Non-Beta Alpha Clearing Week: David Canter, EVP, Head of the RIA Segment, Fidelity

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Ryan Morfin:

Welcome to NON-BETA ALPHA, I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s episode, we have David Canter from Fidelity investments, talking to us about the future of the RA landscape. This is NON-BETA ALPHA. David, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us today.

David Canter:

Well, it’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you for the kind introduction I figured I’d start with just, I don’t know, a little bit of music. How about a G chord for I’m glad to be here?

Ryan Morfin:

Let’s do it. You ask everyone on your show, a Coffee Break With Canter, what do they drink and what are they taking their coffee? So the question is thrown back at you. What are you taking your coffee?

David Canter:

So I drink a lot of coffee to start my day and I take it black. So probably two big mugs of coffee and people have heckled me for how big my coffee is. So, right now I just have an empty a mason jar. So thank you very much for asking.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah, I put coffee in my coffee. I also take a black. Well, you’ve been doing a great show online. I’ve been watching it frequently. Just really talking about all the changes that are coming at different angles in the industry. And Fidelity, obviously a strong leader in this channel, you run the kind of RA, institutional business. Can you maybe talk a little bit about some of the changes that are occurring in the technology, regulatory and maybe the talent wars that are coming over the horizon?

David Canter:

Yeah, I’d be happy to. And one thing I would say is that I have been just so impressed with how the RAA movement has continued and has, I would actually say gathered steam over the last few months. So there’s still a secular movement toward the independent model. There’s a secular movement, not just with advisors, but with clients.

David Canter:

And as I like to say, I’ve been saying this for a while, there’s a bull market for advice. And I do not see that slowing down at all, Ryan. And in terms of technology, there’s more choice than ever, but while there’s more choice than ever, you need wise counsel to help you navigate this ecosystem. So whether that’s technology around risk management, whether it’s technology around model portfolios, whether it’s just your technology with respect to who will your be providers. I think that that’s where firms like yours, quite frankly, and firms like ours can help be great consultants as people are trying to navigate this space.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. And I think the FinTech space is definitely evolving and it’s obviously, it’s growing across the financial sector. But the IBD channel, the independent channel, the RA channel, they’re really starting to, as they continue to grow, attract higher quality institutional tech players. What is Fidelity doing in terms of your tech stack going forward? I know you guys have historically spent a lot of money on tech. Where are the areas that you guys are most focused on investing back into the tech stack

David Canter:

We’re always investing in our core platform. And so that always needs care and feeding and maintenance. But I’d say there are three areas where we’ve been very focused and will continue to focus. One is, we know that advisory firms have their own solutions and they work with third parties. So we have something called our integrations exchange and that’s making sure that we have best in class integrations with all the technology that advisory firms and other wealth management firms need to integrate with.

David Canter:

Second, we’ve been working on a platform for managed accounts and that’s something that has required a lot of dedication, time and attention. So that’s another important area for us. And then third, we have been active with our model portfolios, our FI portfolios for those advisory firms that are looking to either outsource or are looking for assistance with their investment platform or their investment solutions.

David Canter:

So, what I would say in all of this, whether it’s technology, whether it’s investments, advisors really want to spend time with clients. And they’re looking for providers that can help them with the easy button around technology with investments. And Ryan, you had also ask me about talent, which is so key. There is clearly a war for talent out there, whether it’s trying to attract the best advisors, whether it’s trying to attract folks that are emerging advisers or paraplanners, or whether it’s trying to attract a more diverse and qualified set of advisors out there. And that’s something that we’ve all been focused on, many of us for a while, but there’s clearly a heightened focus on adding more diversity to this group of investment advisors in the orbit.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. One area that comes up a lot in the advisor conversations is just succession planning. What have you seen some of the top advisors that you talk to? How are they handling that and what investments are they making today so that they have options in the future?

David Canter:

Well, that’s a great question, but also a very complicated question. Maybe I’ll start with what hadn’t worked. So if you go back boy, five, 10 years ago, when succession planning was just starting to be in vogue, most advisors did a lot of talk, but there wasn’t a lot of action. And what I’ve seen at least in the last five years is sort of divesting succession planning from let’s call it ownership planning around the firm.

David Canter:

So there’s sort of two issues: who’s going to run the firm? And then who are the owners going to be? And with many big firms that have been growing, it’s hard to groom successors that have the same skill sets, but also will have the capital to provide liquidity, to provide an ownership transition for the founders. So what I’ve seen is probably three things: one, firms, rather than trying to hire talent that are going to be experienced talent, trying to groom their own.

