Hotel Industry Trends and Forecasts with Corey Maple

Ryan Morfin sits down with Corey Maple of Legendary Capital to discuss how the hospitality industry has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Ryan Morfin sits down with Corey Maple of Legendary Capital to discuss how the hospitality industry has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Maple decided to make his initial investments in hotels following the financial crisis of 2008 which later yielded high returns. He predicts that similar yields can be attained following COVID-19 according to market trendlines which predict that the industry should be back on its feet within the next 8 to 24 months.

In contrast, however, Maple suggests that luxury hotel chains that rely more heavily on conferences and other corporate gatherings will have a longer road to recovery and may not be as appealing to investors. Mr. Maple believes that, along with low debt ratios, both customer service and safety assurance can ultimately determine a hotel’s fate.

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Ryan Morfin:                    Welcome to Non-Beta Alpha, I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s episode, we have Corey Maple, from Legendary Capital, owner operator of 38 hotel properties, coming on the show to tell us a little bit about the crisis that was driven from COVID and how he, as an operator is handling this to protect his investor’s capital and the assets that he manages. This is Non-Beta Alpha.

                                           Corey, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.

Corey Maple:                   Ryan, thanks for having me on.

Ryan Morfin:                    Really appreciate your time. I know it’s a very dynamic time in the hotel industry. The RevPAR is nationally this week, about $15 and 61 cents. ADR is about $74 and national occupancies about 21%. These are unheard of times in the hotel industry. I was hoping you could come on today to tell us a little bit about what the hotel industry was doing and trending prior to this exogenous shock. What’s been happening over the last six to eight weeks in your industry and what you’ve been doing as an operator to combat this unprecedented revenue and demand issue. And then what’s your view of the hotel industry and the outlook going forward. So thanks for coming on.

Corey Maple:                   Well, like I said, I’m happy to be here. So things were just moving along pretty steady state. The RevPAR growth was matching the growth of the economy. Everything had pretty much stabilized, obviously since our last big disruption. And I got into this business in 2009, because there was a great opportunity to start acquiring assets. If you want a positive outlook, we’re in that exact same situation today. I know that when we were monitoring this as was everybody else all through the winter, because you saw all this activity in China and I think, I don’t know that we all closed, turned a blind eye to this because of MERS and SARS and how those deals really did not pan out as far as becoming a pandemic. And then all of a sudden in the early part of March, the world changed, as we all know.

                                           And that first week and a half was pretty trying because we saw occupancy plummeting, RevPAR plummeting, fortunately across the board were able to fairly maintain our ADR, average daily rate. But we could see where it was going and it looked like it was going to zero. And that’s stressful, let me tell you. I’ve never had a lot of stress in my life, but that certainly was a different situation.

Ryan Morfin:                    Especially because this was nothing to do, you had no control over it and it wasn’t any decisions you guys have made that impacted the operations.

Corey Maple:                   I saw, it was about a week ago in the Wall Street Journal, that 33% of renters did not make their rent payments. So this is cascading throughout our entire economy.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, and just to make you feel better, I think a lot of national retail chains have halted all rental payments and we work in a few of their portfolios, New York City, for instance, made zero payments to their landlords in March and April. And so, yeah, no, it is, it’s an unprecedented at the time, for sure.

Corey Maple:                   There’s not a safe real estate class out there, I don’t think, I mean, it’s just across the board. So I guess after we went through that first week and a half, we did a lot of work just assembling data, so we could start projecting. We ran break even analysis on every single one of our hotels. We started negotiating with the banks as far as payment holidays, so we just didn’t stop making payments. Fortunately we have strong balance sheets in all of our portfolio funds and so we were able to depend on the cash that we had on hand that was built up. But at the same time, cash only runs so far unless you’d take decisive action. And each of the hotels, we have contingency plans in place for every hotel that we own and those were two phase plans. Well, we quickly discovered that there’s a third phase in this. We were prepared for a 25% drop in RevPAR like we saw in 2008 and 2009, no one had any clue what you do when RevPAR goes down to 15 or 14 or $12.

Ryan Morfin:                    Historical context for our viewers. So 9/11 in 2008, the max revenue drop was 25%. And here we’re looking at maybe as high as 90%. You’re looking at RevPAR dropping in urban centers at 81%, nationally down to 69%. Bridgewater, the hedge fund from Ray Dalio expects almost $200 billion of revenues from publicly traded companies to be erased in 2020 and as high as 920 billion from private hotel operators. So this is a huge impact to the earnings and the economy and unprecedented impact for an industry. So wanted to help set that stage as you talk about some of the growth data points that you’ve been focusing in on.

Corey Maple:                   So through those first couple of weeks, we rewrote all of our plans. We start executing against, certainly we got to level two within about a week, but then we rolled out level three and then level four. Level four involves all but shuttering a hotel. We haven’t had to go there yet. But on the level three side, we got down to bare minimum staff, we watch our staffing levels. Now we’re running about 25, 26% occupancy. So that’s above industry average. Our RevPAR is down significantly, but it’s not as bad as the rest of, if you look at the industry as a whole. And I think one of the reasons for that is we happen to be mostly in the United States, in the Heartland of America and our outliers are in markets like Virginia Beach, which during the 2008 recession, it was the best performing, while the rest of the world was down 25%, it was down 3.8%.

                                           And that’s still the best performing, but now we’re talking 32% occupancy and that’s the best, the best of the top 25 markets. So it’s a completely different situation, as we’ve said a couple of times. But rather than cutting back all of our salaried employees, obviously you have to keep your GM on board, we kept our director of sales in every hotel, our DOS and that, I think, is what’s made a big difference. I’ll give you an example, we have a hotel in Virginia Beach, the DOS has a good relationship with Dominion Energy, she saw this storm coming that rolled through there on the 13th, called up the Dominion, they fill up the hotel for two nights with linemen and that’s in a time when there’s no occupancy.

                                           So you have to be nimble and you have to look for opportunities. Most people are just hunkering down. Full service luxury hotels are the hardest hit, they’re down 96% in the last numbers I saw on occupancy, 4% occupancy is what those guys are running. And that’s because they depend almost solely on group business, groups, meetings, and conventions. And those are the first things that went away in 2008, they’re the first things that went away here. I mean, there’s not gatherings of more than 10 people, unless it’s a Trump rally outside of a Capitol building, right?

