Economically, Russia coped with the crisis by treating quarantine as a paid vacation; companies were still required to pay salaries and the government intervened where they deemed necessary. In spite of these efforts, the pandemic managed to leave 1.5 million Russian citizens unemployed. Still Belikov remains optimistic about the recovery and sees great value in future cooperation between the United States and Russia.
Ryan: Welcome to Non-Beta Alpha, and today’s episode we have Vadim Belikov calling in from St. Petersburg, Russia talking to us about what’s going on in Russia with the coronavirus, what we can expect with US and Russia relations leading into the post-COVID world. This is Non-Beta Alpha.
Vadim, welcome to the show. We appreciate you joining us.
Vadim Belikov: First of all, thank you so much, Ryan, for the invitation.
Ryan: All right, fantastic.
Vadim Belikov: I can’t call it, show, it’s like a economic magazine online, where we can discuss about global economy and global economic issues.
Vadim Belikov: Yes, it’s good and you’re absolutely right that Russia had the luck between when we understand that COVID-19 already moved to Europe, and just beginning at the United States. We had time to prepare a little bit and understand Chinese mistakes, and European mistakes. That’s why the percent of people who got it, COVID-19, not so big like in other countries. Because if we compare, for example, population in Italy and in Russia, the percent of people who got the COVID, not so huge like in Europe. If we compare that in Europe and in Russia, it’s also percent victims of COVID-19 in Russia, very small. Things got for our medical system because if you know that from Soviet Union here it’s, we put vaccines from different viruses like, flu, we put vaccine against flu every year. The percent of people who got the vaccines from flu last year was approximately 65%. And, of course, in childhood we got a lot of vaccines about different viruses and it was a big problem.
And if we compare, for example, European medical system and also Soviet Union system, we still have the same medical system, and we have the same obligations. If children born, they have to get vaccines from different viruses in first year that help them in the future. That’s why, for example, when you get news from Europe or United States from different media, that numbers of sick people in Russia, not so honest. Right now, Russian government show the right numbers, the right numbers of people who got the virus, because they also check people after they are dead, they check them. What was the problem? COVID or not the COVID? Or maybe it’s something else. And if you, for example, look at the victims of COVID in Italy, a lot of people who died had a lot of problems with, I don’t know, with heart, with blood pressure, and so on and so on. So, this is their use about numbers.
Of course, we got the same problems, like in Europe and the United States, that our system was not ready for virus because we didn’t have a lot of masks, we didn’t have a lot of ventilators, because not so many people get the problem last years with their health, where they had to use ventilators or quantity of mask, of medical mask. We don’t need it in our life. That’s why, for example, if we look at the Japan, or South Korea, for them mask is part of their life. For United States, for Europe, for Russia, not. And of course right now when I go outside, I put my mask, but if you put it you understand that we have the problem of breathing. It’s not so easy, but it’s part of our current life. And I’m sure that we discussed before the interview, now we understand problem of global economy and local economy.
When we move, for example, manufacturing of mask, of respirators, gloves to South Asia, to Malaysia, China, Thailand, when we need it we don’t have enough quantity of masks, gloves and other medical equipment. And right now the queue, for example, for gloves, [inaudible 00:06:28], or medical [inaudible 00:06:31] gloves we can see it’s on September, but we need it right now. This, I think, of course when we met for review in 2012, we also discussed that we have to think global, but look local. And we have to look at the security, at the medical security, at food security, and now we understand why we discussed, because every country had to have enough mask, enough food, because what was the first day in the United States? You could see a lot of people at the supermarket, they tried to buy everything, foods, mask, everything, petrol, water, and after two days, supermarkets were empty.