David Canter:

So hiring and grooming them all pursuant to their own sets of standards, their own sort of master apprentice model. Second is you can’t deny the fact that along with that, there’s been quite an uptick in transactions in the space. So, some of it is pure M&A and there are models out there, whether it’s the Wealth Enhancement Groups, the High Towers, the Mercers, the list goes on the merchants of the world. But there’s so much choice now in terms of how you can capitalize your business for a next generation. Then the third thing that I think is worth noting is also that you can sell and move on. So if you have a small business, there are plenty of firms out there that will give you a plug and play solution. And you can sell and then exit the business, but you have a home of folks to look after your clients.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah, no, definitely a lot more capital is coming and it’s continuing to gather steam, as you said earlier. I think the annuity like streams, the migration of high quality product and advice moving from institutional partners down to the retail capital markets has accelerated over the last few years. What are some of your, I guess, concerns for the industry? Where are some maybe areas that the industry needs to tackle? Some tough challenges that may be on the horizon?

David Canter:

Well, it’s interesting because I was very concerned that all the change that we saw in March and what would the future look like? So if you had asked me in April, for example, would we be at an S&P of 31, 3200? I probably would have been surprised. And I would have thought that all the expectations that folks have going into the year might be put on pause and that we’d be seeing a dramatic kind of retrenchment in the advisory space. So I guess we haven’t seen that, which is the positive, but I think that bodes that we should all pay attention to the following.

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:10:04]

David Canter:

… all pay attention to the following. Pay attention to what your succession plan looks like now. Don’t delay. Do some very good stress testing around your revenues and profitability. Pay attention to how are you going to grow your business in an environment that may not be as in-person for the foreseeable future as it has been in the past. So, I think it’s making us all pivot and think about and put enormous attention around business development in a virtual and digital way, moreso than we probably ever had in the past.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. No, I think the advisors who are focused on finding new ways to gather assets and execute on lead gen in this digital marketing environment are going to be the ones who stand out and grab market share. And I talk to advisors all the time. A lot of them are saying, hey, I’m going to have my best year ever. So many people are beating down my door. And I think some advisors are still scratching their head, trying to figure out how they do their next investment seminar. And I’m like, we’re going to have to change the formula here.

Ryan Morfin:

How is Fidelity looking at the wirehouse? You guys are huge recruiters out of the wirehouses and helping them find their freedom and independence. How has that been going over the last few months? And how have you guys changed or shifted your kind of business development strategies, given the environment that we’re in?

David Canter:

Yeah. So, we’ve been very fortunate in that we came into this period with a very robust pipeline of folks who wanted to explore independence or actually had been planning for independence. And so, we’ve been very busy. We generally are not on site, but we’ve been working on and have executed virtual implementation. So, we’ll use Zoom. We’ll use electronic means to open up accounts and prepare for account opening through DocuSign and other means. So, I think the team has done a wonderful job. We spent time auditing and preparing lists of what’s different with a virtual onboarding versus the old fashioned way where we would help out in person in an advisor’s office.

David Canter:

And, from a new business perspective, I guess the trend that we’ve seen, as we look out is, it’s probably a great time to consider, if you want to go independent, who are some folks you can partner with? So, probably you’re going to see more partnering with either existing platforms or outsourcing providers, or again, systems that can make an advisor’s life easier, but they don’t have to necessarily build it all themselves from scratch. And that’s been around for a long time. So, whether it’s not wanting to look after benefits programs, look after compliance, there are all these solutions that advisors can take advantage of.

David Canter:

One thing that’ll be interesting to see is what the new breakaways do in terms of new office space. So, that’s going to be something that we’re all going to have to watch and see how that evolves.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman just came out and said he doesn’t know if that real estate footprint is going to be the future. And I think he was talking about the wealth management aspects of it. The reps you guys are talking to that are leaving the wirehouses, they’re all, I think, having to evolve how they work in the future. Do you think that the wirehouses are going to reduce their real estate footprints going forward now that the genie is out of the bottle?

