The value of platinum begins to rise

Marketplace Staff Apr 7, 2010

The value of platinum begins to rise

Marketplace Staff Apr 7, 2010


Bob Moon: We’ve watched gold become an alluring commodity in these hard times. Investors looking for a secure place to grow their money have pushed prices to over $1,000 an ounce.

But to borrow a phrase, all the glitters is not gold. Another precious metal has been gaining attention: platinum.

A new fund makes it possible for investors to buy and sell an interest in platinum, just like they would shares of stock. And platinum prices, too, are soaring. Sally Herships takes a look.

SALLY HERSHIPS: Mitchel Zelman is a mechanic in Brooklyn. About a year ago he got a call from a customer who thought there was a problem with his Honda. It was making this really loud noise.

MITCHEL ZELMAN: I expect to see a hole in the muffler, or a pipe that broke off.

Instead, when he gets the car up on the hydraulic lift…

ZELMAN: I see a big gaping space.

It wasn’t a problem with the muffler. The catalytic converter had been stolen. That’s the part that cleans the car’s exhaust.

ZELMAN: I wasn’t aware that there was a market where they were actually stealing catalytic converters out of cars.

But there is. Zelman’s had six other customers who’ve also had their catalytic converters stolen. Turns out converters contain precious metals, like platinum. And platinum is worth a lot right now.

JEFFERY CHRISTIAN: Platinum is a little over $1,600 right now.

That’s per ounce. Jeffery Christian is managing director at CPM — a commodities research group. Christian is married, and I’m telling you this, because he’s wearing a wedding ring, which is not made of platinum.

CHRISTIAN: I have a gold wedding ring.

HERSHIPS: So how much metal would be in a ring like your wedding ring?

CHRISTIAN: A wedding ring like mine might have maybe less than a tenth of an ounce.

Jewelers like that platinum doesn’t tarnish. And carmakers like that it turns exhaust into carbon dioxide and water. So they’re the biggest chunk of the market — 60 percent of platinum is used for catalytic converters.

CHRISTIAN: Then when you start talking about producing 60 or 70 million cars per year on a global basis, it adds up.

Christian says the auto industry is expanding. And that means higher prices. But it’s not just demand that can make platinum prices go up; it’s supply too.

I stopped by New York City’s commodities exchange and talked with board member George Gero.

GEORGE GERO: Platinum comes from China. Platinum comes from Russia. Platinum comes from South Africa.

But let’s stop for a minute and focus on one of the world’s biggest suppliers — Russia.

GERO: Where sometimes when platinum seems to fall off in price, the export from Russia slows up.

In other words when Russia is unhappy with prices they try to make their platinum more scarce, until the price goes back up.

And analyst Jeffery Christian says there are even more supply problems. The world’s largest platinum producer is South Africa.

CHRISTIAN: There are any number of things that are constraining South African production. You have had several years of problems with electricity cut-backs, work stoppages for safety reasons, governmental problems.

And that can mean even more shortages and even higher prices. But there’s one platinum customer who keeps buying regardless of price.

ROSA MULLOCANDOV: If you want to get married, you’ll come up with the ring.

Rosa Mullocandov works at a jewelry store in New York City’s diamond district.

MULLOCANDOV: It’s the finest metal that everybody is requesting. Even though it’s costing more money, they still want platinum.

In New York, I’m Sally Herships for Marketplace.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.