But it’s a big problem because people don’t understand how to react on the problem, and their local government has to explain them, it’s, “Guys, it’s a security situation, you have to buy, for example, two bottle of water, battery, petrol,” and so on, and so on, enough quantity of security products, for example, for next week. Because after one week, government can deliver or understand what’s the real problem. For example, after one week, every government understood that COVID is not so huge problem. Of course, it’s a little bit worse than their flu, or pneumonia, but it’s the same virus and we don’t need to-
Ryan: It’s not Ebola. Yeah, we’re not all dying of Ebola, violent deaths.
Vadim Belikov: You’re absolutely right. But of course, the second problem is isolation. Isolation, not personal isolation, is isolation of countries. After we got the problem, our economies were affected and right now, it’s again, it’s still affecting not only on the global economy, but also on the local economy. Everything stopped, I don’t know what was at the United States, I just can say what was at the first weeks in Russia, and what’s going on right now. So, I think, we can move and discuss the economy issue-
Vadim Belikov: … and what Russia, and on the global markets.
Ryan: Yeah. No, I appreciate that context and I agree with a lot of what you said and, I think, the good news is this isn’t as deadly. It is still more contagious than the flu, so I think that’s driving the numbers up. But for our viewers who maybe don’t have access, so you guys in Russia had the benefit of the virus arriving after Europe, maybe a few weeks, and so you guys are now able to learn from the mistakes of Russia, I’m sorry, of Germany, of Italy, of China, of the United States, some of the things we didn’t do right. So, how is the government handling it in Russia? Here we have governors doing daily press conferences, how are your leaders communicating, and what are the people in the street, how are they handling? Is everybody listening, or are people half-listening? Here in the US I think people are kind of half-listening to advice, which is not a good thing. But curious to hear, what is the Russian population’s perspective, given that you guys had the benefit of getting it a few weeks later?
Vadim Belikov: Yep. You’re absolutely right that we had time to look at the situation at the United States, in Sweden, and in Italy. We had different styles and different strategies how to work the situation at the time of coronavirus. And, of course, every country looked what was in Wuhan in China. We had Chinese strategy to close everything, and put all people at their apartments, and put army on the streets, it’s Chinese strategy. We can look at Sweden strategy, that’s everything on the same place, people walking around, children go to the schools, to universities, just you have to check the temperature, and the economy it’s at the same timeline, like at the usual days. We had Italian style, Italian strategy, the same like a China strategy, and Germany. So, Russian government got pluses and tried to throw away minuses, because if we looked at the Chinese economy strategy when they put everybody at the apartments, economy could die. But Chinese economy, it’s a Chinese economy. For them, stop the economy in two months, but on two months it’s not so the big problem because you can’t stop locomotive immediately.
You had a lot of money at the banks, you had a lot of products at the stores, and of course they have also a [inaudible 00:13:26] system, a [inaudible 00:13:28] political system. If Xi Jinping said, “Stay at home,” they will stay at home. If Xi Jinping can say, for example, “Don’t worry, I will send you money and food,” people really understand that Xi Jinping will send them money and food. Maybe not so big money and not enough food, but they believe him, and believe the government because it’s the [inaudible 00:14:02] system, they don’t have different strategy. So, the Russian president say, “Guys, thank you so much, and you have to stay home.” But we don’t close the economy, it’s vacation for one month. The owners of the company have to pay salary to the employees. The government company will pay money, the salary, to the government employees and, of course, the owners who close their companies, they had to pay penalty.
The second step, President said, actually the same like at the United States because we can look what was at the United States, and what steps did the United States government when you move the tax. Unfortunately the COVID came to us at the period of both the tax payment, and all company had to pay taxes for the last years for 2019. And of course they moved it also to September. I know that the United States on July. We had the tax vacation, and also they promised to pay money to people who lost their jobs. Not so big money, but it’s money. And different also measures that can help the Russian economy, and Russian common people. Of course, that government company had a better situation because government pay them from the budget, but entrepreneurs, and small business, and medium business, they had a big problems and unfortunately it’s not only in Russia but everywhere around the world. For example, the owners of hotels, or touristic companies, they had a lot of problems and a lot of people, I can’t say, on the street, but unfortunately right now we have 1.5 million people who lost their jobs.