David Canter:

I actually just… I don’t know the answer to that. I sort of have two schools of thoughts there. One is, we all can be very efficient working from home, or working remotely, whatever your situation is. But, on the flip side, humans have short memories. So, once this pandemic period is over, one school of thought is we just rush back into our old habits. As I like to say, the pandemic of 1918 gave way to the roaring ’20s.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. And there’s some fascinating corollaries that exist. Fighting about masks in 1918, and then again in 2020. It’s funny how much things change but they stay the same. Going back to the wirehouses, just a question on how you look at the landscape going forward. We were kind of perplexed, but we thought it was an interesting time for Goldman buying United Capital and Morgan Stanley buying E*trade. How do you look at that? I mean, is it just a fundamental admission that the independent RA model has won and now the wirehouses have to try to figure out a strategy to play? Are they trying to become custodians themselves? I mean, how do you look at the wirehouses moves they’ve made in the last 12 months? Because I think those are some sizable transactions that have shifted perspectives in the industry.

David Canter:

I’d start with… you’ve touched on some areas of what I call industrial logic. So, I think I have maybe three or four points there that I’d make. I think point one, from an industrial logic standpoint, there’s probably too much capacity in some areas of the wealth management ecosystem. So, we’ll probably see the mergers that will address capacity. And I think that you brought up some good examples and there are others.

David Canter:

I think industrial logic point two is, you’ll see more and more linkage between folks that have access to retirement plan participants and helping them figure out what is going to be their wealth management solution as they roll out of those plans. I think an example of that is the Edelman Financial Engines platform and the merger work that they’ve done over the years.

David Canter:

I think industrial logic number three is, you’re absolutely right. Some of these big platforms have seen the attractiveness of independent wealth management. So, if there are ways to partner with wealth management firms and pursue a segmented approach to the marketplace, I think that that is something that we should all continue to look for.

David Canter:

And then, I think industrial logic number four is, and you’re starting to see this play out if you look at some of the mergers, firms that have traditionally been asset management oriented are now buying wealth managers. So, a firm called CI Financial based out of Canada has made some investments in wealth management firms here in the U.S. And they’re starting to make a splash. You could also look at Eaton Vance, for example, has been active in the wealth space. So, those are the four areas of what I would call industrial logic that I don’t know if they are trends, but they certainly could be coming out and out trends.

David Canter:

The fifth, and I’ve been saying this for a while, is the TAMP space. And there’s been a lot of activity in the TAMP space over the past three or four years. Buckingham Asset Management/BAM Advisor Services did a deal with the old Loring Ward. AssetMark went public. Orion and Brinker have now merged under the auspices of two partner private equity firms. So, I think everybody’s roads are all the same. How can you kind of fit together investors who need advice with wealth managers? How can you make it automated? And, as I’ve said before, the TAMP space seems to be quite interesting.

Ryan Morfin:

And what we’re seeing, I think, across the board, as platforms achieve scale, pricing is also taking a hit, and meaning it’s coming down. What are your thoughts on some of the pricing models that have been announced? I mean, it may have led to Schwab buying TD, this race to zero. How do you guys think about the pricing model and the custody landscape? And how does that impact advisors in the longterm?

David Canter:

Well, I think the great thing about pricing models in the custody space is we’ve taken a lot of cost out to the consumer. And, as you know, the pricing models in the advisor custody space have all been predicated on the fact that they are based on the investments that an advisor makes on behalf of the investor in a brokerage account. And last year, for the most part, commissions were taken out of the system for ETFs, options, and equity.

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:20:04]

David Canter:

… ETFs options and equities. And another change has been what’s happening with zero interest rate policy with the Fed. But advisors have had the advantage of not having to pay directly for these services it’s based on as a third party payer model. So for the most part, I don’t see a lot of change, but at Fidelity we relationship price our business with each advisor, because we want them to have the ability to determine how they want to avail themselves of our services. And so I see relationship pricing to be something in the future to think about the products and services that an advisor is looking to consume on behalf of their clients, and making sure that it is a relationship that works for all parties.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. No. That’s where I think the consumers are the ones that have been benefiting from the efficiencies. And a lot of it’s been tech-driven, it feels like, from our side of the business. Going to another question that you mentioned about compliance being a roadblock for people going independents, and there’s a lot of compliance services that are out there, but how has your view changed with REG BI, and what are your thoughts on how that’s being implemented, and what does the future of the regulatory environment look like for you?

