My dad was a great one for giving me investment advice. I recollect this started when I was about 3. One thing he kept trying to drill into me was the long-term value of oil and gas. “They’re not making it anymore”, he’d say.
Anyway, this trip down memory lane is coming at a time when environmentalists are increasingly frustrated about the lack of progress on sustainable development—they’ve been telling us for years that our natural resources are rapidly depleting.
The West’s market economy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a difficult time dealing with this eventuality; its whole philosophy was for “free enterprise”—to the victor go the spoils, so to speak. Managed economies were a relic of a mercantilist past, when government used to pursue territorial goals to capture resources for the home country’s wealth and power.
But now in the twenty-first century, our free enterprise philosophy is being tested big time. There are new rivals in the economy, from China to South Korea and India, who very much believe in a planned economy. These countries’ state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are now buying up resources to make money, yes, but also to ensure that their countries have access to the primary materials necessary for their economies’ success. Michael Klare has recently published a compelling book called The Race for What’s Left in which he documents the scramble for what he says are the world’s last resources. While I’m not so apocalyptic in my thinking as Klare, I believe my dad was right when he said they’re not making natural resources anymore, and SOEs are investing with this in mind while we largely leave industrial development to chance.
In one compelling chapter on rare earth and other critical minerals, Klare explains the role that key resources like lithium, gallium, tantalum, and platinum play in the development of new technologies. Today, virtually none of these rare resources are produced in North America—it’s China who holds the largest reserves. SOEs are now buying up everything from oil and gas to agricultural land as part of their plans for domestic development.
Now, unlike some, I don’t think there’s anything suspicious about this. These governments are behaving exactly like the West did in pre-Industrial Revolution times. Indeed, while working the CNOOC/Nexen transaction, I was struck by the sincerity of our client’s commitment to their corporate and social responsibilities. In particular, I was deeply impressed with CNOOC’s desire to support aboriginal workers on the Nexen sites. Imagine the skepticism toward a private Western company if they said they wanted to put the local community first. In most cases in the West, it’s still “shareholders first” in all but the most enlightened companies.
My point is that it’s probably time we get our heads out of the sand and actually start thinking strategically about how we develop our natural resources. Should the U.S. and Canada be encouraging the development of rare earth mining, for example? Shouldn’t we get our acts together on energy security? International relations are really about the struggle for competitive advantage as countries pursue wealth and power. I’m not suggesting our new economic rivals are bent on doing us harm. I’m saying that they do a better job of using their capital to methodically manage their economic development priorities. Maybe we in North America ought to start doing the same.