Student Housing and The Impact of The COVID Crisis with Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson is the CEO of NB Private Capital which deploys much of its capital into student housing projects across the United States.
Brian Nelson is the CEO of NB Private Capital which deploys much of its capital into student housing projects across the United States. Throughout this interview, it is apparent that while the student housing market has experienced a 13% decline as a result of the pandemic, he has an optimistic outlook for the years to come. One of the biggest indicators of the market’s stability is that university policy has shifted away from foreign enrollment in the short term while having less of an impact on occupancy than many would have anticipated. The return of foreign student enrollment and admissions will, therefore, only lead to higher demand for living space on and near University campuses.

University housing is generally occupied by students and funded by their parents resulting in unusually high collection rates. For these reasons and more, Nelson is able to enjoy seeing that 85% of their portfolio remains occupied while experiencing a decrease of only 13% in collections despite school closures.

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Ryan Morfin:                    Welcome to NON-BETA ALPHA. I’m Ryan Morfin, and on today’s episode we have Brian Nelson talking to us about student housing and the impact of the COVID crisis. This is NON-BETA ALPHA.

Ryan Morfin:                    Brian, welcome to the show.

Brian Nelson:                   Thank you, Ryan. Really appreciate it. I’m thrilled to be here.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, we appreciate you jumping on. I know it’s been a pretty volatile time. A lot of headlines, demand drivers changing in the industry, but some silver linings, I’m assuming, in the fact that students are probably less impacted by the virus than older demographics. Wanted to get some clarity for our viewers about what’s happening in the student housing industry and some of the things that we should expect in the months and maybe years ahead.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, it’s new territory for all of us. What we’ve always liked about the student housing category in particular is the stability of the universities. You look back at all the various crises we’ve overcome as a society, even dating back to the Civil War for some of these universities, they’ve overcome everything and they’ve been pillars of stability. And we look at them as some of the most stable institutions in the world. Our belief is, hey, if this is a non-commuter school and there’s only a finite amount of real estate or places for students to live, and students when they go to school inherently need a place to live, that’s a very stable market that tends to be less correlated to other activities, macro economic factors, macro events. And that’s what we like about student housing in the big picture.

                                           We’ve seen a little bit of an impact, not much, but a little bit of impact just this semester. That’s something we could dive into if you like, but for the most part, we’re pretty bullish on student housing in the long run and our ability to maintain sustainable occupancy levels of the property.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. No, it’s a property type that’s well suited for this secular shift towards further education and the student loan, we’ll call it a supporting infrastructure, and the financial institutions lending a lot to students to go to school. That was a secular shift in the United States, and the trend was well underway prior to the exogenous shock of coronavirus. Can you maybe set the table for our viewers of what was happening Q4 and January, February of this year, before this impact of the global economy? What were the outlooks for student housing and what was your company doing? And then maybe we can jump into what happened right after the shock came.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. You know, the outlook for student housing is really, it’s been one of the strongest categories for investments. You’re seeing a lot of big REITs, a lot of international funds, a lot of what we call smart money or institutional money coming into student housing. And if you look back at 2013, 2014, we maybe had $3 to $4 billion in transactions last year. Four or five years later, we’re over $12, $13 billion in transactions. You’re talking about an industry that has quadrupled effectively just in sales volumes.

                                           And what’s driving that is the performance metrics. This is one of the few real estate categories where cap rates actually went down between 2008 and 2010. And that’s because more students during a recession or during times of economic uncertainty, more folks go back to school to advance their degrees and to improve their future career livelihood. And so what we see is that you look at college enrollment over the last 40 years, there is no correlation to economic cycles, real estate cycles, anything of that nature, just a consistent, steady incline. And a lot of the big smart money is picking up on that, and so they’re investing in droves in student housing.

                                           One of the bigger challenges is, how do we continue to acquire assets while we’re bidding against these folks who are willing to pay a really high premium? What you see in student housing, a lot of interest, a lot of bidding wars. It is definitely a sellers’ market, and we’re starting to see some delineations where you have certain properties within walking distance to campus are trading at a lower cap rate premium than properties that might be further away. Power Five schools, those types of schools, we’re getting a little bit better premium. You’re starting to see the money getting smarter and smarter, and it’s starting to buy different grades of student housing. What’s a higher quality asset versus what’s a lower quality? And that’s what we’re seeing. We’re just seeing a maturing of the market.