David Canter:

Well, I think most advisors, if not all advisors, got into the business because they wanted to serve clients and they enjoyed serving clients, not because they were necessarily experts in compliance. So the ability and the availability of a compliance expert certainly makes all of this possible, and we know some good ones between the two of us. We’ve talked about them before we started taping this call. I will say that REG BI complements and in some ways is additive to the existing 40 Act requirements that advisors have to abide by. And my view is, the more that you can have compliance services help advisors demystify what their obligations are so they can help serve clients, the better.

David Canter:

I think we’re in a world, though, Ryan, where, let’s face it, there’s probably going to be more compliance obligations and responsibilities in the future than less. So it’s going to be an area where, as an advisory firm, scale matters, because I think the requirements and likely the costs are going to go up. So that’s why I do see a world where, as I was saying earlier, platforms, firms that can provide scale to around these requirements are going to be more successful going forward.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. That synthetic scale that’s now achievable is really a game changer for folks who want to go independent today. Couldn’t agree with you more. And I do think we’re about to enter a new phase of regulatory perspective. It would be interesting to see how FINRA and the SEC play in the next, call it, five to 10 years.

Ryan Morfin:

But one question I had for you is, you mentioned low interest rates a moment ago, and there’s still some advisors who I talk to are still thinking 60-40 is an asset allocation model that they can talk about. What are your thoughts about the fixed income markets and producing such low returns for investors today? Where are you seeing some of the better asset allocation models out there? Or what are some of your thoughts about the fixed income equivalents that might be out there in terms of income?

David Canter:

Yeah. The investing side of the equation is not my area of expertise, but what I will tell you, just from speaking to our clients and doing some of the studies that we’ve executed on, the hunt for yield is certainly something that advisors are focused on, whether it’s dividend approaches, or we’re certainly seeing more interest in private investing alternatives. So whether it’s alternative investments themselves, or things like private equity and venture capital opportunities. But you’re right. In this low rate environment, this is something that advisors are spending their time thinking about and finding ways to differentiate.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah, no. I think finding safe yield is going to be a critical piece of advice going forward. One question I did have for you, since you do touch a lot of high quality advisors is, when you’re having these conversations, what are some new methods or ways people are reaching out, communicating with clients, or generating new AUM gathering?

David Canter:

Well, I think what’s interesting is, advisors are innovators, and they’re willing to try new things. So we’re all aware of Zoom, and I think we’ve all learned how to navigate Zoom, but some are actually holding classes on how to actually be better at Zoom. It’s not like it’s all intuitive, and there’s a lot of Zoom functionality. I’ve seen engagement strategies such as cooking classes, virtual live cooking classes that advisors have used. Other ways to get information that not are necessarily around investing topics, so whether it’s even exercise classes with clients, or other sort of interest areas. Some even are on health care, how to think about health care in this environment. Because remember, the trusted advisor is going up the value stack and helping clients with all areas of their lives.

David Canter:

And then you can’t also ignore that in this environment, you’re seeing more and more advisors who are doing Zoom meetings with an existing client and a prospect that they’re bringing to the table. So I think we’re in the era of more and more engagement with those centers of influence, whether it’s existing clients or other partners. I don’t know. I guess you’ve been doing such a good job asking me these questions. Let me turn the tables. What are some of the ways that you’ve seen with all the advisors you work with around new and innovative business development?

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. No. I think it’s the advisors that we’re seeing that are outperforming. And there are a lot of different ways to get to the same outcome, but it’s the folks that I think are creating digital content and owning their digital real estate. The local search for, “Find a financial advisor near me.” And I think a lot of folks may not be happy with the communication from their old advisors, may not be happy with some of the product mix they have access to. They want some non-beta alpha. And I think people that can educate consumers today with digital and video content are going to be the ones that people learn to trust. And then when they need to make a call to action decision, they’ll go to that platform that they got educated on.

Ryan Morfin:

And so I think it’s about getting that hook and it’s about taking people through a journey to make sure that they understand what their needs are, whether they know the needs up front or not. And trying to be the educated education source so that consumers, especially millennials, who are so apt at doing research before they reach out, because they want to be an educated consumer, are able to build that relationship prior to even meeting an advisor.

Ryan Morfin:

But the hard part and the technical part is making sure you’ve got all the metrics and all the ad technology behind you, so that as Mr. or Mrs. Consumer is going through, you can grab that data, and you now know that individual has seen five of your videos. You know which five, and so you know what to lead with. And so a lot of plumbing goes on in the back from website development and things like that, and so we’ve been helping with that, and it’s not that expensive as you would think. I think technology, that inflation has not really kind of been into tech services lately. And so I think that’s a huge area where advisors who really embrace this digital moment are able to outperform.

