Is Lynas Corporation Limited cheap or trouble?
Lynas Corporation Limited (ASX: LYC) shares have gone for a cliff dive recently as investors worry over a perfect storm of cost blowouts, delays, regulatory risks, excess debt, and dramatic falls in the market prices of the key rare-earth commodities it produces.
All this means analysts expect another capital raising may soon be required to keep the company in businessÂ and fix a balance sheet weighed down by borrowings of around $477 million.
Once considered Australiaâ€™s most promising next-generation mining company, Lynas has blown around $1 billion developing its Malaysian Lynas Advanced Material Plant (LAMP)Â facility to process rare earth minerals mined at its Mount Weld plant in Western Australia.
The group has burnt through the cash in an attempt to get the LAMP operationally cash flow neutral. The quarterly report for the period ending December 2013 showed cash-in-hand remaining of $74.7 million with negative operating cashflow of $17.19 million partly a result of sales coming to only around one-fifth of operating production and administration costs for the quarter.
In the six-month period to December 2013 Lynas spent $67.1 million with cash receipts from sales at just $10.2 million.
In April 2011 shares traded at $2.55 and today trade for less than 20 cents, which leaves the question has the group reached the bottom?
Lynas' announcements to the market last week included proclamations that at current prices for the rare-earths sold it will be operationally cash flow neutral at a monthly rare-earth sales rate of 750 tonnes.
In March 575 tonnes were produced (not sold) and the company says come June 2014 it will be producing the equivalent of 11,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) as part of its Phase I project. That's equivalent to 917 tonnes per month and well above the operationally cash flow neutral level if sold at expected prices. Even if the plant is operationally cash flow positive, Lynas has its debt pile to service and other required investments and expenses to meet.
This means the 11,000 tonnes per year figure is a minimum and given that only 575 tonnes were produced in March that's going to require a rapid, problem free, production ramp-up over the next quarter to end of June 2014.
Lynas also received approval in November for the Phase II part of its LAMP project which if successful would allow it to bring an additional 11,000 tpa of capacity online, making a total of 22,000 tpa at which it estimates a 14$-15$ cash cost per kilo produced. This versus a reported selling price of $22.63 per kilo in the quarter to March 2014.
Lynasâ€™ Achillesâ€™ Heel though is the massive decline in prices of two of its key rare-earth resources over the last two years. Lanthanum Oxide and Cerium Oxide have more than halved in market price at exactly the wrong time, leaving the business unable to produce some of its key rare earth resources at a profit for now.
Lynas believes its time will come, as rare-earth production requires significant capital and operational expenditure to safely manage residual wastes. This means as demand rises new supply is likely to come from existing producers raising capacity, rather than newcomers entering a capital intensive and evidently tricky market.
It estimates that demand for its rare-earth materials used for renewable energy, electronics, lighting and oil refining sectors could grow at 5-6% per annum. Almost all other production comes from Chinese controlled producers and their varying levels of production have tended to dictate market prices received per kilogram of rare earths produced.
Itâ€™s also notable that while the company has been talking up its prospects over the last week, its own chairman and major shareholder, Nick Curtis, has been offloading his own shareholding on a substantial basis over the past year, including dumping 10 million shares to Credit Suisse in March 2014 alone.
If the group's stars align and it meets production guidance alongside a recovery in the rare-earths price it may be in a position to manage its debt and shares trading around the 20 cent level today will look a screaming bargain soon enough.
However, the prospects of a price rise in its key commodities looks thin andÂ bargain-hunting investors will be placing their faith in a company and management team that has been long-on-promise and short-on-delivery so far. Given the debt and cost blowouts this is a very high-risk investment, however, if the company is able to execute a turnaround in union with an eventual rare earth price rise, now would be the time to snare a bargain.