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Russia metals bonanza raises hopes, fears

Investors cheer the industry but security analysts worry Moscow may use its market clout to consolidate power.

August 13, 2007|Alex Nicholson | The Associated Press

NORILSK, RUSSIA — Wearing fireproof coveralls, Ilya Dmitriyev plods past a smelter that belches smoke and gushes molten metal, the chief product of this gritty patch of Arctic tundra where the air tastes of sulfur and concrete apartment blocks crumble on the shifting permafrost.

This is the home of Norilsk Nickel, a former slave labor camp -- once part of the dictator Josef Stalin's infamous Gulag -- that is now the gray capital of Russia's glittering new metals empire.

Since President Vladimir V. Putin came to power in 2000, oil and natural gas have fueled Russia's economic rebirth, creating a generation of young Russian billionaires. Now metal is Russia's latest natural resource bonanza.

The rise of the industry has delighted investors but has caused disquiet among foreign security analysts. Some fear Moscow might use its vast mineral wealth as a tool for coercive diplomacy, the way many believe the Kremlin has used oil and gas supplies to punish Western-leaning former Soviet nations.

As the output of Chinese and Indian factories surged last year, the price of nickel leaped 64% to an average of $24,155 per ton on the London Metal Exchange, more than doubling Norilsk Nickel's profit. Although the price has retreated from a high of more than $50,000 per ton in May, it currently trades at about $29,000 a ton.

Workers like Dmitriyev have benefited. Wages here rose 40% in April, and Norilsk's smelter workers now earn about $1,500 monthly -- triple the national average.

But the big winners at Norilsk are the company's two 40-something shareholders, the cautious Vladimir Potanin and the flamboyant bachelor Mikhail Prokhorov.

In the last year, their personal fortunes more than doubled, to more than $13.5 billion each, according to Forbes magazine. Russia's top five metals magnates -- including Potanin and Prokhorov -- saw their combined value jump 70% last year to $66 billion, Forbes said.

Through Norilsk, these two men control half of the world's output of palladium, which is used in catalytic converters, and one-fifth of its nickel -- a key ingredient in stainless steel.

Prices have risen sharply for most metals Russia produces, not just nickel.

Copper is up 30% this year. Average aluminum prices rose 36% last year; the metal is currently trading 8% above the 2006 average. Iron ore prices have doubled in the last three years. Meanwhile, Russia's low electricity rates and wages have made mining companies more profitable than their competitors abroad.

Russia's mineral wealth has few rivals. A local legend says as God scattered riches around the world, his hands froze when he came to Norilsk and dropped everything that he was carrying.

Record profits have driven a wave of acquisitions. Of the $9.5 billion Russian companies spent on buyouts last year, metals companies accounted for 84%, Russian Mergers & Acquisitions magazine reports. This year, that figure could double.

In June, Norilsk acquired control of a Canadian mining operation, LionOre, in a $6.4-billion deal -- the largest-ever Russian purchase overseas. The deal adds nickel mines and processing plants in Australia, South Africa and Botswana to the company's portfolio.

Norilsk also controls Stillwater Mining Co. of Montana, the only U.S. platinum and palladium miner. This year it paid $408 million for the Cleveland-based OM Group Inc.'s nickel assets in Australia and Finland.

Created to strengthen Stalin's USSR, Norilsk Nickel -- like so many Soviet mammoths -- was sold for a song by President Boris N. Yeltsin to politically connected bankers in the 1990s.

But analysts praise Potanin and Prokhorov for streamlining a sprawling, debt-laden colossus into a modern multinational. The company controls mines and refineries in eight countries and employs tens of thousands of workers across the globe.

But it is just one of Russia's metals titans.

More than 12% of global aluminum output comes from the privately owned UC Russian Aluminum, among the world's biggest producers of the vital metal. Russia's state-owned mines and stockpiles account for 20% of the world's uranium, more than any single country. A mining company controlled by the state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, is the world's biggest producer of titanium.

Without titanium from Russia's VSMPO-Avisma, Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus' A350 XWB couldn't fly, analysts say. The metal is also crucial to Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an advanced fighter bomber being jointly developed by Britain and the U.S.

In the West, there is quiet concern Russia will use its clout in the metals market to help consolidate its geopolitical power.

"Due to Russia's actions on the nonferrous metals markets, there have been claims of manipulation or dubious behavior," Robert Larsson of the Swedish Defense Research Agency wrote in a report. "As the sector by and large is shielded from insight and data are secret or unreliable, it is hard to assess, but it is clear that Russia's impact on the markets is substantial."

Metals are too easily moved around for Russia to cut off supplies to a single country, as it can with piped gas. But any interruptions at mines like Norilsk's would have a huge effect on markets.

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