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. Something like 96% of all global destinations are closed right now. So it’s unheard of. And so limited service though, what I would call, mission critical travel, people that are mobilizing, are going to be the folks that utilize, I think, limited service. And so maybe talk about maybe the historical break evens to limited, and then what you think the break evens are today and what the outlook looks like for the industry.

Corey Maple:                   Well on a standardized basis, around 50% is break even and that’s without that service. Excuse me, it’s about 40% without debt service and with debt service you’re in the low 50s, depending on your leverage, of course. Our debt ratios are in the low 50s, so we don’t have a tremendous amount of debt. And in the situation we’re in now, it’s between 30 and 38%, depending on the hotel. And that’s generalized on a RevPAR or excuse me, an occupancy basis where you have about a hundred dollar RevPAR. And again, I’m generalizing because every single property has different numbers. And so as we went into our phase three response, we’re running at a deficit, but it’s a manageable deficit and then we can see this rebound.

                                           I was looking at the curves yesterday afternoon and it looked like on the 4th of April, we hit our lowest occupancies system wide and now we’ve come back and it’s not building quickly, but it is building. I think the Nader was about 18%, we’re up to about 24, 25% system wide now. And I attribute that to the effectiveness of our sales teams, going out there, reassuring clients, we’ve implemented high sanitization cleaning procedures in the hotels.

Ryan Morfin:                    I’d love you the maybe go into that because that’s going to drive consumer confidence substantially. If I’m going to go start traveling again and all the luxury hotels are closed, because they’ve got much higher cost structures and I’m going to need to start traveling for mission critical travel, what can a hotel operator do to make sure that I feel that I won’t catch coronavirus at a hotel bathroom or a room that has been cleaned? What confidence can a hotel give it’s traveling public?

Corey Maple:                   So we’ve adopted Ecolab’s sanitization system. We’ve always used their products and they were very responsive and came out with a set of guidelines. So you’re wiping down all of the hard surfaces in the common areas, at least hourly, sometimes more often, depending on the traffic. Front desk gets sprayed on after every transaction, for every guest comes and leaves. You’ll wipe down all the exterior doors and interior door handles of every room, twice a day, certainly before the cleaning crew goes in and then after they leave. And it’s really just making yourself present with good chemicals that will effectively eradicate the virus if it exists in the hotel.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, no doubt the public is going to need to get educated on that. And I think, the more you do that to the business community, I think they’ll start getting confidence to start traveling again. I know you guys are tied to the airline industry, low jet fuel prices have really driven travel and made business travel much more affordable. Now that the industry has gotten a bailout in the airline industry, what type of bailout, if any, does the hotel industry feel like they’ve gotten and does the current fed cares act stimulus really help you guys because it’s asking you guys to keep the employees in place, even though most people are reducing variable costs 100%. What has the government done for the hotel industry and is it sufficient what they’ve done?

Corey Maple:                   Well, mostly it’s under the PPP, the payroll protection plan, that portion of the cares act. So we were one of the first applicants in, the day it opened up, we had all of our applications in, we’ve received funds for every single one of our hotels. Now that’s based on your 12 month historical payroll and we’ll get essentially two months worth forgiven. So as things open back up, we’ll bring more and more employees back on, probably quicker than we would otherwise. And yet all the maintenance, all of the deferred maintenance done in the hotel, we’ll deep clean the entire hotel. So when things do move back to normal, we’ll be far ahead of the curve and using that to our advantage. So that’s going to be beneficial.

                                           The remainder of those loans, you get two and a half times payroll, is at a 1% interest rate. So that’s going to be helpful too, just from stockpiling operational cash. And that’s been our position is we minimize cash expenditures, maximize the amount of cash on our balance sheet and that’s what’s going to get us through this and that’s what’s going to enable us to recover more quickly. That’s the other benefit of having your DOS’s work all of their relationships and build new ones, is because when it does come back, who are the businesses, who are the groups going to use when travel resumes? It’s going to go to the people who’ve been in contact with them. We did the exact same thing in 2008 and all of our properties recovered very quickly afterwards, in proportion to our comp set. So we got a disproportionate share of business because of it and I’m confident, we’ll see the same result this time.

Ryan Morfin:                    So what percentage of labor force of hotels have been furloughed or laid off at this point? Would you say majority, 80%?

Corey Maple:                   Majority. I would say, let me think, I don’t have our numbers, but I know our payroll is down at least 60% and it might be more. We run our payroll in staggered weeks, so I don’t have that report in front of me, but it’s at least 60, probably 70.

Ryan Morfin:                    And so it’s interesting, the cares act because it’s written off of payroll, the hotel industry doesn’t see June 30th as an end date for demand to be turned back on. I at least I don’t think. Most sectors don’t. So it’s basically a 1% loan to the hotel industry and it’s forgivable loan for everybody else who’s kept their employees on, is that the right way to look at how the hotel industry’s taking the capital?

Corey Maple:                   Yes. And we still have employees and we’ll get relief for that. And like I said, when we get into [inaudible 00:15:59], we’re going to bring a lot of people back on, just to make sure that we get ahead of everything while we have the opportunity to. That means we’ll put people back to work and you know that there’s people out there not happy sitting at home without a job. The $1,200 checks that people are getting are not putting to tide them over for the rest of the year, they want to get back to work and we will be there for them, we’ll bring our employees back on.

Ryan Morfin:                    And do you think the hotel industry, I know Arnie Sorenson went in with a bunch of the execs in the industry, to go pound the table for $150 billion bailout. Has anything come of that conversation or do you guys expect anything to come of that conversation for a bailout for the industry?

Corey Maple:                   We haven’t seen anything yet. I think that there’s a lot of industries that have troubles. The nice thing about the airline industry, if non-competition is nice, is there’s five or six major carriers that drive the vast majority of the domestic business. So they were able to easily speak with one voice. You don’t have that in the hospitality industry. There’s 10,000 owner operators out there and so it’s hard to get a single voice other than at the franchise level. And I know that IHG Intercontinental Hotel Group, Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton are on the business recovery task force that Trump has put together. So there is a voice there, I don’t know exactly what’s going to come out of this as far as direct relief.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, you told me on a call earlier that I thought was fascinating and it was very creative and this is what’s going to separate the good operators from the bad. As people are working from home and they’re looking for ways to maybe not go back to their office, because their office is closed. You guys came up with a creative solution for folks to get some space and some quiet opportunities to work. Do you mind sharing a little bit of that?