Ryan Morfin:                    No, and the higher transaction volumes mean that that’s a wider opportunity for exits as well. You guys have been doing a lot of development work, I think, as well prior to the crisis.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. All of the above. We want to have our hand in everything, and with development it’s very tricky, but if you could get your hands on an A-plus location and you could buy one of those old ugly properties, probably the stuff that you and I lived in when we went to school, and tear those down and build brand new modern facilities, you’re going to get a pretty good audience. Students love brand new. They love highly secure properties in particular. They like bed-to-bath parity, where a lot of the old properties you’d have four guys, maybe five guys sharing a unit and one or two bathrooms. So you could now build a four bedroom and have four bathrooms. But you build to suit what students are looking for today. And there’s a huge exit market if you build and execute really well.

                                           One of our strategies, too, is finding that secondary market, that university that maybe isn’t quite on the radar of the big institutions just yet, but we’re seeing fantastic market dynamics. Limited supply growth, maybe there are really high barriers to entry, but really solid, steady enrollment growth. And you could find properties that you could buy at a really high cap rate so you could cash flow really well, maintain stable occupancy, but hold in an environment where you have very favorable economics like that, and then sell four or five years down the road. You have some really good exits, because as these institutions get more and more familiar with student housing, they’re going to look beyond just the big brand name of the university and they’re going to start looking at the metrics that most real estate guys have been looking at for decades.

Ryan Morfin:                    And the demographic of the students. One of the great aspects of student housing is that the parents are co-signers for the lease and you have 12-month leases for the most part. Maybe talk about the credit arbitrage. You’re not getting a bunch of young people, but you’re getting their parents on the hook.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, and I think that’s one of the biggest underlying factors for why we’re seeing a lot of intellectual money coming into student housing. When you introduce student housing to a new investor or a new group, the first thing they think of is Animal House, the Belushi movie from the eighties, and the picture is all the students partying, tearing the property apart. And they also picture these 19, 20-year-old students not paying rent, don’t even know what FICO means. In reality, it’s way different. We require at almost every property a parental guarantee, and then we break the leases up by the bed. So if we have a four bedroom unit, we really have four individual leases for that unit guaranteed by mom and dad, typically affluent parents. I’d say most of our parents average a six-digit income, 700-plus credit score.

                                           So if you have, let’s say, a 300-bed unit, let’s say it’s 100 averaging three beds, instead of having 100 paying families who don’t own homes, like your typical multifamily, in this case for those 100 units, you would have 300 individual economic tenants from different areas of the country, different industries. So you’re well-diversified in your revenue source. But typically these are folks who own homes, and these are about as high of a caliber tenant as you can imagine in multifamily. And of course, they’re not going to pay rent, hurt their own FICO score, and give their son or daughter any type of reason to drop out of school or to struggle at school. So it makes a lot of sense why collections are atypically high for student housing.

Ryan Morfin:                    As the industry is maturing and you’re getting more capital flows in and it’s driving valuations up, we started to see the closures of schools, probably before states closed in February. Maybe you can talk a little bit about what’s happened in the last two months to your industry, and then what the performance has been like the last few weeks.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. Great question. And this is probably the most uncertain part for us. If you remember, the NCAA March Madness tournament was one of the first major events that just completely shut down. And what it started that were the conference tournaments, and the Ivy League tournament was canceled before anything else. It started a domino effect. But that’s essentially how the universities have been. I think universities have been a couple of weeks ahead of everybody shutting things down, but they could do that because they have Generation Z, very tech savvy. They knew they could finish coursework online. They could do meetings like this with teachers or assistant professors, and have students still could continue to work forward on their degree or completing certain classes, even if they’re in their apartment or even if they go back home. And so they knew there was an efficient way they could distance but still be productive.

