What’s this about Johnson-Matthey exiting the EV battery cathode business?

The legacy carmakers and their supply base both face bankruptcy if they make the wrong decisions on entering the “transition to EVs” markets. This is because the OEM automotive industry is, along with semiconductor manufacturing, one of the most capital-intensive industries in the world. Just like with a 200,000 ton DWT ship, inertia being the problem on the one hand and prior deployment of massive amounts of capital being the issue on the other, the OEM automotive industry cannot change course in a short time, and so must be careful to choose the right path (allocation of capital) before starting the voyage.

The battery materials’ processing markets were surprised yesterday by an unexpected announcement from the UK’s most prominent technology metals’ processor, Johnson-Matthey Ltd. (JM), that it was withdrawing from the battery materials’ processing market due to its estimation that the return on capital from manufacturing lithium-ion battery cathodes would be too low to justify the allocation of capital required to do so. JM’s stated reason for this decision was that the battery materials’ business is becoming “commoditized,” so that JM’s hoped for competitive advantage based on its specialized cathode manufacturing technology would either not materialize or not be good enough to be competitive.

But, even if so, It is the timing of this announcement that seems puzzling.

Both CATL, China’s largest integrated battery manufacturer and Umicore, Europe’s largest battery materials processor have poor returns on capital in their respective battery business sectors, and this has been going on since both entered the battery business, so JM cannot have been surprised by this factor, and, in fact, should have taken it into account on day one of its foray into the battery materials’ business.

So, what’s it all about?

Large companies with either diversified products or vertical integration can distribute costs. Legacy OEM automotive EV makers, for example, like Germany’s Volkswagen, which had a 5 billion Euro profit last year, can afford to lose some money introducing its EVs to the market at a loss per vehicle, while it tests both market acceptance and the lowering of manufacturing costs due to scaling up production.

Let’s set aside my continuing accounting of battery raw materials’ resources as woefully insufficient to support a transition to EVs, and concentrate on the OEM automotive industry’s costs of bringing a new vehicle with any type of power train to market.

It is always multi-faceted crap shoot, and the history of government intervention in the car market is not one to inspire confidence.

Designing a new car and preparing to produce it costs billions of dollars and takes 3 to 6 years.

Government intervention in this market is always a compendium of what you can’t do, not what you can. The U.S. and EU government’s favorite regulatory intervention in the OEM automotive industry is the required “average miles-per-gallon” range for an OEM’s output. This “standard” was first introduced to reduce the emissions of hazardous gases and then added the reduction of the emission of particulates to its mandate. The current EV craze was actually the result of California’s 1990’s experimental legislation requiring the slow phase in of zero-emission vehicles. General Motors brought out a battery electric vehicle, the EV in the late 1990s, and Toyota introduced its “hybrid” Prius into the US (mainly California) market in 1997 to meet that mandate. The Prius, a hybrid, using, at first, a nickel-metal-hydride (the metal being a mix of rare earths) battery prospered. The EV with its lead-acid batteries and short range, 90 miles before needing a recharge, did not (It helped that GM lobbyists got California to suspend enforcement of the zero emissions mandate). GM had only leased its EVs; they were recalled and scrapped.

BEVs as a type went into hibernation until 2005 when Elon Musk decided that lithium-ion batteries were ready for prime time. Global Cooling became Global Warming and then Climate Change, and Musk’s struggling, capital devouring, OEM automotive venture, Tesla, kickstarted a revival of a serious EV industry, something last seen by the great grandfathers of Detroit’s, Wolfsburg’s, Paris’, and Tokyo’s car industry leaders when they decided that Thomas Edison’s Nickel-iron batteries were not practical for even their then short range motor cars. They knew that Rockefeller’s gasoline and kerosene distribution system in “filling stations” was far more practical than Edison’s expensive and hard to maintain DC generating stations except for trolley cars.

So, what’s this got to do with JM’s decision to pull out of the battery cathode business?

The answer is that JM has (correctly) concluded that the market, though large, is limited, and that very large profitable multi-product and/or vertically integrated or (whisper) state-supported companies are already driving prices down by competition to get market share.

JM has concluded, again correctly, that most of the cars and trucks manufactured for the next generation will use internal combustion engines and that its core automotive exhaust emission catalytic converter business based on its dominance in the processing and use of platinum group metals is where it has the best competitive advantage and sunk costs.

The reputed costs to JM associated with building a Poland sited cathode plant were twice the industry average.

JM was once also in the rare earth processing business, and it exited that in the 1980s when the first Molycorp was losing its dominance to Chinese low-cost competitors. That was a wise decision then, and getting out of the lithium-ion battery cathode business before getting into massive non-recoverable debt is also a wise decision.

Finally, I would like to repeat my prediction that since the OEM automotive assemblers do not understand or want to understand that the manufacturing of EVs using lithium-ion batteries is limited by the availability of lithium, there will be a cull. The survivors will be those OEMs that can balance the production of their allocation of (raw materials’ supply limited) EVs with ICE production profitably. BMW is my choice for the most likely survivor, because it has already announced that it will continue to produce a mix of powertrain choices in its vehicles. The rest, so far, are either going “all-electric” or eliminating ICE production and development. They chose poorly.

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One response

  1. Tom Hargreaves Avatar
    Tom Hargreaves

    As technologies accelerate, the importance of opinion based upon past experience may becoming irrelevant. Today’s evolving leaders have grown up recognizing that change is the asset of economic growth. While there are obstacles to resolve, those that lead towards the end objective will benefit beyond public expectations
    I suspect the emerging leaders will change far more standards common among today’s leaders than can be understood. Nothing will be restricted from the overhaul that will occur in the next 20 years.

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