Corey Maple:                   Absolutely. Because we’ve spread it, we spread it around to all of the major hotel chains too, and told them what we’re doing. It’s called office away. And there’s a lot of people who can’t effectively work from home for one reason or another and we’ve provided a platform for them to rent the room for five days a week. They get the weekends thrown in because we’re not to use the room anyway. We do what’s called very light touch cleaning in there, so they basically have an office away from their home, office away. And the nice thing about our hotels, it’s not shared HVAC systems. They have what are called P-TECH units in the rooms and so the air is vented outside and so you don’t have exchange of air between rooms and so everybody’s in their own little cocoon. They walk in the front door, as the door is open up, they don’t have to touch anything. They can go to their office away from home and sit down and work.

                                           And so that’s been effective and it’s certainly giving people options. And that’s a lot of what we’re doing, is trying to provide, like you said, creative solutions that will help people make their way through this and be as productive as they can be.

Ryan Morfin:                    And what would that room go for? Are you charging by the week, by the month? Is it a daily rate? How do you price that?

Corey Maple:                   Yeah, so we price it as a daily rate or contract for one week at a time. And so we’re running system-wide about 85% of our normal average daily rate. So we haven’t seen a lot of compression in our rate, which is great because that can hurt you as much as occupancy. If your occupancy is down to 25% and your rate was 120 and now it’s 60, that’s a double whammy. So we’ve only seen about, like I said, about 18% system-wide erosion in our ADR. So we’re pricing it, not competitively, I mean, we’re pricing it to fit what the market will bear. Our average daily rate usually runs around 120 bucks system-wide and so now they’re running about 100 bucks.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well and that’s, I think, one of the differentiators of having a strong operator. I actually, after we had that conversation, I called a few hotels regionally just to see what they were doing, if I could rent a room for a month or a week for just business purposes. And it was the big chains that said no, and it was the smaller, probably smaller business owner operators that were willing to consider or work something out. And for a lot of our viewers across the country, it could be a good way, We have calls with our advisors probably every week and I talk to them and they say one of the big areas is the productivity being at home, now that the schools are closed, not being able to get focused on work or wife realizes that the honey do list is now of timing essence. So they’re trying to get out of the house and it’s a perfect idea.

                                           So I’d heartily recommend all of our advisors to get out there and call their a local limited service hotel provider and negotiate a good rate. Just because your office is closed, doesn’t mean you can’t find a place to work quietly. And I think it’s a brilliant idea, of course. So hats off to you guys.

Corey Maple:                   This is an active program. We’re going out and promoting it to all the local businesses and that’s part of that whole sales effort. It’s not being passive and just happen to have rooms available, it’s educating the public about their options.

Ryan Morfin:                    So as we go towards the day after coronavirus, which at some point we’ll start to see the exit sign, the exit ramp, if you will, how do you view and how does the industry view the repair of this demand destruction that’s gone on from an occupancy level? How do we step back in terms of expectations for national occupancy levels to repair itself? Right now, we’re 21% nationally, how does it step back up? What’s the step function look like over time?

Corey Maple:                   So CVRE and Smith Travel Research have put together some recovery curves, and we’re using that to model out the rest of the year and into next year. And they accelerate fairly rapidly, about a month after things start loosening up. So they model this against China and we’re not China, thank goodness, but that’s the only model that they can base anything off of. So the shortest recovery curve is about 10 months, we’re back to system-wide 64.8% occupancy. That’s what the hotel business was up through last year, excuse me. So the longest curve is about 20 months, so now you’re pushing a year and a half out before you get back. So the reality is probably somewhere in between there. I think it’s a factor of how quickly the economy gets rolling again.

                                           The hotel industry is a harbinger of how the economy is doing. That as it recovers, the hotel industry will go in lock step, as it goes down, same thing, but you’ll see it. And we can see the cascading effect in other industries, it’s just very noticeable in hospitality. So I know this is going to be a direct function of economic recovery. If we’re in an extended recession, it’s going to be the slower curve, the 20 month curve. If we can crank the machinery back up and get operating again, we’ll be closer to the eight month. And we’re prepared for all of those scenarios.

Ryan Morfin:                    And so right now, I mean, you have low leverage and I think that’s a blessing, some of your higher leverage competitors that were doing opportunistic plays or turnarounds, maybe shed some light on what is an operator’s view towards, okay, I need to mothball this and shut it down and just wait for the demand recovery, versus try to be opportunistic and try to grab some demand where it becomes available. At what point do you think some of these competitors have to mothball the properties and turn off the competition? Which would hopefully help folks like you guys get back on track a lot quicker.

Corey Maple:                   So generally you’ll see ownership groups that have a couple of properties in the market, will have already shut one down. So that’s standard practice. But the best way to lose your equity is to not have a relationship with your bank or have the bank start the foreclosure process. And we’re going to see a fair amount of that. And the thing is, there’s a lot of these folks who got into the hotel business in 2004 or five, six, seven, because everybody and their brother could make money in a hotel, it’s easy. And now you’re seeing the ramifications of having inexperienced operators or inexperienced owners running hotels, is they don’t understand and now they’re scared. And that’s what brings opportunity. There was tremendous opportunity for those who were brave enough to step into the waters in 2008, nine and 10, those were the biggest discounts. There’s going to be tremendous opportunities over the next year.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. I mean, they’re starting to say that there’s the opportunity to lose more than $500 million of room revenue per day. I mean, that’s a huge impact to the economy. And I mean, that’s, I think, where we’re at right now. So if you can think about it, you’re burning about $3.5 billion every week in this industry, so this is a huge impact to the country’s GDP. And so it’s really going to be important that two things happen. One, we balance the opening up of the economy with the economic repair that needs to go on. What’s your view on when’s the right time to open up the economy?