                                           And so what we saw, that a lot of universities cut classes but continued to move forward with various, whatever the students were doing at the time. And then students rolled right into spring break, and what we didn’t know is after spring break, would students come back to their apartments or would they stay home and social distance or shelter in place with mom and dad? And if they stayed home, would they pay rent? A lot of that has played out, not quite all of it, but for the most part we’re north of 85% occupied physically by the students. We’re collecting about 87% of what we were in February. So we’ve had some pushback in rent, but for the most part, we’re collecting the vast majority of rent. And part of that’s the parental guarantees. Part of that’s just the logic.

                                           Think about your 18-to-25-year-old kid going home, hanging out with mom and dad, being in their room for a couple weeks. They get pretty tired quickly. And as you mentioned earlier, this is an age group that hasn’t been as impacted by the virus, and naive or not, that believe they’re somewhat indestructible. And so we’re seeing a lot of students just say, you know what, I’d rather be back in my apartment, around my friends. And if I’m going to be at home, I may as well be working on my degree, whether it’s going to summer school or getting more stuff done. If anything, during an uncertain economic time, go work on your degree or go back and get a graduate degree if you’ve graduated. So you’re seeing a lot of that.

                                           Universities are coming back and saying, hey, you know what? We’re expecting some of our largest admissions next year, some of our largest enrollments to date, for several reasons. We could talk about some of those too. But a lot of it is students wanting to come back because they are tired and they cannot take the shelters in place any longer. So for them to continue all summer, it’s not going to happen again in the fall. They’re pretty antsy.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. One of the trends we’re going to start following is the political impact of a younger demographic upset about what’s happened to their economic prospects and how it’s impacted their college experience, versus the demographic that’s unfortunately a target. We’ve started to hear politicians start to pander to this younger demographic about the way this has been handled. It’s going to be an interesting political issue for November, but in the years to come, I think, too, as maybe there starts to become an age demographic partisan divide, if you will.

                                           You know, one of the things I’d love to ask you, so now that you’ve got students that are working remote and digital educational technology tools becoming the go-to solution for universities and families, what have you done to augment your operating strategy at the property level, whether it’s for infrastructure for digital or internet repeaters? How have you augmented your technology stack for these operations?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, great question. The first thing it starts with is wifi. If you know the students today, they stream everything. They spend a lot of time online. Some of it’s educational. It’s not all unproductive YouTube, TikTok videos, but if you’re a student housing operator and you’re behind the curve in wifi, and your students are having a hard time streaming and they’re complaining to their roommates, it catches up to you pretty quickly. If you’re the opposite and you make sure you have more than ample, by now it’s easy to get those types of resources. But if you are on that side, that’s one thing that’s really important.

                                           The second part is a lot of our units or a lot of our apartments, have study rooms, study areas. And it’s interesting, because now with social distancing, you want to be able to make sure students have the ability to get away from the roommates, study on their own, but still have the technology that they need. And so it’s just making sure that they have areas they can go where they can have the privacy that they need. Or if they’re working in groups or they need a setup like this, that we have advanced technology within those rooms. And that’s something, that we found technology to be a key differentiator for us in the types of target markets. There’s certain students we like to target, particularly those who really love school and are really focused on their schoolwork. Those tend to be excellent tenants. But you really want to do all that you can to advance or have some competitive advantages that are more conducive to their schoolwork.

Ryan Morfin:                    What percentage would you say of your tenants are either in place now or have returned, and what do you expect from the duration of their leases? What percentage do you think you’ll have in place at your facilities versus just kind of folding it up and working from home?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, great question. I think we’ll stay in the 70% to 80% range for the next couple of months while most students are still doing some coursework. Typically during the summer, we’re going to have anywhere from 30 to 40% occupancy. You mentioned earlier that not only do we have parental guarantees in our lease terms, but most of our lease terms are 12 months. So even if the students go home for the summer, we’re still collecting rent. And it makes it a lot easier for the student. They can just leave their stuff there. If they go back to school during the summer, they have a place, everything’s all set up.