Of course, government helped them and we hope that when our economy will be removed, people can go again, they produce jobs, they produce produce and not only Russian people, but all people around the world want to come again, and too they come alive and totally come and produce. Of course, 70% of the economy was stopped and real estate projects were stopped. I said, touristic business, touristic industry, entertainment industry, aircraft industry, everybody stayed at home because the slogan of the last two months were, “Stay at home. Stay safe,” and actually we had the same situation. Of course, we had sectors of the economy for whom it was not so bad, like food retail chains, and you can look at the stock exchange that markets of the food retail increase on 3%. For example, Russian food retail, the same online company for delivering, online company for selling products, also 3% plus.
We can talk about problems at the oil industry, but also price dropped down, but at the same quantity of the oil was up, and actually if I checked, 0.3, yep, is for oil and coal. But other sectors, of course, dropped down and we can see decrease of the mining industry, decrease of the gas industry, or wood industry, and not only Russia expects decrease in our GDP, but whole world. For example, Russian economy right now, our GDP decrease in April, I think, on minus 10%. We expect during the year, and I hope we can recharge our economy in June or July, but anywhere we expecting a decrease in our GDP on 4%, 5% for year, or 3%, and it’s not my opinion, it’s the opinion of Finch or other companies like, KPMG.
Ryan: Yep. So, in daily life though, are kids at school? Are grocery stores, is food supply and food access still intact, and what are people doing to keep themselves from going insane? I mean, we have a lot of interesting correlates here in the US, but how is the day-to-day? Are you allowed to go outside? Like in Italy, they had to get a police escort or police permit to go outside, how is it being governed by in the day-to-day life?
Vadim Belikov: Oh, it depends on the region because if you check, for example, Russian news or daily online speeches of Russian presidents, he always talk that every governor have to look at the situation at his region. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in Moscow because the quantity of sick people in Moscow, right now for example it’s 3,000, so before it was 5,000. But, for example, in St. Petersburg it was like, 300 people, but maybe in rural region it was like, 15 people every day, it’s not so big amount. And of course, after the speech of Mr. Putin, every governor prepared his own strategy. For example, if we compare St. Petersburg and Leningrad region, that is a cross region, it’s like DC and Virginia, totally different strategy. Of course, we had to stay home, but it wasn’t like in Italy or in China, or in Moscow. Because in Moscow, you still have to stay at home, and they have a lot of police on the streets who stop the people and ask, “Where are you going?”
For example, people after 65 years old, they still have to stay at home and it doesn’t matter where they go. They can’t go to just walk around and go to the park. People can go to supermarkets, to pharmacy, and that’s it. Or maybe, walk with their dogs. Of course right now, different region with a different situation and if, for example, Moscow still closed, but Moscow region is open. Of course they have their measure, like I said, people after 65 years old have to stay at home, children have to stay at home. You can go a little bit around the homes, at the local parks but, for example, regions at the Euro’s, they open right now and the small business is working right now. Also at the Leningrad region, they also opened. But Leningrad, and St. Petersburg, and Moscow still closed. That’s it.
Ryan: What are your thoughts about oil and gas industry, I mean, so the Saudi’s and OPEC and Russia, and then the US Frackers, it seems like there’s a tremendous amount of supply going in. What is the media and Russia talking about as relates to oil and gas sector, what are the thoughts of the Russian academics and economic journalists, about what’s going on in the oil and gas industry?
Vadim Belikov: You know, it’s a huge problem for all of us, for all around the world because, in my opinion, if you remember everything begun at the end of January. For example, when I was at the end of January at the United States, I saw that a lot of Chinese people flew to China on the Chinese New Year. I understood that well, the huge problem, because all of them will return to United States, and United States got a big problem. And it wasn’t a problem just the United States, but also Europe and Russia. When you understand that economy will got a lot of problem after the COVID-19 and self isolation, you can’t begun the oil war. That’s where had in February or March, and it was the second worst step that we had, because when we got problem with virus, we have to care about our economy.