Corey Maple:                   Well, I think they should do it right now, but I’m also cold and heartless. Because you think, does the cure kill the patient? And if that happens, what’s the true impact? If we were to go into a depression, think about the trials and tribulations that our grandparents went through in the 30s and how long that lasted in the American psyche and how it had profound impacts, even today, on how we operate. Socialism got its foothold in the United States, under FDR, in the 30s and we’re seeing a resurgence of that even before this happened. And you look at all of the people who were harmed during the great depression, there’s a balance there, and you’d never want to see a human life taker. We as a species, we as humanity want to protect not only our families, but our grandparents, our children and people that we don’t even know. It’s critical that we do that. That’s the foundation of our society.

                                           But at the same time, you have to make a decision and I don’t know if there’ll be enough courage at either the national level or even at the state level, to try to get things rolling again, because of the political repercussions, if quite a few people die.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, no doubt. I think we’re all going to get this virus, I don’t think that’s debatable, it’s just, at what point do you get it and how do we manage the overflow of cases into the health systems? New York City seems to have achieved a measurable amount of cases and the health system has been able to retain the flow of patients, thank God. And that’s really a tribute to the people in New York staying home, the doctors, the nurses being brave enough to do that. I’m afraid that some of the other parts of the country don’t have the same health system that New York City does, it’s one of the best in the country. And it’s going to be interesting to see how other states that haven’t really had the caseload, when they finally do get it, how they interact.

                                           But I want to throw some statistics at you and for our viewers and we’ll put a slide up here on the presentation. It’s from the American Hotel Lodging Association. It talks about the job impacts, loss of job impacts from the last two crisis’s. And so 2001 in 9/11, we had about 400,000 jobs lost and the occupancy bottomed out at about 59% nationally and the recession of ’07 and ’09, we had 470,000 jobs lost and occupancy only went down to 54%. Right now, we’re at about 21%, as we mentioned, and we’ve had about 3.4 million people furloughed or laid off. That’s a lot of families. And they’re losing about $2.4 billion a week in earnings. And the longer that we don’t repair this demand and come up with a scalable testing option, I think it’s going to impact and leave a permanent scar on the economy.

                                           So there’s probably going to be a lot of your competitors that don’t make it in this space. Maybe they don’t have good relationships with the lenders, or they took a bridge loan, or they’ve got a mez lender who may get capital called. Opportunistically, looking ahead over the next 24 months, how will this dynamic really play out as an opportunity for investors, as it relates to future acquisitions or development, what do you think the competitive set, how much does it shrink and what is exciting from a new acquisition standpoint for you?

Corey Maple:                   Well, Smith Travel Research projects that there’ll be about 50% of rooms lost over the next year. They figure that that will come back, majority of those rooms will come back online. But what’s the big dynamic that’s going to change is there will be no new construction for two or three years. The only new rooms coming online are going to be the ones that are already in construction and they can’t stop. So from that standpoint, we’re going to have no new supply and demand will continue to ramp back up. If the economy gets back to growing at two, three, 4% a year, at some point after this, there’ll be a lag of a couple of years before that new supply comes back. So I think we’ll be in a really good position for, as this recovers, to have a number of years of good solid growth.

                                           The other thing is, I know we didn’t have inflation after the last recession, but with $2 trillion of new currency being printed, that has to have at some point an effect on the money supply. And if the money supply is diluted, we have to, you would think, see inflation. And that’s one of the nice things about renting your rooms every night, is you change your rate every day. So you can respond real quickly to any change in inflation and make your adjustments accordingly. So I think the combination of those things, this is a great industry to be in if you’re willing to stomach the risk side, the variability in an income, especially in times like this. But again, this industry is not alone. It’s every industry, other than maybe the grocery store industry is doing all right and Zoom.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yep, Zoom, Costco. Yeah, absolutely. There’s some essential providers of critical services that are going to do really well now. Have you thought about alternative use cases? What is the industry talking about? Maybe repurposing assets to maybe affordable housing or skilled nursing, looking for other use cases for rooms that may not have the demand over the next, if we say 20 months out, before we get to back to, call it January 2020 occupancy, national occupancy levels. What have you been thinking about, or what are other operators thinking about for this type of conversation?

Corey Maple:                   Well, we haven’t at all. We’ve had discussions with the national guard, if it would come to where they’d have to deploy national guard units in cities, where they turn the hotels into barracks, we’ve talked about using it as field hospitals, but as far as over the next 12 months, I’m sure that some will be repurposed, I’m sure some won’t make it, and there’ll be a contraction in supply and it changes the entire dynamic going forward. But if you can weather this next 10 months or acquire in these next 10 months, now you’re in a position to really reap the benefits once stabilization occurs.

Ryan Morfin:                    And as an industry, I don’t know if you have any view, how much cash does the typical hospitality company keep on hand and what runway do you think they have as an industry to cover the shortfalls, if you will, on the expense structure?

Corey Maple:                   Well, I think most banks are working with their borrowers. So there’s relief, I think, not across the board, certainly CMBS lenders haven’t changed their practices, but local banks and even large banks have been accommodating, but that can only last so long, the banks need the cashflow as well. They have their capital to service. So at some point there’s going to be a come to Jesus on all of this, and at that point, there’s going to be operators who don’t make it.

                                           Most operators do not have significant cash balances and especially hotels that are owned by small ownership groups, there’s going to be capital calls coming. And there’s a lot of those people who are going to be financially strapped, even fairly well heeled people and they will not answer those capital calls. They’ll get diluted out, those partners in those deals who have the money, are going to have to put up a significant amount of money in order to tide the way through and there’s a lot of people that are going to be looking for some out in this. And there’s not a lot of options available to them, frankly, unless there is another bailout and specifically at this industry.

Ryan Morfin:                    Seems like it may be the early stages of a blueprint for an interesting hospitality investment strategy into the next 12 to 24 months.

Corey Maple:                   Well, we’ll find out, we think so. Like I said, in the bleakest times is when the greatest opportunities exist.

Ryan Morfin:                    Agreed. Well, Corey, thank you so much for joining us and giving us some insights and sharing your story. We appreciate it and we wish you guys and your team the best.

Corey Maple:                   Well Ryan, you’re a superstar thank you and happy day everyone.

Ryan Morfin:                    Happy day. Thank you. Thanks for listening to Non-Beta Alpha and before we go, please remember to subscribe and leave us a review on our Apple podcast or a YouTube channel. This is Non-Beta Alpha and now, you know.

