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A Minor Metal Merchant’s Diary

What's wrong with warehouses?

As it now appears Brexit UK is heading for the Cuban option – an island state close to a trading zone bent on sadistically excluding it – our small company is beginning to wonder if it needs to do something… But what? Bring over six months of stock for our regular UK customers? Form a Dutch company? We haven’t a clue.

So, this week I visited a Felixstowe warehouse where we store some of our stock – a few tonnes of titanium, a bit of nickel alloy, a variety of rare earths – that kind of thing. Only, at present, the problem is the warehouse does not replicate Steinweg’s oomph in its range of services to the metal trade. The logistics company and warehouse are separately owned and my metal is stored next to home furnishings.

What we need is an MMTA registered warehouse but no one in the UK is either willing or compliant. None match the basic criteria we take for granted in Holland – a one-stop shop for logistics as well as safe storage, dedication to metal, ability to store all classes of goods from non-hazardous to dangerous, T1 and T2 areas of storage, a vault for low volume/high value goods, ability to re-weigh goods in grams, troy ounces, kilos or metric tonnes, ability to re-pack, and label to order, work with independent sworn samplers and assayers, perform reliable releases (conditional or otherwise) and a host of other services all promptly available. A warehouse not owned by a trading entity and prepared to have an insurance policy for claims of $1.25 mln for ‘unexplained losses’. We do not ask for much.

Fiber or Fibre?

At the CBI Dinner this year, which I attended courtesy of our bank in the appropriate setting of a brewery, Chancellor Philip Hammond, extolled the virtues of fibre. It was the government’s plan – I paraphrase – ‘to bring fibre to the nation’. It is something we know a bit about here in Somerset where Sharpham Farm produces a breakfast cereal of spelt bran, which I personally swear by. I have a feeling the Chancellor could be on to something. Meanwhile, in Hampton Court, where my office is, fiber of a different kind (spelt differently) was until Wednesday of this week a mere pipe dream. Perhaps it was the old road and ancient walls, but BT Openreach and Henry VIII just didn’t seem to go together. But lo and behold we got a visit from a neighbour a few months back who suggested putting money into the pot and obtaining ‘community fiber’. And this, six months later, is what we now have! Speeds to die for! And, as we had just ditched our steam-driven server, and migrated our data and email onto the Cloud, the timing could not have been better. Taking a minor metal merchant’s point of view too, the trend towards fiber is as positive for us as fibre is for Somerset farmers. With Germanium Tetrachloride an essential dopant in fiber optic glass, like other minor metal people, we stock and trade Germanium dioxide for this very purpose. We also happen to stock and trade the minor platinum group metal, Ruthenium, which is interesting too. In 2007 it was first applied in high density vertical data storage and, now that selfies are proliferating in a kind of chain reaction, it appears Ruthenium remains the metal of choice today too. Just a bit of a shame that Impala is closing four out of its eleven mines in South Africa that generate the stuff.

Welcome back to the MMTAs medical electives

It may not be well known in the wider metal trade but The Minor Metals Trade Association, of which our company is a member, is twinned with the non-minor metal Copper town of Mufulira in Zambia. Last year we formed a charity called Friends of Mufulira which offers a bursary to doctors training in the UK to take their elective in a general hospital there. This week I had dinner with the two female electives not long returned from their trip. To say they went out as girls and came back as women, or went out as trainees but came back as doctors, is not an understatement. So under-resourced was the hospital they were attached to, that they found themselves often alone to care as best they could. In one of the post-elective reports for her University, one of the student doctors, Laura (21), writes

‘We had a 31 year old lady who arrived to the ward collapsed in hypovolemic shock with a blood pressure of 68/42 and was in need of immediate care and there were no doctors to be found. In this instance, myself and a fellow student worked together using our training to stabilise this patient whilst the doctor was being located. This was a difficult situation to be faced with as we were aware that we were well out of our depth treating this patient without a senior but also aware that if she was not managed very quickly there was a high chance she would not survive.’

The irony is that within walking distance of this state hospital is Malcolm Watson Hospital, full of equipment but usually very few patients. It is owned by Glencore and dedicated to miners and their families. A private hospital with grounds that look like Kew Gardens located near a state hospital that is working on a shoe string. Where else does that happen? Oh yes, London. In Zambia, when the paternalist Zambian state under President Kaunda collapsed, nothing emerged to replace it. And yet, despite all the privations, our electives told us how the Congolese Doctor in charge was one of the best they had ever met and how they soon learnt to clerk in patients without any of the benefits of diagnosis equipment we take for granted. We asked them what equipment they thought would be most useful – we had been thinking of an ultrasound machine – but their answers were much more mundane. What point is an ultrasound when there might not be the means to treat the cancers and tumours discovered? Instead they suggested sphygmomanometers, ECG machines, a book entitled ‘ECG Made Easy’, cuddly toys for ill children who have nothing to play with, a British National Formulary (BNF) pharmaceutical reference book to assist clinicians in accurate prescribing, the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that the Zambian people have been let down not only by us but by their own government. According to an article in The Economist dated 15th Sept 2018 entitled ‘End of the Road’, Zambia since debt relief in 2005-06 is the most indebted nation in Africa. Quite an achievement.

Finally, fiddly, fraud

Since re-booting the family business in 1992, I have managed to escape bad debt, despite giving and receiving great trust. But in July, when I should rather have been holidaying, I succumbed to my love of France by being seduced by a company who needed 500 kgs of Cobalt. Who on earth would use such a small amount of Cobalt as a means to steal? But this they did. The company checked out on Dun & Bradstreet, the persons appeared to have an address, and were professional in their enquiry. So, we brushed aside a couple of petty worries – the fact they had only one landline, and no mobile numbers, the fact I broke my rule of meeting every customer before trading. Well, we live and learn. We might have lost Euros 38,500 but have got to know a very nice French debt collector in France who studied at Kingston University just near our office. Such is life. It could have been worse.

Cobalt Cathodic gold. A real steal.

Published October 3rd 2018 on


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