Curious Case of Billion-Dollar Lithium Mine Sold for a Song – by Benjamin Robertson and Kanga Kong (Bloomberg News – April 13, 2017)

High in the Andes, in northwest Argentina, stories are told of fortunes being made in lithium, the wonder metal inside iPhones to Teslas that has captivated global investors from Warren Buffett down. This is not one of those stories.

It begins in the lithium-rich salt pans of Argentina’s Salta Province and stretches all the way to South Korea and Hong Kong, leaving a trail of lawsuits and unhappy investors. The drama reinforces a timeless lesson about sinking money into natural resources: Chasing the latest rush, whether in lithium, uranium or oil, is a high-risk game.

Just five years ago, investors were told that lithium mining company Lithea Inc. soon might be worth $1.4 billion. But last month, after various legal wrangles, a Hong Kong court ordered the assets of a businessman behind Lithea to be frozen as investigators chased him over unpaid debts.

The man in question, Choi Sung-min, got in early on the lithium rush. In 2009, his British Virgin-registered Cordia Global Ltd. gained control of Lithea for $15 million, company and court documents show.

Three years later, with the lithium rush in full swing, an investor presentation produced by Lithea valued Choi’s stake at $250 million. It went on to predict that its value would quickly quintuple once the mining company went public. Enter Kwon Ohjoon, chairman of Posco, the South Korean steel giant. Under Kwon, Posco had developed a new extraction method designed to speed up the processing of lithium-rich brine, which currently takes many months.

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