 

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Ryan Morfin: So you're an investor and a miner in rare earth minerals. Can you share with our listener base, what are rare earth minerals? Why are they important and why is there a geopolitical race going on globally?

Pini AlthausYeah, I mean, rare earths are an extremely ubiquitous part of all advanced manufacturing or technology manufacturing today's day and age. Several years ago, I had not heard too much about rare earths myself. I was not that familiar with it and being involved in this sector, in this company, for the past few years has given me an education of course. And I mean, I was sad to hear that 50% of all imports into the United States contain are earth elements and it runs the gamut from consumer electronic devices that we use every day. Our cell phones, our laptops, most communication devices, medical equipment. So there's a tie with COVID, which we can touch on at your discretion. Electric vehicles, defense equipment. So pretty much anything or everything high tech today has a rare earth element or critical minerals contained within them.

Ryan MorfinAnd what are some of the names of some of the more important rare earth? I know there's lithium for batteries, but what else is considered in this category, critical?

Pini Althaus: Yeah, so lithium is a separate category to battery material. The rare earths are 17 rare earths. The four, let's call it, key rare earths that we're focused on at our company, the four rare earths that go into the permanent magnets. And these are the magnets that are found, there are a number of them in your back of your cell phone or an iPad. But if you look at an F35 striker jet, you've got about a ton of rare earth magnets in those. And we've got two heavy rare earths and two light rare earths is part of the permanent magnets. You've got dysprosium, ytterbium are the heavies, and then you've got neodymium, praseodymium as the two light rare earths. So those would be key rare earths that are the focus.

Ryan MorfinAnd you use these in, I guess, in military applications as well, but historically, where has the United States sourced the rare earth for supply chain?

Pini AlthausYeah. And that's the shocking part. We've been securing those materials from China. So China controls the rare earth sector and has done so for the past 30 years or so. And it was a significant misstep on the part of the United States, allowing China to have this control. And actually this wasn't a question of China coming in and doing anything nefarious as far as stealing IP or anything. The US government made a conscious decision about 30 years ago to allow China to come to the United States and acquire the processing capabilities for rare earths. So just as part of some background, you've got the rare earth materials containing various mining projects, but once you extract them, you have to then process them and they go through certain phases before they get to the magnet phase. And China, the thought process was let China do the mining, let China do the processing.

Pini AlthausWe don't need to do that here. And we'll buy the materials from China cheaply and the premier of China at the time, Deng Xiaoping made the comment, he said, "The Middle East has oil. China has rare earths." And unfortunately we weren't smart enough to understand what he was saying. And the Chinese understood that the future of manufacturing is going to revolve around control of the rare earth and critical mineral supply chain. So if you think about it today, Ryan, we cannot build... Forget about consumer electronics and medical equipment. We cannot build the equipment that the US Pentagon or the US armed forces require, whether it's F35 fighter jet, Tomahawk cruise missile, communications equipment, without going to China and obtaining those materials. And it's obvious to all that this should be extremely alarming. We've seen China use this as a weapon, if you will, as far as how it interacts with other countries back in 2010, when there was a dispute between China and Japan on the East China Sea.

Pini AlthausSo China cut off rare earth exports from Japan for 40 days. Japan obviously being a significant user of rare earth elements for their high-tech manufacturing sector, that was stopped after 40 days. But in fact, it was President Obama that first made the United States aware of this, formed a division within the Department of Defense to handle this issue, but not much has happened. And we continue to be relying on China for these materials. And what has been made about trade war with China and whether the trade war is really the impetus for China withholding rare earth exports. And that is a huge misnomer. Whilst China had been talking or implying that they would cut off rare earth exports, the truth of the matter is that China, under it's made in China, 2025 mandate, its belt and road initiatives and others. And you seem to control the critical minerals and rare earth supply chain so that it can continue its dominance as a manufacturer or a global supplier of these materials and finished products.

Pini Althaus: It's the backbone of its economy. And in fact, China has become a net importer of rare earths from different countries like Miramar and others. So with that, they are decreasing the exports to countries like the United States, Japan and others.

Ryan Morfin: And was it ever a risk that the Chinese were going to turn off the exports of rare earth to the US during the trade war? How close were we to that? And was that ever some saber rattling that went down during trade negotiations?

Pini AlthausYeah, I think it was saber rattling. I think it would be paramount to an act of war. I can't say with any authority that that would not happen, but it would be probably, aside from war itself, it would be one of the most significant acts of war cutting the United States off from the ability to procure rare earths. But that being said, I mean, if you look at, as an analogy, the oil and gas sector and the reliance of the United States had for many, many years on OPEC countries to supply us with the oil. And we had embargoes and we had price manipulation by OPEC. This is far more significant given the ubiquity of where these rare earths go. And yes, we're always under the threat that China can cut off exports under the guise of a trade war or for any other nefarious reasons.

Pini AlthausBut I think even more importantly, to just as the natural run of the course of things with regards to their business and their desire to maintain themselves as the global leader in manufacturing and exporting of goods, China is in a position now where it actually requires these materials for their own domestic consumption and can legitimately cut off rare earth exports by stating that they need it for manufacturing and that would actually be somewhat correct. So we're in an extremely dangerous position here with this reliance on China. And it wouldn't just be China. If it was another country, it would be similar issues, not to the same extent, but reliance on one country for these materials is dangerous.

Ryan Morfin: And it's been mentioned in the past that in 2010, China flooded the market to really kill all the competitors in the rare earth mining industry. Where was the World Trade Organization during this period? And how did that play out and how does that set the chess board for China to run the tables?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. So the WTO stepped in when China cut off rare earth exports from Japan, I think it lasted for about 40 days because the US and Japan protested the WTO, and they stepped in and China resumed exports. While I'm not an expert on these trade matters, one thing that I am aware of is that one of the reasons why China had to resume the export of rare earths was it did not legitimately need all the rare earths for domestic consumption. So therefore it was a nefarious act, if you will, to cut off rare earth exports. Now that has changed, which means China have to cut off rare earth exports today, they have a legitimate case to say that they require these materials. There's a shortage of these materials and they require them for their own domestic purposes. It is the backbone of their economy and there's very little we could do about this today, which is why it's becoming an even more urgent issue.