You can’t try to change situation, it’s a huge mistake, but we got what we got and I can’t say who was right or who was wrong. But we have the huge world problem because price dropped down, a lot of tankers stay near the United States. In Russia, when the price on the oil decreased, we had inflation and of course our currency decreased on 10 rubles, and now the price the curse of Russian rubles and American dollars is 70 for rubles, for one dollars. But in February, or in January, the cost was 64, it’s a huge problem.
Ryan: Yeah. No, that’s a good point, we’ll see what happens. What were the bi lateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia because we, as Americans, sometimes live separated by two oceans, but Russia and Saudi Arabia seem to be the ones at a disagreement? Is there a view that Russians have of the Saudi’s interaction in the Middle East, or I’m trying to understand the context under which this is being communicated?
Vadim Belikov: It’s a good question because we can’t say about relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia, or Saudi Arabia and United States. We can look at this at the global oil and gas industry, because when your economic situation’s so bad and everything closed, it’s a huge problem for oil and gas industry because you can’t turn off their industry, because it works everyday. And quantity of barrels everyday just increasing and increasing, but you have to sell it somewhere. And the economy and world economy last couple of months was so small and, of course, quantity of buyers was also decreased. And it’s business, is business, is business. Of course Saudi Arabia has to look at their people and support their people, and their economy because oil industry it’s a main industry for Saudi Arabia, it’s not the main industry, for example, for China or for United States, but for Saudi Arabians, it’s the main industry.
For Russia also, is steel for us, steel, oil, and gas industry, one of the main industries, and for us, it also was a big issues. We had to look at the markets and understand to whom we can sell it, because Chinese markets was closed, and the recharged economy just months ago. And right now we’ll look at the price on the oil, now it’s around $30 for a barrel, last month it’s everyday situation changes, but I hope it will better and better every day. And I can’t say what relationship is better, Russian and Saudi Arabian, or American Saudi Arabian, because historically relationship between United States and Saudi Arabian better than Russian and Saudi Arabia. Of course right now, our relationship’s good and I think on the best level for 30 years.
Ryan: Yeah, Saudi Arabia just increased their taxes, their VATs by 15% so, people are going to be very upset and so I think there’s going to be some political pressure to the extent there can be any in Saudi Arabia that asked the question, are we really fighting over market share today, when we should be thinking about survival of an industry? And I think that’s the point you brought up is, how do you balance shifting the narrative?
Vadim Belikov: Everybody has to look at the bonds between their local economical situation and global contracts, and global relationship. And it is a huge problem of the COVID-19 current rules.
Ryan: And that’s a great point so, global relationships, and you’re pretty involved in international relations. I’ve got two questions, one, the relationship between the US and China is strained right now, whether it’s political grandstanding or whether it’s really questions about the role the World Health Organization played in covering up something that should have been shared with the world so we could all got prepared, and the jury’s still out, we’ll find out. But is the Russian population, the Russian media, are they upset with China like the US is? Or is the relationship very strong, because I know Putin and Xi have had a good relationship, and there’s trading partners, is there that trust there? You guys share a border, right, a big border, so your neighbors in some respects, what is that, that kind of Russia, China posture today from maybe government, but also from the people on the street, because I know a lot of people here in the US are getting frustrated that we weren’t really told the truth so we could have ramped up production in January?
Vadim Belikov: You know, it’s also, so I have my own opinion and we can see the government opinion. I think that every country who work at the pharmaceutical sector, and work chemical sector, they had the same problems with different viruses, with different situation, and exactly nobody knows what was with COVID-19. At the beginning it was, a nature virus, or self-made virus, nobody knows right now. Of course, problem with Health Organization we have. They had to say at the beginning, “Guys …” For example, in December when they look at the first victims of viruses in China, that situation in China they bet you have to cross the border, let’s look what was in Wuhan, in China, in January. And after that, we’ll understand how to work at the current situation. In my opinion, it would have been the best way for World Health Organization. They didn’t because maybe they didn’t understand that’s a problem, the real big, and maybe they thought that it’s a common virus, like virus in 2003, for example, when we had pneumonia or like, birds flu, or other, nobody understood exactly what is it.
