9 months ago • 7:46 mins
Electric vehicle (EV) sales are booming: they’re expected to rise from 3 million in 2020 to 14 million in 2025, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). That’s hardly surprising, considering the world’s governments are going out of their way to make the switch from traditional vehicles. But rather than invest in the many car companies out there, there could be a better way to profit from this electric surge: by investing in the four key metals EVs rely on.
The most important part of an EV is its engine-equivalent: the battery. Since virtually all EVs run on lithium batteries, the rise of EVs will lead to a big surge in demand for the metal. BNEF estimates that lithium demand from EV batteries will increase fivefold from 2021 to 2030. S&P Global, meanwhile, expects lithium demand for all uses to triple by as soon as 2025. Lithium batteries, after all, are also found in a whole range of consumer electronics, including smartphones, laptops, and cameras.
Around 75% of global lithium production is controlled by just five firms, each with publicly traded stocks you can buy: Albemarle, SQM, Ganfeng Lithium, Tianqi, and Livent. Alternatively, virtually all of these stocks are held by the Global X Lithium & Battery Tech ETF, which invests in a diversified basket of lithium- and battery-focused stocks.
Lithium battery technologies are diverse, and – as you can see in the graph below – they’re produced in conjunction with a number of other metals, depending on the end use.
While NMC batteries are most commonly used among EVs today, NCA batteries are increasingly taking over. That’s because their higher energy densities – the amount of energy stored per unit of weight – provide EVs with more range. That’s why Tesla uses the battery technology in its cars, and why other firms are following suit.
But here’s the thing: NCA batteries are 80% nickel. So it follows that rising demand for EVs – and by extension EV batteries – will lead to rising demand for nickel. More specifically, high-grade nickel. And like lithium, the supply of this high-grade nickel is concentrated, with seven firms accounting for more than 80% of supply.
All of these seven firms are publicly traded, and it’s worth noting that the biggest of them – Russia’s Nornickel – has an ambitious strategy of increasing production by 17% by the end of the decade. But there’s a catch: none of the companies solely produce nickel, meaning you’re investing in the potential – and potential risks – of a variety of other metals when you invest in them. Take Nornickel, which – despite its name – only actually made 20% of its revenue last year from its nickel operations. You also have an ETF tracking the price of nickel, but it’s rather small in size, meaning it can be more difficult to trade if you’re investing large amounts. The ETF is up by around 15% this year.
The batteries that power EVs, regardless of their technology, all share one major disadvantage compared to conventional internal combustion engines: they’re heavy, reducing vehicles’ ranges. One way to fix this problem is to replace steel parts in the vehicle with aluminum, a lightweight but strong metal that can substitute for certain steel components and reduce the vehicle’s overall weight. EV makers have increasingly been using the metal, driving up its demand.
The largest aluminum producers in the world are based in China, with Chalco and Hongqiao the top two. Russia’s Rusal takes the third spot. Other big producers are American firms Alcoa, Kaiser Aluminum, and Century Aluminum, as well as France-headquartered Constellium, which already counts several big automakers as its customers. You also have an ETF tracking the price of aluminum that’s up by around 40% this year. But similar to the one tracking nickel, it’s also rather small in size, so it’s more difficult to trade if you’re investing large amounts.
Copper has all sorts of industrial uses, meaning global economic growth is driving appetite for the metal right now. It’s also a big beneficiary of the EV boom, with the International Copper Association predicting that EV-related copper demand will more than triple by 2030. For starters, an EV contains three to five times more copper than a conventional vehicle. And because of its excellent electrical conductivity and durability, copper is the metal of choice in EV charging stations which are growing proportionately with the number of EVs on the road.
You can gain exposure to copper by investing in shares of copper-mining companies like Freeport-McMoRan (the world’s largest independent producer), Southern Copper Corporation, or First Quantum Minerals. A more diversified way to do this would involve investing in the Global X Copper Miners ETF, which tracks 30 such firms. Bear in mind, though, that you’ll be exposed to more than just the copper price: these companies also mine other metals, and you could lose out on the back of poor profits. So a more direct way to gain exposure to the red metal is through ETFs that track its price, with WisdomTree Copper and the United States Copper Index Fund the two of the biggest out there.
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