There has probably never been a better time to be in
the sand business. The world uses nearly 50bn tons of sand and gravel a
year—almost twice as much as a decade ago. No other natural resource is
extracted and traded on such an epic scale, bar water.
Demand is greatest in Asia, where cities are growing
fast (sand is the biggest ingredient in cement, asphalt and glass). China got
through more cement between 2011 and 2013 than America did in the entire 20th
century. Since the 1960s Singapore—the world’s largest importer of sand—has
expanded its territory by almost a quarter, mainly by dumping it into the sea.
The OECD thinks the construction industry’s demand for sand and
gravel will double over the next 40 years. Little wonder then that the price of
sand is rocketing. In Vietnam in 2017 it quadrupled in just one year.
In the popular imagination, sand is synonymous with
limitlessness. In reality it is a scarce commodity, for which builders are now
scrabbling. Not just any old grains will do. The United Arab Emirates is
carpeted in dunes, but imports sand nonetheless because the kind buffeted by
desert winds is too fine to be made into cement. Sand shaped by water is
coarser and so binds better. Extraction from coastlines and rivers is therefore
surging. But according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Asians
are scooping up sand faster than it can naturally replenish itself. In
Indonesia some two dozen small islands have vanished since 2005. Vietnam
expects to run out of sand this year.
All this has an environmental cost. Removing sand
from riverbeds deprives fish of places to live, feed and spawn. It is thought
to have contributed to the extinction of the Yangzi river dolphin. Moreover,
according to WWF, a conservation group, as much as 90% of the
sediment that once flowed through the Mekong, Yangzi and Ganges rivers is
trapped behind dams or purloined by miners, thereby robbing their deltas both
of the nutrients that make them fecund and of the replenishment that counters
coastal erosion. As sea levels rise with climate change, saltwater is surging
up rivers in Australia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, among other places,
and crop yields are falling in the areas affected. Vietnam’s agriculture ministry
has warned that seawater may travel as far as 110km up the Mekong this winter.
The last time that happened, in 2016, 1,600 square kilometers of land were
ruined, resulting in losses of $237m. Locals have already reported seeing dead
fish floating on the water.
Curbing sand-mining is difficult because so much of
it is unregulated. Only about two-fifths of the sand extracted worldwide every
year is thought to be traded legally, according to the Global Initiative
Against Transnational Organized Crime. In Shanghai miners on the Yangzi evade
the authorities by hacking transponders, which broadcast the positions of
ships, and cloning their co-ordinates. It is preferable, of course, to co-opt
officials. Ministers in several state governments in India have been accused of
abetting or protecting illegal sand-mining.
Scientists are experimenting with alternatives to
concrete and cement. Architects are trying to find ways to use such materials
more sparingly. Even the odd government is taking action. In 2018, Maharashtra
passed regulations requiring contractors to use plastic waste as filler when
building or repairing roads. Singapore is creating a new patch of land by
draining it of water rather than piling it with sand. Kiran Pereira of
SandStories.org, which promotes awareness of the issue, says “there are plenty of
solutions” if only governments would find the will to implement them. Time to
pull heads from the sand.
“Didi Chuxing may have defeated Uber, but China’s dominant ride-hailing platform is no match for the country’s local governments after being forced to gut its urban fleet to comply with regulations.”
“Didi is the world’s fourth-biggest private tech group with a $34bn valuation last September. It has raised more than $10bn from investors including Apple, who invested $1bn in the company last year.”
But… there is the issue of recent regulation from Beijing and Shanghai: “local cars, local drivers.” Issue is that the majority of Didi’s drivers and especially the vast majority of its low paid drivers were migrants.
We’ve seen the model. Didi and Uber rely on marginalizing it’s drivers or losing its investor’s money, hence the push for autonomous cars to reduce its labor costs.
As the company put it “because our transportation capacity has been reduced recently, there may be some impact…on the chances of successfully hailing a ride and on waiting times, which Didi apologizes for.”
“Shaun Rein of China Market Research Group said: ‘The new measures have a serious impact on Didi’s business. It threatens their ability to grow because it’s hard to find drivers.'”
Hence, “in February Didi announced it was moving into high-end car-hailing services, a consequence of losing its pricing advantage against taxis.”
“Analysts say that the company has no choice but to go upmarket and look for other sources of growth.”
And of course, they have to be mindful that other cities are likely to implement similar regulations.