Relationship between United States and China, that the roots of the current relationship had background, and before the COVID we could see about bother between President Trump and President Xi Jinping how to build the new agreement between China and the United States because it’s a different pluses and minuses. Relationship between China and the Russia, we can’t say it’s a friendly, it’s a partnership relationship. We are like a partners, we have partnership at the business, we have partnership at the policy, we have agreement in disagreement for different topics, but we have to work at the current reality. If they got the virus, we don’t suggest look at them like enemies, we have to understand how to help them to decrease the problems in our countries.
This is the main topic, you can’t say, “Oh, the enemies, they prepared that virus and they throw it at the world, and spread it, and let’s blame them.” No, no, no, we have to understand how to, first, help them to cut the situation, to win the war with virus, because we can stop the problem in our countries. Not only health problems, but also economic problems. Because Chinese economy is like a motif of the regional economy, but also the world economy. A lot of companies are based there, they’re one of the biggest buyer of the oil and gas, and they produce a lot of products for world. That’s why we had to help them so fast, so we can help them, because we can decrease our problems at the economy, and at the current health situation in our countries.
Ryan: Yeah, I think you bring up a good point that no matter where we are geographically, if there’s another area of the world that’s on fire with the virus that’s bubbled up, we’re going to have a problem globally. So, we really do need to stamp out the virus, it really needs to be humans versus coronavirus, I agree, and I’m hoping we’ll get there, I think we actually will and some of these trade tensions will simmer down. But nevertheless, so two final geopolitical questions for you, it’s fascinating to get your perspective because you do travel a lot. The Arctic, so we’re starting to wake up to the Arctic, it’s becoming more and more of an international issue and there’s oil and gas there, but there’s also trade routes and it’s a faster way to go. What’s your views on the future of the Arctic, and how’s Russia looking at that? I know there’s a lot more interest from the US in that area of the world.
Vadim Belikov: Yep. You know, in 2012 when I spoke with our mutual friends and I told them that, “Guys, the two big topics on the next 20 years will be just world cyber security, and the second, Arctic, because Arctic is the new global project for all countries who stay close to Arctic.” The second way, there’s Russia promote the Arctic way, because it’s the fastest way to deliver their products from Asia to Europe, and to United States. Of course for all countries who based around the Arctic, Arctic project is one of the best, new and future projects, and we have to build the routes. How to cut the rates, not how to fight there, but how to cut the rates, and how to save the Arctic. Because it’s easy to put their gas and oil companies from all countries around the world, American, Canadians, Norwegian, Russian.
No, it’s easy to find a new problem because everybody talk about environment, but Arctic we have to save it because if we got the problem with the environment in Arctic, we had the problem with Atlantic Ocean, immediately the weather changing will be just increasing, and that’s why we can look not only on the gas, oil, and mining industries in Arctic, but also we have to look on the environment problem. That’s why I’m talking about the routes. We have to understand how to work, but how to work in Arctic by the civilization, new civilization way. It’s easy to build there, one strategy for all countries, and one rules, not one rule, but understand about rules and acceptable rules for every country who stay around the Arctic. But if you know situation with the Arctic project, we can see that China also look at the Arctic project, but not only China and other emergency countries, like China, or India, or Brazil, they also want to take what’s at the Arctic project because they understand that clean water, oil, gas, mining, it’s like new El Dorado.