Ryan Morfin:

Well, let me ask you one final question. I mean, you lead a big organization. How has this pandemic, how have you thought about leadership, and how are you communicating with your team, and what are you seeing from kind of a leader’s perspective? Because a lot of the viewers we have here manage teams, and what advice might you have for them from a Fidelity perspective?

David Canter:

Yeah. Well, it’s funny. I just came from a virtual lunch round table with six associates, and I always ask that question. I always ask the question, “What advice do you have for me? What could we be doing more of?” And when we’re in this virtual world, and we’re not in physical space, whether you work in the same office, or in the past, I could travel, you lose that hallway-

PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:30:04]

David Canter:

… In the same office or in the past, I could travel, you lose that hallway time. You lose that water cooler time. So I’ve gotten some great advice. One is, make sure you visit and engage with those folks that you don’t have meetings with on a regular basis. So seek out those folks that you don’t always have a chance to visit with and have personal meetings with them.

David Canter:

I also got a great piece of advice from a client, when you don’t have water cooler time, but how can you get folks to engage? They have a system they call the random lunch generator. So bringing people in diverse teams or different teams throughout your company so that you actually do get that networking time. And they figured out a way to arrange people at random. And I also joke that the name of my next rock band, I’d like to be random lunch generator.

David Canter:

But let me turn the tables then too. I know this is the final question. I’d love to hear how you’ve thought about that.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. We’ve done everything from virtual happy hours where we have speakers come on and talk about exercise or nutrition. And we assign a small group of people to create that content for the rest of the organization. And sometimes those have been surprisingly long Zoom calls, which is great, because people enjoy talking to each other and people are having fun. We do daily communication. So every day there’s a daily standup meeting where we talk about our values. And it’s five, 10 minutes. We talk about industry news. And then I spend a little bit of time thinking through content that we want to push out to all the employees and the advisors on a daily brief video. And a lot of it’s been video. So we’ve invested a lot into kind of cameras and lighting. And I’ve helped a lot of people download Zoom on their phones, but I think it’s being patient with folks and letting them know that it’s okay not to be okay during this kind of lockdown, and letting them know there’s some support out there to talk, because I’m trying to remind our team to check in on their people, given kind of the stress that may be abnormal from working from home, need to have a lot of patience today.

David Canter:

Well put, well put, and I like the way you phrased that. It’s okay not to be okay.

Ryan Morfin:

Yeah. Working from home, the one thing I’ve realized is that all teachers need raises.

Ryan Morfin:

All right. One final question. Is there any books that you’ve been reading in helping shape your thoughts going forward?

David Canter:

I’ve been an avid podcast listener, from business to pleasure. And I’ve always enjoyed podcasts that actually do talk about business. So one podcast that I recommend to everybody, and it’s not a new one, but it’s called StartUp by Gimlet Media. And for anybody who’s running a business or thinking about a business, many are small businesses, I recommend StartUp. It’s absolutely excellent. And I will tell you that you’ll learn a lot.

Ryan Morfin:

Fantastic. Well, the one podcast that nobody should miss is Coffee Break with Canter. And so David, thank you so much for joining us, being part of this conversation, and thanks for your leadership in the industry. It’s really made a difference to a lot of us.

David Canter:

Well thank you for having me and thank you too, I’m honored to be here and wish you all the best on your continued success.

Ryan Morfin:

Thank you very much. Have a great day.

Ryan Morfin:

Fantastic. Thank you, David. I think that was the first track of the new band name, Random Lunch Generator.

David Canter:

All right, guys. Talk to you soon.

Ryan Morfin:

Take care.

David Canter:

Okay.

Ryan Morfin:

Be safe, talk to you soon.

David Canter:

Bye bye.

Ryan  Morfin:

Bye.

Ryan Morfin:

Thanks for watching No- Beta Alpha Clearing Week. 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.

Speaker 4:

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PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [00:36:56]

 

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Ryan Morfin: Welcome to Non-Beta Alpha. I'm Ryan Morfin. On today's episode, we have Pini Althaus, CEO of USA Rare Earth, talking to us about the supply chain glut in rare earth minerals. This is Non-Beta Alpha.

Ryan MorfinPini, Welcome to the show. Thank you for coming on today.

Pini AlthausThank you for having me, Ryan. Good to be here.

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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