                                           But it’s going to be a little bit different this year, because graduation ceremonies, things like that are still maybe planned for June or July or August. You see a lot of students still want to have their footprint, even though they might go home a little bit earlier or spend more time at home. We still expect that we’ll be 30 to maybe 50% occupied during the summer, with different students coming back once a month or every other month, just depending on what activities that they missed this semester but that they’ll be able to hit during the summer.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, it’s interesting. You’re dealing with, we’ll call it a more fortunate clientele or kids who have the parents’ wherewithal to do the private pay student housing. What I’ve been hearing a lot, and I don’t know if you can add some additional validity to it, is folks that were in the public dorms for the school, when they got the notice, they had to basically pack their stuff up and get out pretty quickly. Were they going to self-storage or were they just moving all their footprint back home? That’s one of, I think, the perks that private student housing has over the dorms.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, I think you’re right. I think the students were for the most part packed home. I think they were pretty anxious to get home. Remember that most of the folks who live on campus are freshmen, and we love that the dorms handle the freshmen. That’s where your higher attrition rate is. They’re pretty anxious to get home. And then after about two or three weeks of being home, they’re ready to come back.

                                           Believe it or not, we actually picked up quite a bit of business from that exact scenario that you described. The dorms had to move students out, so the students wanted to have a place to live during the summer or at least a place to park their stuff. And so we probably, I’d say maybe 25% of our portfolio picked up anywhere from four to eight new leases just from that, dorm students wanting to stay near campus. Even if they just signed a summer contract, it was very beneficial for us. We actually had a couple of properties, or about 25% of our portfolio, so seven or eight properties, have actually increased occupancy over the last few weeks.

Ryan Morfin:                    It’s one of those trends that is kind of counterintuitive. You hear universities closing, students going home, but I think the cashflow stream is somewhat protected because the parents are on the hook. But how has the leasing environment been for the fall of 2020? What are the expectations you had, and how are the sales managers handling reaching out to students for coming back to school?

Brian Nelson:                   Great question. And if there’s anything that’s really changed, it’s leasing. If you picture student housing, probably the biggest downside of student housing is you picture the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you have this door closing and either you get in or you don’t. And that door closing in student housing is when school begins, so the idea is you want to open that window as wide as possible and essentially lease all year round. So January, February, you’re leasing for the upcoming fall school year. And this really disrupts that, because fortunately for us, January, February, March were some of our best pre-leasing ever as a portfolio. So we got off to a great start, and then it stopped dead about mid-March, and not surprisingly. Students aren’t touring the properties. Whereas students have adjusted. They’re doing a lot more digital and making digital decisions.

                                           And anticipating that, we’ve always been really big on internet marketing, getting out, displaying your competitive advantages, make it easier for students to set up virtual tours or to talk to leasing staff at the property. So we’ve actually pre-leased pretty well despite the crisis. We’re not leasing nearly as well as we would have if we were doing physical tours. We’re doing better than most of the market, but we are going to look at what I believe might be a June, July, August decision timeframe, where more students are going to make their decision in that short window than ever, instead of having it drawn out over an eight- or nine-month period. So the idea is, how do you prepare for that? And we’re doing everything we can to have our properties 80, 90% leased before we even get to that.

                                           So if desperate competitors start throwing out concessions, we’re prepared for it. In talking to most of the big billion dollar property managers and publicly-traded property managers around the country, they’re going to resist the temptation to throw out a lot of concessions. They believe that in the tight market, students are going to be pretty crazy trying to get into the more attractive properties. So we actually think we’ll do pretty well, but we’d rather be more prepared for it just in case than not. But I do believe this lease-up is going to be one of the strangest we’ve seen in student housing, and those who have their stuff together, their ducks in a row are going to do very well. And those who are disorganized are going to struggle, in my opinion.