Ryan: Yep. One, I guess, final geopolitical question is so, and whether it’s political grandstanding in the US and fake news, or its real, the last three years has been all about investigating the current president, and Russia interference with the election. Now it’s going to be, the next few years, I think, November’s going to be all about China, US. But during the last few years, how is the view from the Russian people been in terms of the relationship with the US, or what’s the view from a Russian perspective of what’s going on in the US? I can see if I was on the other side of the camera, you guys are blaming us for your problems, but what is the view of that relationship, what’s the temperature of the Russian population? Are they saying, “You know what, we’re sick of this, why are you blaming us for your problems?” Or, “Hey, high five, good job.” What is the café culture’s view of what’s going on?
Vadim Belikov: You know, my own opinion and from the beginning of the … and I always say that, guys, cooperation always better than blaming each other, and it was first point. The second point was that United States doesn’t have enough of evidence and it’s fake news about Russian involvement in their election campaign because for Russia, it didn’t matter who is the President of the United States. For Russian government, and for next government, and for previous government, and for current, it’s more important that relationship and partnership. And the opinion of different political scientist, that if Russia and the United States will be real partners and friend, together we can be the power number one in the world. And if we built a real economy relationship and partnership, our economies just get a lot of pluses than minuses. Our economies will be stronger than Chinese, or other asian countries, and we can just help each other.
And actually, if we compare Russian people and American people, people from United States, we understand that we have the same meaning because the United States is a country of immigrants, and Russia is also a country where we have a lot of nationalities, more than 200. And that’s why United States like a boiling pot, and Russia also like a boiling pot, we have the same styles and we understand each other. When we look at the news about Russian involvement, common people also understand that it’s not about Russia, it’s about comparison between two American political bodies, Democrats and Republicans.
Ryan: Yeah. Well, I-
Vadim Belikov: And when-
Ryan: Oh, sorry, please go.
Vadim Belikov: No. No. Russian people, [Russian 00:45:40], they understand that it’s game inside the United States, but not the game between United States and Russia, we understand it. Russian people just wait when we can say, “Hi,” to each other and recharge our relationship. Because in 2012 when Hilary Clinton push on the button of the project of the recharging copulation between the United States and Russia, I was happy and I took part a little bits, but we are waiting, the next recharging.
Ryan: Well it’s interesting, people are now are talking about a new Cold War between the US and China, a technology Cold War, and it’s going to be interesting to see. I agree, I think the people at a population level historically have a lot more in common, Russia and China, the populations, than maybe Russia and China. It’s a different society, different value systems, you guys are religious, we have religion, but culturally more aligned with the West, we call it, European descent, right, versus the Far East. And it’s going to be interesting to see how these different multi-polar powers start to play in this new Cold War that’s, I think, starting to really set into place from a technology standpoint. Hopefully we can avoid it and get back to global growth, but it’s going to be an interesting six to 12 months, for sure, Vadim. So, what are you excited about, where’s the good news, what are you optimistic about? I know you do a lot of work with the GA, United Nations. What are some things that are positives that you think are good science for just mankind in general?
Vadim Belikov: The good sign that’s, look at the Europe. Europe is rising, right now they open economy, they open border between some countries like, for example, Baltic countries, they’re recharging their economy. Look at China, China right now, I think, have 95% of the economy that they have in December. I hope that next month maybe Russia and United States also can recharge our economy, and step-by-step we can go forward. I hope we meet at least three or four months. I can’t say, that we will stay on the same positions like couple of months ago, but I hope we can get also 90% of the previous speed of our economies, so we’ll see.
Ryan: Yeah, and-
Vadim Belikov: And summer is summer, it’s more emotional part of the year. We can look optimistic on our economies and our current situation. That’s why I always can say, “Thanks what we got, the problem in February and March, but not at the October and November, because when you had not so optimistic way.” Because February and March is the first part of the year, and economic year. January is also, and December, and it’s Christmas time and January it’s like a post-Christmas time. But during the summer, we always look optimistic on the future. On the future of our economy, and future of our children, and common people.
Ryan: Vadim, real quick, Russian literature is some of my favorite. What books are you reading? Is there any up and coming Russian writers that we should all be aware of? And then what books are you reading about just geopolitics or business today?