Ryan Morfin:

And the US government started stockpiling some of these after that incident. Can you talk a little bit about what DOD and DOE has done to start making sure that there's not a critical supply shortage going forward, and is it enough?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, again, there is a national defense stock pile, and there are materials still that the United States needs to procure in order to shore up its stockpile. There are magnets, the finished magnet products as well, the United States government needs to stockpile. Again, there's a limited amount that the United States government has. It requires approval from Congress, whether it's in the NDAA or other approvals from Congress, to allocate monies for the national defense stock pile of these materials. That being said, there's no endless supply of these materials. And unfortunately, the apparatus, the way it's set up right now with the US government, it's going to continue to require having a secure supply chain of those materials for many, many years to come. So it's not a question of stockpiling for 10 or 20 years, and then this complacency and saying, we'll kick the can down the road. But keep in mind as well, Ryan, that US government accounts for low single digits of overall rare earth imports into the United States.

Pini Althaus:

We're talking about defense contractors, we're talking about the manufacturing sector. The direct impact this has on the economy, jobs, the automotive sector, and others is significant. So it's not just limited to the United States government. If you look at over the past couple of weeks, the sanctions that China have put on Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed, et cetera. I mean, the question is where are they going to get those materials? And if we go beyond that, you need rare earths for the 5G network. Now that Huawei has been banned from installing the network, not only in the US but other countries, we have to have the ability to get a secure supply of these materials as well. Which currently, again, trying to control the hundred percent. So it runs across the board, both for government, defense and manufacturing in this country.

Ryan Morfin:

Well, and so help me paint a picture for our audience. Does China have all the mines for rare earth, or they're the only ones who started mining it? Or are their mines globally dispersed and nobody's been doing the actual infrastructure to do the mining?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. So finding rare earth projects or rare earth elements is not the difficult part. It's finding them in significant quantities that makes a project economically viable. And part of that consideration are the environmental rigors that companies in the West have to adhere to. And China, even by their own admission, have had a complete disregard for mining these materials and even for processing these materials. And in fact, just the last week or so, the BBC did an expose on this, 60 Minutes has done an expose on this. But the Chinese have not denied this and have talked about cleaning up their act, but it has an effect on the bottom line for what the costs of mining and processing are if you have no environmental standards to adhere to. So China have exploited those rare earth projects they have, primarily in inner Mongolia, and have brought a number of projects online and quite quickly, and in a significant way, with a complete disregard for the environment.

Pini Althaus:

So it was seen as an environmental no-no in the West for many years. Now, what's happened over the past few years is you're starting to see rare earth projects in different parts of the world sprout up. You've got the Mountain World project in Australia owned by Linus, which is a producer of Nd and Pr, neodymium and praseodymium. So two of the light rare earths. They may have some heavy rare earths coming online at some point in time. And you've got Arafura, which is another company in Australia that we're working with to assist them with their processing so they don't have to send the materials to China for processing. But really these are a drop in the bucket for what the requirements are for the United States. And certainly what the requirements are for allied countries, the EU, et cetera. So there is a race, if you will, worldwide to start bringing projects online. The Chinese are very active in trying to secure assets outside of China.

Pini Althaus:

So in Africa. They have ownership of a project in Greenland. So there is somewhat of a race. The Australian government has stepped in and has started limiting the ability for China to own, or have ownership in, or off takes for the Australian rare earth projects. And that's part of the strategic Alliance between Australia and the US. Canada, similar thing as well. There are a number of projects that are looking to come alive, but these projects are, for the most part, will take many, many years to come online. We have to expedite the process. We have to assist with a [inaudible 00:14:41] supply chain and the domestic rare earth sector, because previously investors have been scared off by things like China flooding the market, which is not a possibility at this point in time, given that China can't actually afford to flood the market. They are already very heavily subsidizing their mine to magnet supply chain there.

Pini Althaus:

This is more now a case of being able to get production from non-Chinese sources so that the United States and allies have a viable, secure supply chain of these materials. And it's a concern worldwide. We speak to governments all over the world, and we're all facing the same issue. Some more than others, especially countries like Japan, that don't have their own rare earth projects there and are reliant on Australia where they've made some investments there. And in the United States, they've made an investment recently in Africa. So there is this race, if you will. And I think we've got a five-year window here to at least stand up a few projects worldwide. Otherwise we've lost this race and we will be dependent on China for many, many years to come. And Ryan, it's a bit of a hypocrisy. If you look at it where you've got materials going through clean, green energy applications, like electric vehicles, wind turbines, et cetera.

Pini Althaus:

That we're sourcing these materials from China, where they've, again by their own admission, has been complete environmental devastation to water bodies around these mines and processing facilities, to the communities. People have been getting sick around these projects yet we're putting these materials into our electric vehicles or wind turbines. It makes no sense at all. And people are starting to wake up to this. And that's why the sector is starting to see a lot of support come out of Congress and bi-partisan support. And in fact, it's one of the only bi-partisan issues right now in Washington. And it's good to see that some things decided to move in the right direction.

Ryan Morfin:

And is there a special process? You talk about the expense, is it really difficult to mine these? You have to go through a special chemical process to extract and clean and purify. Is it a lot harder than, say, gold or silver or some of the other, we'll call, more traditional elements?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. It's all about the processing to some extent. So if you look at MP Materials in California, which used to be Molycorp before they went through their bankruptcy. They are a miner of Cerium and Lanthanum, which are two of the light rare earths, the lower valued light rare earths. Given that they do not currently have processing technology, they are sending those materials to China for processing where China is tariffing those heavily. Linus is also, they're doing their processing work in Malaysia and elsewhere. So it's really about the processing at this stage. One of the things that we've done, after we put out our PDA last year with our upgraded resource, which now includes a significant amount of lithium. We make a decision that, based on the test work that we had done around our processing methodology, that we were not going to send our materials to China. That it's paramount for us to do this work in the United States and in a collaborative effort as well.

