the next 27 years.