The stock market soared to record heights last week. The bond market is bouncing back. Gold and silver are selling for several dollars an ounce more than they were just a couple of months ago.
With most markets booming, Washington businessman Jack Edlow has an investment deal for you:
Never mind that uranium is selling for the lowest price ever, adjusted for inflation. Never mind that a controversial uranium mine planned in Virginia has been put in moth balls because prices are so poor. And most U.S. uranium mines are closed because the stuff sells for barely half what it costs to get out of the ground.
Overlook the growing nuclear freeze movement and the fallout that spreads to the anti-atom power forces. Don't worry that U.S. uranium producers are pleading for import restrictions because of the huge world oversupply that is depressing prices. Don't pay attention to the fact that UNC Resources of Falls Church--once one of the biggest uranium producers--had decided to get out of the business because its future is so bleak.
Ignore all that, if you will, and hustle on over to 1100 17th St. where American Uranium Co. has just opened the nation's first retail market in uranium.
A half-pint Mason jar filled with yellow powder sits on Jack Edlow's desk. That's yellowcake, he explains, tri-uranium oct-oxide, U3O8, slightly radioactive raw uranium that can be made into fuel for nuclear power plants or fodder for atomic bombs.
Jack Edlow was born into the nuclear fuels business. His father started out making lead boxes for radioactive materials and wound up making 100-ton shipping containers for power plant fuels.
The family-owned firm, Edlow International, was started 25 years ago and now is your basic ubiquitous Washington consulting and service firm. Edlow International arranges transportation and export of uranium, runs nuclear newsletters, tracks regulatory issues for clients and acts as a broker for commercial uranium sales. The Edlow firm is well known in the nuclear business, industry sources confirm. American Uranium is a wholly owned subsidiary.
What most people don't know, Jack Edlow says, is that anybody can own uranium. There's no law against it, but until now there was no place to buy it.
Edlow has solved that problem by setting up a unique uranium marketing plan that weaves its way through the regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Though nuclear plant operators like Virginia Electric and Power Co. buy yellowcake by the ton, Edlow's American Uranium Co. will sell you as little as 100 pounds. Right now uranium is going for $18.50 a pound, plus a commission of $100 on orders up to $4,000 plus 2.5 percent of anything above that.
Edlow says he is not offering his own uranium for sale, merely acting as a broker for "a couple of mining companies and one utility" that want to sell some uranium. He would not name the sellers, nor would he identify the other firms for which he said he has bought and sold uranium in the past.
You can buy uranium at the 17th Street office, but you can't take it with you. While federal law allows anyone to own uranium, the radioactive material can only be stored in a federally licensed nuclear storage facility.
To get around that NRC regulation, American Uranium doesn't directly sell yellowcake, it sells uranium certificates. The actual uranium represented by the certificate, Edlow explains, stays in his licensed nuclear warehouse in East St. Louis, Ill. For storing the uranium he sells you, Edlow charges 10 cents a pound for six months.
You don't have to keep your uranium in Edlow's warehouse, but you will have to find another NRC-licensed facility to put it in and come up with an NRC-licensed transportation company authorized to move radioactive materials.
Uranium certificates, Edlow contends, are neither securities nor commodity futures contracts. Therefore uranium sales are not subject to regulation by either the SEC or CFTC, he contends.
None of the federal laws and regulations meant to protect investors in the stock and commodity markets apply to uranium certificate buyers, he says, because "our lawyers say this is a cash transaction" that is exempt from both agencies' jurisdiction.
Edlow insists that he does not advise clients to invest in uranium and does not promise that the price of uranium will go up. "If you become an adviser, then you have to register with the SEC," he said. "I'm not giving advice. We simply point out the facts. The investor has to take a good look at those facts and decide if this is for him."
The facts, as Edlow portrays them, are that "in the next 10 years demand for uranium will double." What his literature terms "U.S. domestic uranium usage or projected demand" will increase from 21 million pounds in 1980 to 31 million pounds in 1985 and to 37 million pounds in 1990. "In 1983, U.S. consumption should exceed production by seven million pounds," Edlow's literature notes, and "beyond the U.S., there is a major world demand for nuclear power."
Despite these statistics indicating a great demand for uranium, the price of the metal has plunged from better than $40 a pound to less than $20. Dozens of planned nuclear power plants have been canceled and no new ones have been licensed for several years. As the nuclear market has slipped, several years' supply of yellow cake has accumulated.
The price is so low, Edlow argues, because electric utilities and uranium producers have been unloading their uranium to raise cash and to save the cost of borrowing to pay for carrying uranium inventory.
"That has largely ended," he contends. With interest rates coming down, "the pressure is no longer on the market. We can see now there is significant long-term demand for uranium."
While Edlow won't project when or how much uranium prices will go up, a little arithmetic indicates the price will have to jump $3 a pound in the next year for investors to come out ahead on a 100-pound purchase of uranium.
The current price -- which Edlow says hasn't changed in the last two weeks -- is $18.50 a pound. The minimum order will cost $1,850, plus $100 in commission, plus $20 for a year's storage, a total of $1,970. There's also a $40 delivery charge when you sell, bringing the cost of buying the uranium, holding it for a year and selling it to $2,010. Uranium will have to be above $20.10 a pound by next November in order to break even.
But that doesn't include the opportunity cost of tying up $2,000 in yellowcake. In a money market fund or similar investment paying 8 percent interest, the cash would earn $160 in a year. Figure in that cost and uranium will have to hit $21.70 to match the return in a virtually risk-free money fund.
Uranium prices are quoted on a bid and asked basis, like over-the-counter stocks, with a 50-cent spread between the buying and selling price. Because of the spread, the selling price will have to be above $22 for a uranium play to match a money market return.
Selling your uranium when you want to could be a problem. As of now, nobody but Edlow deals in small quantities of yellowcake.
The sales brochure spells out the potential problem in unloading uranium investments this way: "American Uranium cannot guarantee the availability of a market for the uranium owned by you or promise to purchase uranium for its own account at the time you wish to sell. Accordingly there can be no assurance that you may be able to sell your uranium at the time and price you desire. Although American Uranium will make its best efforts to obtain the best market price for you, you should recognize that the uranium market is volatile and there is always the possibility that you may incur losses on the sale of your uranium."
For those investors concerned about whether the uranium is there to back up the certificates, American Uranium's literature promises that a national accounting firm will audit the warehouse every month to make sure.
The SEC and CFTC routinely audit firms that are registered as stock or commodity brokers, but American Uranium isn't registered with either agency. The federal regulations also set minimum financial standards for brokers to assure they have the capital to back up promises to investors, but apparently sales of uranium certificates aren't covered by those rules.
The distinction between American Uranium and companies that sell similar certificates for gold or silver is that "we're real," says Edlow. "We're substantially different from precious metals outfits. We are an industry company that's been in this business for years and years."