While most of the metals world is preoccupied with the price of gold, a small corner of that world is focused on a metal that is far less glamorous but immensely valuable to those who need it.
The metal is titanium. It is a crucial element in the fabrication of light-weight, heat-resistant airplane and spacecraft parts -- and suddenly it is in short supply.
The Soviet Union, a major supplier, has pulled out of the world market; the Japanese have pulled out of the U.S. market, and now there has been a surge in commercial aircraft orders.
As a result, as so often happens in such situations, anxious eyes are turning toward the government, and a tug-of-war has developed.
The shortage is such that U.S. producers who have enough titanium are urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which manages the government stockpike, to buy more to make sure the nation doesn't run out. Producers and some consumers who don't have enough are begging FEMA to sell off part of its existing stockpile so they won't go short.
"For us, it's the best thing since night baseball," said James L. Daniell, president of RMI Inc. of Niles, Ohio, the nation's second largest producer of titanium and one of those with long-term supply contracts. "For some others, well, they're trying everything from lowering the duty on titanium imports to getting the U.S. to sell off a stockpile it doesn't even have."
As for FEMA, it won't do anything because it can't do anything. The law, which was rewritten only this year, prohibits stockpile sales except in national defense emergencies and then only by order of the White House.
At the same time, the stockpile is 100,000 tons short of its 130,000-ton goal, but "we have no money to make any purchases," said Paul K. Krueger, acting director for stockpile policy. "We had a budget request for $177 million to raise stockpile levels for 90 items . . . but Congress turned us down and hasn't appropriated one cent."
What Congress has done is debate a bill that would cut in half the 18 percent duty on imports of titanium, almost all of which come from Japan and the Soviet Union. Trouble is, most of those imports come from Japan, which is now selling titanium to Western Europe, where there is no duty and wher spot market prices for titanium are more than three times the U.S. price of $5 a pound.
Japan began moving its titanium into Europe about a year ago when the Soviet Union pulled out of the European market and sent the price here soaring. Traditionally, the Soviets accounted for more than half of Europe's titanium until they stopped selling for reasons that are still unclear to metals importers.
Metals experts believe the Russians aren't selling because they need their titanium for their new Alfa submarine, which can dive deeper and go faster than U.S. Navy subs. Each Alfa submarine is said to consume 6,000 tons of titanium, which is just as strong as stainless steel but half the weight.
Titanium is extracted from a mineral called rutile, which is abundant in Australia, the Soviet Union, parts of the United States and South Africa. It is in short supply suddenly because few users of the metal have invested in machinery that can reduce the ore to the metal, in part because titanium goes through boom-and-bust cycles tied to military aircraft sales.
"That's the way it's been for the last 10 years, at least," said FEMA's Paul Krueger. "Most users remember the SST and the B-1 bomber, which were bust times for people in the titanium business."
Another reason for the shortage is the boom in sales of commercial airliners, which today are using more titanium in their engines and structural parts.
For example, Boeing is replacing aluminum with titanium on some of the parts for its new 757 jetliner. The replacement came at the same time as the Soviet Japanese sales shifts.
In the United States, three producers of titanium metal also have the machinery to reduce the titanium ore to a form called "sponge," an intermediate step before conversion to metal. Four producers do not have that machinery and must buy the sponge from outside. Said one metals expert: "These were the people caught short. They counted on getting their sponges on the spot market from Japan."
There could be scarcities of titatium for four more years, at which time U.S. producers will have installed more production capacity to handle their increased business. Japan has promised some increase in capacity in the next six months, which promises at least a little relief.
But meanwhile, Wyman-Gordon Inc., a maker of titanium forgings for engines and airframes, has told customers it will only guarantee delivery of forgings 30 months after it makes the order, according to Business Week magazine.
There was a time, about a year ago, when delivery was guaranteed 14 months after the order was taken. So goes the boom-and-bust cycle of a metal many Americans know nothing about.