Ryan Morfin:                    Looking forward, what are some of the maybe new underwriting metrics? If you had a baseline for 2020 lease-up, are you estimating a 10% or 20% haircut to rate? And what is a new underwriting model for new properties you’re looking at? What occupancy is a reasonable expectation, versus what we had maybe in Q4 of ’19?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. Really hard to say. It goes down to the granular level. For example, we have a property at University of Colorado that pre-leased in February for the upcoming school year to 100%. We had a 10% rental rate target. It’s a very uber-affluent student base. We’ve done really well with that property. We have another property that was 100% leased at this time last year that’s 20% pre-leased. So we’re expecting, hey, you know what? We’re probably going to take a 20% haircut on that for rental rates. But we think overall we’ll probably be pretty close to where we were a year ago.

                                           And part of what’s driving that is new competition. We’re seeing a lot of the properties that were going to open and have this big grand opening and do a lot of tours over the summer or right now are delaying their openings. In many cases we’ll have fewer competitors to deal with, and that’s where I think we’ll be okay. We’ll have a few markets where we do really well raising rents. The differentiator is going to be more affluent students, and properties that are really well positioned that have a sustainable competitive advantage that really stands out, those are the properties where we think could afford a little bit more rental rate, but part of what’s driving that is a lot of the universities are talking about their highest enrollment classes ever. That usually means more freshmen, which means more dorms. It doesn’t quite hit us until another year. But that’s where we think where we start feeling the benefit from all of this is over the next two to three years.

Ryan Morfin:                    When do you think universities are going to start making announcements that they’ll be open in the fall or that they’re going to continue to do this no-touch learning?

Brian Nelson:                   It’ll be interesting to see. I think that’s a great question. You’ll see a domino effect where you’ll see a couple start coming out and then a few follow them. You could just imagine college football. You know, we have two properties under contract at Notre Dame and at Clemson. And you talk about the State of Indiana, the State of South Carolina, college football are two of the biggest drivers of those economies, so you better believe they’re going to do everything they can to open.

                                           Just yesterday, West Virginia University and University of Memphis, where we currently have properties, and last week Chico State, in the Cal State University system, have all come out and said, we’re opening for the fall. So we’re hearing it. We’re still hearing a couple of schools hesitant to make that announcement, but we’re starting to see it in some of the states that were less impacted. But I think President Trump’s announcement earlier this week, talking about reopening the economy, I think you’re going to start to see a little bit of a domino effect where maybe in about four to five weeks you’ll start seeing administrators come up with more concrete plans for the fall.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, God knows America needs college football to be here in the fall. Otherwise, I think you’re going to start to see riots. You know, you seem to be pretty optimistic, and I think when you start to drill into the cashflows and the credit behind the cashflows, and the fact that there’s this secular shift towards more education in a service-based economy like the US, there’s macro fundamentals that are really supporting this property type through this downturn. So I guess, as an operator of a lot of these properties, what are any final messages you have for student housing investors for your outlook, and how should they be considering the asset class going forward?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. It’s just like any business. What most investors like about student housing is that if we execute well on the right student housing property, we could hit on benefits that a lot of investors are looking for today. Stable, consistent occupancy, resilient to recession or economic cycles, but good solid income, exceptional tax shelter benefits, on an asset class that tends to appreciate over time. But you look at just the demand for housing near universities that are non-commuter schools, it’s solid, it’s consistent. And so you’re essentially weighing in on the consistency of students wanting to get a degree at a major university, and I just don’t see that going away anytime soon.

Ryan Morfin:                    Do you see that there may be a shift towards harder travel entry, travel restrictions for foreign students, which has been a huge breadbasket of private pay full tuition payments for a lot of these universities, given the dynamic that may unfold, whether it’s out-of-state students or the foreign students and a local political element of fear of seeding new cases from people coming from abroad or outside of our local communities? Do you see some type of a future trend that may be dangerous to universities’ P&Ls?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, Ryan, I think that’s a great question. Absolutely. A couple of thoughts on that. One, I do think most universities will try to have some type of a testing requirement or testing mechanism before anybody shows up on campus in the fall and then again when they come back from winter break. What they’re going to try to do is mitigate any potential resurgence. And then maybe frequent testing. That’s something that’s real important to a lot of the administrators, and it makes sense, because the university, while it brings people together from all parts of the world, you have the ability to disperse really quickly. And that’s where a lot of the optimism comes from. Even if universities start in the fall and there’s a resurgence, they believe they could pivot and finish coursework online again and then wait it out a couple of weeks and then have some type of testing requirement.