Pini Althaus:

We've been asked by some of our investors, "Well, why would you be looking to help other projects with their processing?" And the answer is simple. There's no one project or one company that's going to put China out of business or make a dent, or somehow be able to take care of the overall demand worldwide for rare earths and critical minerals. And it's very important for us to have processing capability in the West. So that was the impetus for us opening up our own rare earth and critical minerals processing facility earlier this year, which we did in Wheatridge, Colorado. And in fact, we've made some significant progress on the method that we're using for this. And we're starting to collaborate with Australian companies, Canadian companies. We're currently talking to a group over in Europe as well, because this has to be a collaborative effort.

Ryan Morfin:

How does Europe solve for these problems? Do they have this better under control than the US?

Pini Althaus:

No, they're in a far worse position than we are. The EU commission recently put out a report, I think, a couple of months ago that the requirement for rare earths is going to increase tenfold within a short period of time. Lithium 18 times. They don't really have rare earth projects. Again, there are the Greenland projects, which people have heard in the news recently. Those need to further development work so they don't have rare earth projects ready to come online there. There are a couple of lithium projects that are spread around Europe, but for the most part, Europe is in an even more precarious position. If you look at Germany with the auto manufacturers, you look at the big companies like ThyssenKrupp and others, all these countries and companies are looking for alternatives to China, because we've already seen in the news about China withholding or reducing exports of some of these rare earths that are required for these industries.

Ryan Morfin:

And you mentioned earlier the regulatory posture of the US makes it difficult to mine. Is it becoming a more bi-partisan issue that we need to maybe relax some regulation around the mining exercise, to incentivize private sector to come in and start producing this? Or is the Republican party versus the Democratic party on two separate pages of music?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. Good question, Ryan. I mean traditionally the Republican party is obviously being more pro-mining and in favor of less regulation when it comes to these things. With regards to our project, we're on Texas state land. So we don't trigger federal environmental permitting at this point in time. And obviously Texas being Texas, a mining state and oil and gas state, things are a lot easier in Texas than they are on projects on federal land where the Bureau of Land Management controls the environmental process around that. But the thing is here, and I don't want to step into what other companies are doing, et cetera, but we do need to be reasonable about allowing projects to come online if they're adhering to environmental standards that are acceptable worldwide. And what we do know, is that China is destroying the environment and cities and water bodies around their mines and processing facilities.

Pini Althaus:

We have standards here in the United States, and I think what we need to do is make it easier for companies to mine, while at the same time protecting the environment. And there are ways to do that. And we're definitely seeing buy-in from Congress, from both sides, with regards to looking how we can stand up a secure supply chain. And, obviously under the Obama administration, they had very strict regulations when it comes to mining. And that's changed under the Trump administration. Hopefully what we start to see is some normal middle ground that'll allow other projects to come online.

Ryan Morfin:

And typically in these rare earth mines, is it amalgamation of different minerals that are all consolidated together and you have to separate them out? Or do you ever find pure play, Europium, I can't even pronounce some of these. Gadolinium, Cerium. I mean, are they all mixed together and you've got to filter and sift them through, or are they pure play mines?

Pini Althaus:

No, they're generally they have a mix. So they're polymetallic projects. They have a number of different materials. Some projects, you more to what we call the light rare earths like MP in California or Linus in Australia. Our project is actually on the opposite end of the spectrum. We have a very high concentration of heavy rare earths. That being said, we do have to go through a process of separating these materials. But the case of our project where we've got 30 materials. We're not going to produce 30 materials. We're not going to market 30 materials. So what we're doing is we're focusing on the key materials that are marketable, that we need for permanent magnets, lithium as well, and working on the separation and the optimization of those materials in particular. But we're all faced with the same processing challenges and that is something that can't be set.

Pini Althaus:

There's no easy way to do this. There are different technologies that have been used in different parts of the world. So predominantly there's a process called solvent extraction, but it's big, it's bulky, it's not benign. It's a bespoke solution for one particular project. So it doesn't work for feedstock from other projects. What we've done is we're using a processing technology that's actually been around since the 1940s. It was part of the Manhattan Project. It's called continuous ion exchange. In fact, the Chinese use it to increase the purities from 99.99 to four nines, five nines, and even six nines. So for some applications you require higher purity levels. It's a far easier processing method to scale up and to take feedstock from other projects. In fact, we've demonstrated for the Department of Energy that we can take coal waste from Pennsylvania and do high purity separation of rare earths using our processing methods. So it's not a step that can be skipped unless one needs to send it to China for processing, which is not going to help us with our objectives here.

Ryan Morfin:

How many other, we'll call it, going concerns on any other businesses that are doing this, that are trying to, I guess, start the development of these mines. Are you guys one of a few or are you one of many? And is it an international or just a US game? Who's leading the charge at going after this?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, well, I'd say the Australians are leading it outside of China right now. You've got some really good projects in Australia. Again, more skewed toward the light rare earths. There's one more heavy rare earth project in Australia, which is not yet producing. The United States, you've got MP Materials, you've got Ucore in Alaska, you've got the Bear Lodge project in Wyoming, which is also another light rare earth project. So as far as a heavy rare earth project that looks like it will come online in the near term, that would be our project. In Canada there are a couple of projects there as well, and again, more skewed toward the light rare earths. But we really need to get as many of these projects online as possible. Because again, I don't see it as competition. We all have a problem doing supply agreements or offtake agreements for our materials.

Pini Althaus:

In fact, one of the things that we're going to have to consider is looking at potentially scaling up our production, based on the demand that we're already starting to see. And I think other companies would find that as well. So it's all about the economics of the project. You have projects that were economically viable back in 2012 or rare earth prices with 35% or so higher than they are today, and are not necessarily viable today. So that's the challenge as well, economically viable projects. And we've got to get as many of them online as possible. It takes many, many years. I mean, our project has had over $70 million put into it to get to where we are today, and we're close to getting to the production scenario. It all revolves around processing at this point in time.

Pini Althaus:

We'd be very happy to see another couple of projects come online, because this is extremely important for national security and for the economy as well. I mean, if you think about it, Ryan, if you've got a billion dollars of rare earth materials, that translates into a trillion dollars or I should say trillions of dollars of finished product. So you've got a magnet in your phone there that's worth a couple of dollars and the cell phone's a thousand dollars. And electric vehicles and defense applications even more.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah, everyone has one of these iPhones now, and there's tremendous amounts of rare earth on the circuit boards here. And I think people take it for granted that that supply chain is not secure right now. So one question for you, there's talk of this maybe medium term to longterm, but there's talk about mining in space. Do you think that's a feasible option in the longterm, medium term? What are your thoughts on that?