Vadim Belikov: It’s a good question because during the self isolation I read, unfortunately, not the Russian offers, but more international political offers, just to recharge my scientific level. I write about soft power and global policy, but it’s more academic books. But if you want to read Russian offers, of course, you have Russian classic that everybody like to read. I know how people stay at home during the self-isolation, everybody promised to each other, I have to read this, I have to read that book, nobody read and everybody look at the Zoom conferences. I advise to look and come to the Russian theater sides, because right now all Russian theaters translated online, operas and [inaudible 00:51:40], not the current, the previous.
Ryan: Oh really?
Vadim Belikov: Yeah. Mariinsky theater, I post it on the Facebook, on Instagram, it’s my friends, please take watch. You have a chance to look for free-
Ryan: That’s great, please send me those links.
Vadim Belikov: Yes. Yes. Sure. I think it’s more interesting because I know the position of the psychologist that we promise to ourself that we have to read a lot, study a lot, but of course self-isolation, it’s a problem for our life and for our health system, and our neuro system. And it’s easier to look at them, good movie, good opera, or good party, spectacles, and just relax.
Ryan: Yep Vadim, real quick, I’ve also noticed on social media that you have been training quite a bit, MMA or whatever, even jujitsu. There’s a new sport in Russia I’ve been watching, it’s these team MMA fighting sport league, are you familiar with this?
Vadim Belikov: MMA fighting, I can’t say that it’s most popular sport in Russia.
Ryan: It’s not, okay.
Vadim Belikov: Yep, a lot of people practice because it’s a new style, it’s a mixed style of martial arts. Some people they come and watch a lot, and yes I practice, and also during the isolation we have the online practicing with people around the world, and it’s good to see different instructors around the world, from London, Italy, China, United States, Australia, Russia. It’s also good point during the self-isolation.
Ryan: Yes. Well, definitely big fan of the team MMA. If you guys haven’t watched it, the viewers, it’s a league in Russia, it’s a great sport. It’s sometimes very quick and brutal, but it’s a lot more interesting than just watching two guys at UFC, so I think Dana White better watch out, it’s a new iteration of that sport world. Vadim, thanks so much for joining us. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and those insights about geopolitical fault lines that are moving, and I hope to see you soon in New York at the next UN event. Or maybe some day, hopefully soon, at St. Petersburg. Be well.
Vadim Belikov: Always welcome. I always told you, welcome to St. Petersburg, and to Moscow, especially during the summer.
Ryan: Would love that. Thanks my friend, I’ll see you soon. Be safe.
Vadim Belikov: Bye bye.
Ryan: Bye bye.
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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 Morfin: Pini, Welcome to the show. Thank you for coming on today.
Pini Althaus: Thank 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 Althaus: Yeah, 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 Morfin: And 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 Morfin: And 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 Althaus: Yeah. 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 Althaus: We 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 Althaus: So 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 Althaus: Yeah, 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 Althaus: But 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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
How does Europe solve for these problems? Do they have this better under control than the US?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
Who do you think is going to win the election?
The US election.
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.
Third question. What type of economic recovery are we in? What type of shape is it taking? A V-shape, W, U, L?
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.
During lockdown this summer and quarantine, was there anything in particular that you accomplished that you're particularly proud of?
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.
Are there any silver linings that you see in the economy going into 2021?
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.
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?
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.
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...
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.
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.
Thank you, Ryan. Thanks for having me.
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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The unique history of a Maryland based distillery and craft secrets on how to make great American Bourbon w/ Admiral Scott Sanders Founder of Tobacco Barn Distillery
Trends in Venture Capital and innovations in technology w/ Joe Lonsdale founding partner at 8VC
What America will look like a day after the Election W/ Dan Proft Host of “The Answer” AM 560 Chicago
What America will look like a day after the Election W/ Dan Proft Host of “the Answer” AM 560 Chicago
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