Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The economics of space

As I've pointed out before, it is very hard to make a profit-maximizing case for anything outside of low Earth orbit (although there are lots of profit maximizing opportunities there). Tim Worstall goes through the sad truth about asteroid mining. Getting access to those sorts of deposits could revolutionize life - it's not that the treasure trove isn't an enticing prize. But it's unclear whether it's a viable business plan:

"Start from the size of the platinum market. This is some 6.2 million ounces a year. 6.5 million ounces of virgin material, that is: given the value of the metal some to all of past usage is recycled as well. At our $2,000 an ounce price guide, that gives us a market value of some $13bn a year. That certainly seems large enough to keep a space programme running. (Do note, I'm ignoring palladium, a similar sized market, and rhodium etc, which are much smaller ones. They don't change the final conclusion by their inclusion or exclusion.)

Except that's not quite how markets work. There are demand curves as well as supply ones: sure, a nice high price will encourage new entrants like Planetary into the market. But in order to shift all this new material, prices will have to decline. The important question therefore is how elastic is the market? How far, if at all, will the price fall if a new supplier enters? From a recent trade report we've seen recently, an extra 250,000 ounces has come onto the market. This has led to a 25 per cent fall in the price of platinum. Ah! Price is very sensitive to an increase in supply, then. Or, if you prefer, demand is very insensitive to a change in price. They're the same statement, really.

Now it's true that such sensitivities do not stay the same as you move up or down a supply or demand curve. As our little economics lesson for the day, think about the demand for water: if you're getting less than one litre a day you'll pay just about anything at all to get more. When you can have a swimming pool full just by turning on the tap then you'll not pay much for each marginal unit. And such demand curves can invert too: when that pool overflows into the basement you'll happily pay to have the water taken away, a negative demand for water.

But back to PGMs. We have something that we know the demand for, in the short term at least, is relatively insensitive to price. An increase in supply of as little as 250,000 ounces - seven metric tons - will drive the price down by a quarter. So instead of the $500m they were hoping for, our lads would only (yes, I know, “only”) get $375m. Can we run a space programme on that? The more platinum they try to bring down from space the lower the price gets, and so even more has to be brought down to finance the whole shebang."

So are we doomed to be Earth-bound until we're so technologically advanced and gasping for clean air and new resources on a crowded, hot planet that it makes sense to venture into space?

No - we just need something other than the profit-motive to get us there. Not everything is done with profits in mind. Quite a bit of what gets done is done by non-profits after all, and then of course there is the government. Arguably, even "profit-maximizing" firms have goals other than profit-maximization. People do benefit from space exploration, the problem is those people are not alive today and they do not have equity stakes in aerospace companies. They're people like the human residents of Mars in 2512 or the human residents of what we now call "exoplanets" in 4012.

Profit maximization is not going to do anything for these people. But there are people with visions for a better future, and those sorts of people can get the ball rolling. One example is Elon Musk who spoke recently about a Mars colony with 80,000 residents. He's not proposing things like this because it's profit-maximizing. He's proposing it because he has vision.


  1. If they play their cards right, they can get a whole lot more money than that at first by keeping their yield secret and unloading the platinum slowly.

    I don't understand why adding a whole bunch of other precious metals doesn't significantly improve the situation. Even taking the rather naive approach of dropping the whole find on the market in public in one go, having several metals means the price of each of them will be depressed less by your sale. Is the claim that they are closely correlated?

    Finally, I think it's important to remember that the investors here are probably well aware that this is not a quick flip and that it may take decades for the business model to work out. And they themselves are in some cases running the sort of companies which might be able to benefit from more abundant precious metals.

  2. Seems worthwhile to quote Dennis Wingo, one of the chief exponents of lunar PGM extraction, from over at Nasawatch (http://nasawatch.com/archives/2012/11/looking-more-cl.html#comments)

    "Extraterrestrial Platinum Group Metals from the asteroids is a bridge too far today, and this is why in my book I focused on the near term opportunity at the Moon for these metals. Even there as a stand alone product PGM's are not where they should be from the Moon but are part of a larger ecosystem created by the industrialization of the Moon, the supply of water, the ability to do manufacturing on the Moon, and to develop a sustainable off planet presence that enables the cost effective colonization of Mars.

    In the analysis that I did in my book "Moonrush" we postulated a PGM price in the $300 per ounce range, which is sustainable and is only marginally higher than the production cost on the Earth per ounce today

    I.e., PGM mining could be an important part of some more diverse future space-based economy. Unfortunately, corporations don't have the funds for building such economic systems from scratch, and democratic governments have no interest in doing so. Perhaps we can hope the Chinese will take a stab at it sometime in the 22nd century, or perhaps the Brazillians in the 23rd.

    Or perhaps we could create some new institution or institutions ("NASA Plus" or "Super ESA") to colonize space. We've got Linux and BSD operating systems and other Open System computer applications; we've got collaborative efforts like Wikipedia (and Wikileaks) working; we've gotten millions of people involved with distributed data processing through Seti@Home and similar projects. These are NOT traditional capitalism, yet they seem to work and even libertarians now take them for granted.

    We've got a framework for distributing work across the world via Amazon's Mechanical Turk; we've got PayPal and other mechanisms for channelling funds; we're getting better at managing organizations and major tasks via computer networks.... Suppose some foundation or UN agency set up organizations to develope better rockets and extract resources from lunar rocks and build self-supporting settlements on the moon and other planets, which made use of internet-supplied efforts. Suppose the USA and other nations allowed individuals to contribute funds to such an international space program and deduct the amount from their income taxes? Is this really more outlandish a notion than the modern corporation would have seemed to economists in say the 1870's?


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