“Didi’s new direction is also likely to bring it into closer co-operation with the traditional taxi companies it once competed with, and even take it back to its roots as a taxi-hiring platform.”
“India’s ‘sand mafia’ is doing a roaring trade. The Times of India estimates that the illicit market for sand is worth around 150bn rupees ($2.3bn) a year; at one site in Tamil Nadu alone, 50,000 lorryloads [truck loads] are mined every day and smuggled to nearby states. Gangs around the country frequently turn to violence as they vie to continue cashing in on a building boom.”
“Most of the modern global economy depends on sand. Most of it pours into the construction industry, where it is used to make concrete and asphalt. A smaller quantity of fine-grade sand is used to produce glass and electronics, and, particularly in America, to extract oil from shale in the fracking industry. No wonder, then, that sand and gravel are the most extracted materials in the world. A 2014 report by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates they account for up to 85% by weight of everything mined globally each year.”
“…Of the 13.7bn tons of sand mined worldwide for construction last year, 70% was used in Asia. Half was used in China alone, where the government estimates that it built 32.3m houses and 4.5m km (2.8m miles) of road between 2011 and 2015.”
“Sand often makes up the very ground that is built on, too. By virtue of dumping vast quantities of sand into the sea, Singapore is now over 20% larger than it was when it became independent in 1965.”
Thing is “sand may appear plentiful, but is in fact become scarce. Not all types are useful: desert sand is too fine for most commercial purposes (Qatar is a big importer and the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai was built using Australian imports). Reserves also need to be located near construction sites; as transportation costs are high compared with the price…”
“Substitutes for sand do exist. Mud can be used for reclamation, straw and wood to build houses, and crushed rock to make concrete. Asphalt and concrete can be recycled. Production processes will shift towards these alternatives as the price of sand rises…”
Further, select countries are seeking to do their part. “Reduced demand from Singapore might discourage illegal mining in nearby countries. Rising prices will eventually force developing-country builders to explore alternatives to sand. But without better law enforcement, high sand prices also make illicit mining more lucrative. Despite the damaging consequences, the sand mafia will continue raking it in for a while.”
WSJ – Daily Shot: Employment in video-tape and DVD rental stores 3/30
“American companies are trying to stop employees from raiding their 401(k)s, in an attempt to ensure that older workers can afford to retire and make room for younger, less-expensive hires.”
“Tapping or pocketing retirement funds early, known in the industry as leakage, threatens to reduce the wealth in U.S. retirement accounts by about 25% when the lost annual savings are compounded over 30 years, according to an analysis by economists at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.”
“‘Employers have done a lot to encourage people to save in 401(k) plans, such as automatically enrolling them. But there is a growing recognition that if the money isn’t staying in the system, the objective of helping employees reach their retirement goals isn’t being met,’ says Lori Lucas, defined-contribution practice leader at investment-consulting firm Callan Associates Inc.”
“Employees who grew accustomed to borrowing from their 401(k)s during the recession are tempted by the rising balances in these types of plans, which currently hold $7 trillion, up from $4.2 trillion in 2009, experts say.”
Further, when employees change jobs there is the temptation not to rollover their 401(k) balances.
“On average, about 30% to 40% of people leaving jobs to elect to cash out their accounts and pay taxes and often penalties rather than leave the money or transfer it to another tax-advantaged retirement plan, according to recordkeepers and economists.”
“Most plans also allow people to pull out their savings-after paying taxes and typically a penalty-for reasons including buying a home, preventing foreclosure, and paying medical bills and college expenses, something relatively few participants do annually. These are known as hardship distributions and the employee must demonstrate an ‘immediate and heavy financial need,’ according to the Internal Revenue Service.”
“Employees can also generally choose to borrow up to half of their 401(k) balance or $50,000, whichever is less, without having to state a reason. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a nonprofit research group, 87% of participants are in plans that let them take 401(k) loans.”
“About a fifth of 401(k) participants with access to 401(k) loans take them, according to the Investment Company Institute, a mutual-fund industry trade group. While most 401(k) borrowers repay themselves with interest, about 10% default on about $5 billion a year, says Olivia Mitchell, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.”
“‘4019(k) plan leakage amounts to a worryingly large sum of money that threatens to undermine retirement security,’ says Jake Spiegel, senior research analyst at research firm Morningstar Inc. His calculations show that employees pulled $68 billion from their 401(k) accounts taking loans and cashing out when changing jobs in 2013, up from $36 billion they withdrew in 2004.”
“Australia’s house prices are rising at their fastest pace in seven years, igniting fears of an emerging property bubble and prompting regulators to crack down on risky bank lending.”
“New figures on Monday show residential property prices have increased 12.9% in the past 12 months, with prices in Sydney surging 18.9% – the fastest rate of growth in almost 15 years.”
“House prices in Sydney have more than doubled since the financial crisis hit in January 2009 while prices in Melbourne are up 92.4%. This has occurred despite sluggish consumer price inflation, tepid rates of business investment and economic growth.”
“Surging house prices are a concern for global regulators as they seek to prevent the asset price bubbles in an ear of ultra-low interest rates ushered in by the financial crisis in 2008. Regulators in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and a host of other countries have introduced macroprudential rules in a bid to slow house price inflation.”
“In 2014 Australian regulators placed a 10% limit on growth in new lending to investors, a move that initially slowed bank lending to the buy-to-let sector. But a recent increase in lending to investors prompted regulators on Friday to issue new rules limiting the flow of ‘interest only’ mortgage lending by banks to 30% of new loans issued.”
“About 40% of new mortgages are issued on ‘interest only’ terms, under which borrowers do not have to pay back the principal of the loan for a specific period.”
“The regulator also placed limits on the volume of ‘interest only’ lending at loan-to-value ratios above 80% and flagged closer scrutiny of lending at loan-to-value ratios above 90%.”
More importantly, economists are pointing to the Australian tax system that needs some reform. Specifically “Australia’s system of ‘negative gearing’ provides investors with a tax break allowing them to claim as losses the financing and other costs of their rental properties against other income. The tax break has become so popular that 15% of the electorate have become buy-to-let investors.”
“Investor loans make up just over one-third of the A$1.49tn (US$1.13tn) residential property market, according to Australia’s prudential regulator.”
Reminds of me of the U.S. tax system before the Tax Reform Act of 1986 – when professionals of all sorts would invest in real estate simply for the sake of the tax write-off. If the property made money or went up, all the better. Easy to see how valuations can become disconnected from their fundamentals. Alternative truths and some hard facts about coal. Nick Butler. Financial Times. 2 Apr. 2017.
“The share of electricity production in the UK accounted for by coal fell to just 3.5% in the third quarter of 2016.”
“Worldwide, the number of new coal-fired power stations starting construction fell by over 60% in 2016.”
“Over-supply has pushed thermal coal prices down to half the level reached in 2010.”
At the same time
“Some 42,000MW of new coal-fired generating capacity was brought on stream in China last year and Beijing announced that coal consumption was set to rise by 19% over the next five years, despite rapid growth in the use of renewable sources.”
“In spite of extensive subsidies for renewables, 40% of electricity in Germany last year came from coal, leading to an increase in carbon emissions in 2016.”
“Across the world 50% of aluminum, 70% of steel and 40% of electricity are produced from coal.”
In the UK, regulation is systematically phasing out coal energy. In Germany, there is enough political support from the Social Democratic party to keep coal use going.
“In the US, the main threat to coal is not environmental regulation but price competition from low-cost natural gas. Coal is the principal victim of the shale gas revolution and the revival of the shale industry will intensify that competitive challenge over the next decade.”
“China is the world’s largest user of coal (burning more than 50% of the global total) and is pursuing a serious policy of encouraging renewables and setting a ceiling on coal demand growth.”
“The biggest challenge and the most important factor in the global coal market is India.” While the country is serious about renewable energy initiatives, the country wants economic growth. “The problem is that to grow, it needs the cheapest possible form of power on a large scale and for the moment that is coal. Nuclear, solar and wind will all contribute but coal is the pre-eminent source of supply and Indian imports will shape the world market.”
“Coal is plentiful and cheap and will be made cheaper still if US producers, under pressure from gas in their domestic market, export more.”
“Until the new sources of energy supply can beat the current low prices coal will remain the leading source of heat and power and will meet something like a third of the world’s energy needs. The proportion burnt in high efficiency, low emission plants will rise but that will remain a fraction of the total for the foreseeable future, not least because coal users cannot afford the upgrades necessary. Coal is the energy source of choice, through necessity, of the poorer half of the world.”
“Times may be tough for the industry, and the continued use of coal in sub-critical technology may be bad for the environment, but like it or not coal is not in free fall.”