Pini Althaus:

No, that's just ridiculous. I mean, we're trying to find ways to make mining on earth economically viable. I think the cost of going up to space would be more than what our capex will be bringing our entire project into production. I mean, we've got about a 350 to $400 million capex to bring 130 year mine life into production. I'm not an aerospace expert, but I think sending a rocket, building a rocket ship and sending it up, I think maybe on the fuel alone, you could bring a couple of projects into production. So unless we have a fortunate situation or an asteroid lands on earth, and fortunate if it lands somewhere where we don't care, I don't see how that happens. And if it's big enough, it's a problem as well. It's nonsense. And even, options aside of the deep sea mining for rare earths, I mean, you've got all sorts of environmental issues around that as well. I think we need to look at projects that we can bring online, that can be done so in an economic way, that can be done so in an environmentally responsible way.

Pini Althaus:

I mean, one of the things that we've done at our project is we've got in excess of 60% of the materials that have come out around top, will have a clean green energy applicability to them. So we're using the benign processing method. We're going to be using renewable energy on site. In fact, we will likely be putting a solar farm on site as well. We've talked to a couple of companies that have approached us about that, and we'll be a net producer of power for the surrounding area. So there are ways to do it which don't affect the environment. Obviously if there's a project that's situated on a sensitive area, that's a unique situation for that specific project. We've seen it with the Pebble project, which is not a rare earth project. The Pebble project in Alaska where their environmental concerns is we've been recognized by both Republicans and Democrats, but we have to be reasonable about the projects that don't have environmental concerns.

Ryan Morfin:

So Pini, in season two, we ask all of our guests a series of six questions. They're usually, yes, no questions, but trying to take a survey of our conversations. And if you want to add a little context to the yes or no, feel free, but here goes the first question. If there was a COVID vaccine available today, would you take it?

Pini Althaus:

Yes.

Ryan Morfin:

Who do you think is going to win the election?

Pini Althaus:

Which election?

Ryan Morfin:

The US election.

Pini Althaus:

Well, I think it looks like Joe Biden's going to win it, but I think what happens, if we go past January six from my understanding is that the house will vote on it and it's one vote per state. But I don't know if I see it getting there at this point in time. I really don't have a crystal ball.

Ryan Morfin:

Third question. What type of economic recovery are we in? What type of shape is it taking? A V-shape, W, U, L?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, I think 2021 is going to be challenging. I think we've been, and rightly so. I mean, we've had no choice as of almost every other country. We've been printing money for the past year because of COVID. And I think we've got to brace ourselves that, at some point in time, the chickens come home to roost. It was a necessary step. People needed it on an individual level. Businesses needed it as well, but I think we've got to do whatever we can to stimulate the economy, give people confidence to go out and work again, employ people. So I think we've got to watch ourselves, especially in 2021. And I have some concerns, but long-term, I think the approach in the United States is a healthy one.

Ryan Morfin:

During lockdown this summer and quarantine, was there anything in particular that you accomplished that you're particularly proud of?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah. A great amount of family time, which, if you would've asked me a few years ago if I could sit at home and be at home for six months, I would have told you absolutely not. I wouldn't be able to do it for six days, but it has... I'm sure it's done this with a lot of families as well. It's brought families together. We had a baby actually last year on Thanksgiving. So I was doing a lot of travel at the time and thought I wouldn't get to see my daughter in her first year or couple of years too often. And being home with her every day is actually been just the most amazing experience. So thankful at least for some silver lining in COVID.

Ryan Morfin:

Are there any silver linings that you see in the economy going into 2021?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, I think we've gone through an absolute beating and it looks like we've got the ability to come out of it. And I think that's a testament to how strong the economy was built up in the years preceding COVID. So overall I remain an optimist. I mean, we are a country built on opportunity and going out and making it happen. And we're not a socialist country sitting and waiting for people to send us paychecks or wealth distribution or anything like that. I think the American dream still lives on. I think if you go out and you're willing to work and put your head to it and heart in it, I think we do have the ability to climb out of it. So if we look at what the economy is doing over the past few weeks, it looks like it's starting to rebound. And to me, that's assuring because it could go completely one way as well.

Ryan Morfin:

And the last question is, is there anything that you're watching, or listening to, or reading today that has been impactful on your thinking that you'd like to share with our audience?

Pini Althaus:

Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's been more personal stories. The news, I sort of take that in context or with more than a grain of salt. In some cases stay off the news channels for a number of days at a time, it became quite repetitive. But I think on the personal side, talking to friends, my family's all back home in Australia, they've just come out of 110 day lockdown, which we can't relate to that. It's been very trying on them and seeing the fortitude that they've had to come out of that and stay intact. I think the mental health issues that will come out of COVID are going to have a far longer effect than the economic issues. I think we're going to have to focus on mental health issues in this country for a long time to come.

Pini Althaus:

The impact on kids has been significant with regards to lockdown or remote schooling, et cetera. But to see people come through it. I think it's a testament to people in general and to the country and other countries as well, to see got that fortitude and survival instinct to try to get through whatever adversity we can. So hearing the personal stories, the challenges that people have gone through, I think it's made me a lot more aware of things that I have to be thankful for and where we can help out other people as well. I think we have to be united going forward because there are things...

Pini Althaus:

I think one of the things that COVID has shown us is we can get into this complacency and life goes on and we go one day to the next. And all of a sudden we get hit by something that affects everybody equally. I mean, COVID, whilst there were groups of people, whether it was the elderly or people with underlying health conditions, that got hit the worst. I mean, we all got hit in some form or another. So really, this should be something that unites us, not divides us.

Ryan Morfin:

Well, Pini, I appreciate you coming on today to talk to us a little bit about the supply chain crimp on rare earth and we'll definitely keep an eye on it and would love to have you back in the future.

Pini Althaus:

Thank you, Ryan. Thanks for having me.

Ryan Morfin:

Absolutely. Thank you. Bye-bye. Thanks for watching Non-Beta Alpha. And before we go, please remember to like, and subscribe on Apple podcasts and our YouTube channel. This is Non-Beta Alpha, and now you know.

 

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