                                           But they’re very concerned about the international contingency. I’ll say this about international students. If anything, the premium placed on a US education has increased over the last couple of years. And if you’re an international student, you’re worried about a pandemic or a resurgence, this is where you want to be. And so you’re actually seeing a huge surge in demand for US applications from international students, but what if they can’t get here?

                                           The pivot that a lot of the university admissions staff have gone to is they’ve started to accept more domestic applicants, even if they’ve lowered their typical entrance requirements. And that’s why they expect a big enrollment boom, if not this semester or next semester or next year, is they’re actually taking on more domestic students to replace the potential of fewer international students. But what if the international students were able to get in and the contingency plan is already in place? That’s where you start seeing a surge in enrollment. I believe it might be more difficult for more international students this coming fall, but starting in winter and next year, I think we’ll see a huge surge.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. And it seems to me that… James Gorman at Morgan Stanley recently said Morgan Stanley is going to need a lot less office real estate going forward, because this remote posture is working for his 80,000 employees. Each of these universities is like a large multinational, and I’m wondering if some of the biggest competitive trends may be mobile online courses, the MOOCs, if those may become a threat. I personally think there’s no substitute for building a network and being on campus and in doing that, so there’ll probably be a premium, but do you think the mobile online coursework, it may become a bigger threat to the on-campus experience?

Brian Nelson:                   I don’t. I think a lot of people are talking about that, and it’s because we’re experiencing it here in almost every industry. But you’re right, you just can’t replace the brick and mortar experience. The way I put it, I have an 18-year-old son at home who’s graduating. I think he’s going to graduate high school. We don’t know how it’s going to play out. But I’m telling you, you don’t see affluent, particularly middle-class affluent, parents telling their 18- or 19-year-old son or daughter, hey, stick around, stay in your room, finish your degree online, get a degree at the University of Phoenix. It’s not happening. The students, they’re anxious to get out. They’re anxious to make their mark in the world, to be on their own. Mom and dad want them to have that experience.

                                           So I don’t expect it to replace it. If anything, I do think there are a few regional schools that might struggle with this, but the big schools, the big state schools with the big football and basketball experience and the Greek system and the networking and the job placement after, you’re going to have a hard time replacing that experience. I think you’re right, Ryan.

                                           And that’s why for us, there’s two things we look for in a university when we buy a property near, that a lot of people don’t really talk about. I look at the affordability of tuition. What is the in-state tuition? How does that compare to the starting salaries when folks graduate? We really want that return on investment there. Even if we hit the next recession, if you have a school that’s $8,000, $9,000 a year tuition, so students are graduating with maybe $40,000 debt just towards tuition, but they’re starting out at a $60,000 a year salary, that’s a fantastic ROI. So we’re looking for things like that, and we’re also looking for schools that have that big experience that you can’t replace online.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, Brian, I really appreciate you joining us. It’s an asset class worth digging into, and it’s got some resilient elements that are defensive in nature. Even though this virus has thrown university on-campus life in a tailspin, it seems that collections are still there and the credit underwriting is still playing out. So we wish you and your colleagues the best, and we appreciate you joining the show.

Brian Nelson:                   Great. Thank you. We really appreciate the invite.

Ryan Morfin:                    Thank you. Thanks for listening to NON-BETA ALPHA. Before we go, please remember to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or our YouTube channel. This is NON-BETA ALPHA, and now you know.

Speaker 2:                        (singing).

Announcer:                      This podcast is not an offer to buy nor a solicitation to sell a security. The video is an unscripted discussion pertaining to the investment goals, strategies, and targets of investing in student housing. As a reminder, there’s no guarantee that any offering will perform as targeted, and any investment involves the risk of loss of some or all principal invested. The video contains statements intended for educational and hypothetical purposes only, and is not to be construed as a promise of performance. Always speak to your tax and/or financial professional prior to investing. Securities offered through Emerson Equity LLC, member FINRA and SIPC. Emerson is not affiliated with any other entity referenced in this communication.

 

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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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