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As you do retail combat on the front lines on this Black Friday, remember that much of what you’re buying is made possible by rare metals, and the supply chains of the companies selling you everything from cars to cell phones are likely 10 or more links deep.

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A simple electronic toothbrush, for instance, requires circuit boards dotted with materials of tantalum in a capacitor that helps it store energy.

Thanks for the circuit board, tantalum! Source: Adobe Stock/Lionelpc

Thanks for the circuit board, tantalum! Source: Adobe Stock/Lionel pcn

It also requires a neodymium, dysprosium, boron and iron magnet to provide the power to spin its bristles and it needs batteries made from nickel and cadmium or lithium.

Smart Rare Metals

Buying that special someone a smartphone this year?

60% of smartphones are made from metals or ceramics. A mobile phone’s antenna requires titanium and boron. Its transmitter requires titanium and barium. Its condensers? Tantalum and strontium. The speaker and microphone require samarium and cobalt. This team of rare metals is held together by a beryliium connector and boosted by a gallium power amplifier.

Rare earth element phosphors make a phone’s screen brighter. The smarter phones get, the more metals they require. Smartphones contain more metals, in greater amount and often at higher grades than their predecessors, according to David Abraham, author of “The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age.

Screen Time

Notice the screen of your smartphone getting bigger? If you purchase anything with a screen this holiday season, you’re very likely buying indium powder as, when it’s combined with tin, it becomes a unique transparent conductor that sticks well to glass.

Abraham writes that smartphones require four to six times more gallium than a regular cell phone just a few years ago.

You could just skip the middleman and get your friends and relatives bulk tantalum or dysprosium, I suppose. This gift probably wouldn’t go over too well, unless they’re metal traders, but it could be a good investment. As rare metals become more, well, rare, the supply chains of smartphones and other electronics will be increasingly strained as we consume more and more technology and even our children’s toys become more interconnected.

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Rare metals are key to building our future of consumer technology, and there is likely no greater example than the rush to purchase new electronics every Black Friday.

Welded carbon steel pipe

Source: Adobe Stock/Sasint

With commodities as a whole experiencing a bearish 2015, many have turned to steel as the obvious scapegoat for the price declines. But despite overcapacity and slumping prices, don’t expect miners and producers to cut supply just yet.

According to a report this week from Bloomberg Business, a Macquarie commodities analyst traveled to China to better gauge the steel industry and the steps it has taken or will take to offset slumping prices, and the results were underwhelming.

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“The bank has previously highlighted the steel industry as a poster child for commodities woes, with particular emphasis on overcapacity in China,” wrote Tracy Alloway for the news source. “In the face of slumping metals prices, the pressure is on miners and producers to cut supply. Unfortunately for global commodities prices, a chunk of the world’s metals producers seem reluctant to do so—even in the face of losses.”

The reason for this? Leveraging alternative solutions to offset losses, including encouraging traders to prepay for their buys and attempting “VAT evasion among small and private mills,” the news source states.

The Outlook for Steel, Long-Term

We recently reported that most steel buyers look at short-term steel cycles to gauge where the market is. However, it can be beneficial to look at long-term cycles, and to do that we have to study history. Based on previous cycles, we could be facing 15-20 years of stagnation and decline centered around mill closures, low prices and job losses. Judging from the same history, however, the light at the end of the tunnel shines on new and improved steelmakers and minimills.

How will steel and base metals fare for the remainder of 2015 and into 2016? You can find a more in-depth steel price forecast and outlook in our brand new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report. For a short- and long-term buying strategy with specific price thresholds: