Tracker - January 18, 2022: Spec Value rating for FPX Nickel Corp
FPX Nickel Corp is a Good Spec Value rated Favorite at $0.50 as of December 31, 2021 based on the economic implications of a PEA completed in September 2020 which proposes to open pit mine the Baptiste deposit on the 100% owned Decar property in central British Columbia at a rate of 120,000 tpd for a 35 year mine life to produce an average 99 million lbs of nickel annually in the form of a 60%-65% ferro-nickel concentrate shipped directly to stainless steel makers. CapEx and life of mine sustaining capital were estimated at USD $1.67 billion and $1.1 billion with AISC of $3.12 per lb nickel. At a base case price of USD $7.75/lb nickel and 8% discount rate the PEA indicated an after-tax NPV of USD $1.72 billion, clearing the development hurdle where NPV should match or exceed CapEx, and an after-tax IRR of 18.3% which is sufficient for such a long-lived mine. Based on 231.6 million shares fully diluted, 100% net interest and a CAD:USD exchange rate of 1.25 this NPV translates into a future price target of $9.28. In April 2021 FPX raised sufficient capital to fund delivery of a PFS by mid 2023. The reason the stock price represents Good Speculative Value is because no nickel deposit consisting of 1.5 billion tonnes at an average grade of 0.122% nickel has ever been put into production. FPX Nickel Corp is a fabulous opportunity for any speculator who can understand why the Decar project is very different from every other nickel mine.
The secret is in the nature of the grade, which is based on the Davis Tube Recovery assaying method which measures only the portion of a rock's nickel content that is recoverable through magnetic separation at a specified minimum grind size. At Decar the host rock is an ultramafic ophiolite body that has been serpentinized in a manner where nickel has alloyed with iron to form grains of natural stainless steel called awaruite. The flow-sheet is a simple three step process involving grinding, magnetic separation, and flotation of the concentrate to yield a ferro-nickel concentrate whose nickel content is 60%-65% with the rest iron and a minor 1% cobalt credit.
There are no sulphides present and the concentrate can be fed directly into a stainless steel mill with the nickel content payable at 98% of the LME price though the iron and cobalt are not payable. The PEA assumes an 85% recovery but metallurgical studies done in 2021 indicate 90% recovery is achievable. Because flotation pulls off the magnetite as a by-product there is a potential market for it though the PEA assumes it will be part of the tailings which will represent no acid drainage problems. Market studies may enable FPX to include the magnetite waste product as a payable by-product in the PFS.
The high magnesium content of the finely ground tailings offer an opportunity for carbon sequestration. Studies are underway to see if physical handling such as agitation can enhance the natural sequestration rate achieved by undisturbed tailings. Not only would Decar have a significantly lower carbon footprint than nickel derived from sulphide or laterite ores as a result of its simple flowsheet, but the Decar project has the potential to be carbon neutral which would make the ferro-nickel concentrate with its verifiably clean path of interest to stainless steel users seeking ESG credentials for their product inputs.
FPX was able in early 2020 to demonstrate the conceptual possibility of making nickel and cobalt sulphate from the concentrate for the battery market and has a metallurgical study underway to determine if making battery grade sulphates is competitive with other methods of reprocessing refined nickel or extending the laterite flow-sheet. The outcome is expected in early Q3 of 2022; if viable the resulting verifiably clean nickel and cobalt sulphate supply becomes of interest to electric vehicles makers such as Tesla and Volkswagen among others. At this point it is not clear to what extent nickel and cobalt will be part of the EV battery configuration that becomes mainstream in 2030 and beyond, which is about when one might expect the Decar project to come on stream as a mine. This uncertainty may be a blessing for FPX Nickel.
The high CapEx means that a major, not a junior, will develop the mine, but if the battery optionality becomes reality, FPX Nickel will be able to raise transitional capital from ESG focused funds or end users so that it can push the project beyond PFS into the feasibility and permitting stage to set up an auction for a buyout. The speculative question is when a mining giant like Rio Tinto or BHP with minimal exposure to nickel would make a pre-emptive move to buy out FPX Nickel. Or when an established nickel producer like Vale with battery grade sulphate ambitions might add Decar to its roster of Canadian nickel mines.
The Baptiste deposit became the delineation focus in 2009 when Cliffs had Decar under option because outcrop was available and the area had already been logged. In 2021 FPX Nickel finally had a chance to mount a 9 hole 2,688 m drill program on the Van target 6 km from Baptiste higher up the mountain. The results yielded a 400-750 m wide by 750 m long by 225 m deep (vertical) tonnage footprint whose upper 70-100 m ran 0.14%-0.16% DTR nickel, better than for the Baptiste deposit. The higher grade portion of this slab represents 100-150 million tonnes.
The zone is open to the west and south. During 2022 FPX will mount another 10 hole core drilling program to extend and infill the Van system on 200 m spacing to support a resource estimate. Since the Baptiste mining schedule only has a few early years averaging 0.13%-0.14% ore it is possible that the eventual mining plan starts with the Van deposit whose metallurgy can be fast-tracked using the Baptiste studies as a guide. The stock price was not rewarded in 2021 by this accomplishment which potentially boosts the economic value and definitely boosts the long term strategic value as a future supply of clean, possibly carbon neutral nickel. 2021 was a year when the FPX story kept getting better without price appreciation, a bummer for existing shareholders but a boon for newcomers. Part of the problem was that the April financing attracted a generalist US fund which became FPX's third largest shareholder but after a couple months got the willies and spent the rest of the year liquidating its position.
FPX Nickel Inc is a Good Spec Value rated Favorite because at $7.75 base case nickel the PEA indicates a target price of $4.82 using a 10% discount rate and $13.62 using a 5% rate. At the $10.26/lb nickel price in mid January 2022 these numbers jump to $12.20 and $26.67. And if you dare to assume a long term $15/lb nickel price, the target prices jump to staggering levels of $26.12 and $51.30 per share. If you substitute the 0.14% Van grade as the LOM average the target prices at $10.26 per lb are $15.62 and $33.49. This is before any potential value add from making nickel and cobalt sulphate is included, or finding a market for the magnetite waste product.
Now obviously the indicated after-tax NPV is not the proper value for a project whose economics are based on the 30%-35% uncertainty associated with a PEA. A project that is at a fully funded PFS stage according to the uncertainty ladder of the rational speculation model deserves a value of 25% to 50% of the ultimate NPV outcome which would knock our $12.20-$26.67 price targets at $10.26/lb nickel based on the PEA scenario down to a range of $3.00-$6.00 per share at a 10% discount rate and $6-$13 per share at a 5% discount rate. That implies FPX Nickel should be trading 500% higher than the $0.50 stock price at the end of 2021 where FPX Nickel Corp was a made a 2022 Favorite. The junior is executing all the tedious steps of a PFS such as metallurgical studies and geotechnical drilling, and given the homogenous nature of the Baptiste deposit, we should not expect any unpleasant technical surprises. The biggest risk is probably the anti-mining lobby which opposes any large scale mining operation and will not hesitate to mobilize local First Nations groups to oppose the permitting process. But given the dirty alternatives for nickel supply, the Decar project might end up being supported by thoughtful environmentalists and the First Nations in this infrastructurally good location who already are involved logging activities might like a long lived mine in their backyard.
*JK owns shares in FPX Nickel Corp