One Country’s Dream of EV-Driven Prosperity Helps Fuel a Coal Binge Instead
Indonesia pitches its plan to leverage natural resources as a model for other developing nations
Indonesia pitches its plan to leverage natural resources as a model for other developing nations
A few years ago, Indonesia set out to turn its treasure trove of nickel into an electric-car manufacturing boom.
It imposed a sweeping ban on the export of raw nickel. That meant that companies wanting to tap the world’s largest source of the mineral—used in the most powerful type of EV batteries—would have to build smelters in Indonesia. Officials bet that factories to make EV batteries and entire electric cars would also follow, spawning end-to-end supply chains close to the mineral bounty.
The smelters came, and Indonesia’s nickel industry witnessed explosive growth. But powering it is a coal binge that is throwing off the country’s climate goals. And Indonesians are still waiting for EV makers to lay down production lines.
As President Joko Widodo prepares to leave office this year after a decade—the most he can serve—he is exhorting his potential successors to stick with the policy that is at the centre of his economic legacy. Indonesia holds presidential elections on Feb. 14, and a new leader will take charge in October.
Widodo has cast his plan, referred to in economist-speak as downstreaming, as the answer to the question of how Indonesia will become a rich nation. He says the country is reversing a 400-year pattern dating back to colonial times of being exploited for its natural resources and getting little in return. He has prodded other developing nations to follow its lead.
Last year, officials escorted delegations from mineral-rich Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel industrial parks to show them the scale of Indonesia’s achievements. New Chinese-built smelters dot the archipelago. The value of Indonesia’s nickel exports is up four times since 2019 to around $33 billion.
Not everyone believes the silver metal is a silver bullet.
Nickel smelters have led to a surge in coal use, with new coal plants coming up at a time when the world is trying to phase out the fossil fuel. A January report by Climate Rights International, a U.S. environmental group, said that a single nickel-focused industrial park located on eastern Indonesia’s Maluku islands will burn more coal than Spain or Brazil when it is fully operational.
“We are sacrificing the environment and society, while at the same time getting limited profits for the country,” Muhaimin Iskandar, a vice-presidential candidate in the coming election, said during a televised debate with his political opponents.
Other candidates have pledged to carry forward the president’s nickel policies, including the front-runner for president, Prabowo Subianto, who has said it is much better to export electric-vehicle batteries than raw nickel.
The “dirty nickel” reputation is threatening the very economic opportunities Indonesia covets. In October, nine U.S. senators signed a letter opposing a proposed free-trade agreement to source critical minerals from Indonesia, citing environmental and safety concerns. Without a free-trade deal, EV batteries with substantial quantities of Indonesia-processed nickel won’t be eligible for a major U.S. tax credit.
That makes the country’s nickel less attractive to Western EV makers, who are already battling questions from green groups about the environmental fallout of the country’s sprawling nickel operations.
In a sign of the growing unease, a deputy director for batteries and critical materials at the U.S. Energy Department, Ashley Zumwalt-Forbes, voiced concern in a LinkedIn post last month about what she called the grip of dirty Indonesian nickel on the market. Indonesia accounts for half the global nickel supply, up from a quarter in 2018.
The problems with nickel are also pushing EV makers to rework car batteries and go nickel-free. A lithium-iron-phosphate alternative is gaining traction, though it remains less powerful than batteries containing nickel.
Then there is the question of whether the policy is taking Indonesia toward Widodo’s goal of downstreaming—that is, a shift to higher-value manufacturing. Widodo has long said the endgame isn’t localising nickel processing but rather attracting EV and battery factories. Anything less, he says, could put Indonesia on the same track as some commodity-rich Latin American economies that have languished.
But so far, EV makers haven’t rushed into Indonesia. Tesla, which Widodo has assiduously courted, including on a 2022 trip to Texas to meet with founder Elon Musk, hasn’t shown any signs it plans to set up a factory in the country. No other Western automakers have built EV factories either, though General Motors has a stake in one China-based automaker producing electric cars in Indonesia. Some, like Ford, have made deals to tie up nickel supply.
Korean automaker Hyundai has since 2021 operated one of Indonesia’s only EV factories, focused on the domestic market. The unit can produce 150,000 vehicles a year, but made fewer than 9,500 in 2022 and 2023. Hyundai and Korea’s LG expect to begin producing battery cells at a plant in West Java this year.
Automakers generally look to set up battery and EV plants in the markets where people are already buying electric cars. That puts Indonesia, where few consumers have switched from combustion-engine vehicles, at a disadvantage. The country has a limited charging network and gasoline is heavily subsidised.
Indonesian policymakers who believe the country’s nickel bounty gives it leverage over carmakers are mistaken, said Tom Lembong, a former trade minister under Widodo. He pointed to the growth of nickel-free batteries as a warning against betting big on nickel.
Lembong, who is advising presidential candidate Anies Baswedan—whose ticket advocates focusing on promoting labor-intensive industries—said Indonesia has made limited progress moving up the value chain.
“The irony about this is they call it downstreaming, but we’re still very upstream,” he said.
Septian Hario Seto, a senior Indonesian official involved in nickel policymaking, acknowledged that EV battery and car factories have been slower to come than nickel smelters. The government has brought new regulations to address that, he said, such as one that makes it easier for EV makers to import cars into Indonesia on the condition they later build a factory.
Last month, Chinese EV giant BYD said it would begin car sales in Indonesia, and break ground on a manufacturing unit later this year.
Overall, Seto said the nickel policy has been successful, boosting economic growth in less-developed eastern regions where the nickel is found, and providing jobs and tax revenue. The government has taken steps to limit environmental degradation, such as by banning companies from jettisoning mining waste into the ocean, and will try to bring hydropower projects online as an alternative to coal, he said.
Cullen Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., said there are two ways to assess Indonesia’s industrial policy.
“It’s been successful at driving foreign investment and building nickel processing capacity,” he said. “So far it hasn’t achieved the fully integrated mine-to-EV battery assembly to which it aspires.”
Alexandre de Betak and his wife are focusing on their most personal project yet.
The chip company that is cashing in on the market’s artificial-intelligence obsession seems to many investors like an unstoppable force
Nvidia ’s historic run is minting profits for investors big and small . Many are betting the boom is just beginning.
They are piling into trades that the chipmaker’s shares, which have more than tripled over the past year , are headed still higher. Some have turned to the options market to look for ways to turbocharge their bets on artificial intelligence after a blockbuster earnings report sent the stock up 17% over the past two days.
The exuberance reflects hope that the company is the vanguard of wide adoption of artificial intelligence—and an intense fear of missing out among investors who have sat on the sidelines while the company’s valuation has eclipsed $2 trillion .
With the help of Nvidia, stocks have stormed into 2024 . The S&P 500, which has chalked up fresh records in recent weeks, is up 6.7%. That is the index’s second-best performance for this time period over the past 10 years. The gains were only surpassed by an 11% increase in 2019.
Nvidia has contributed to about a quarter of those gains, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.
The Nasdaq, too, is up 6.6% this year and neared a record Friday. The tech-heavy index has been boosted by Nvidia, which this week tacked on $277 billion in additional market value, along with six other tech titans collectively known as the Magnificent Seven.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 3.8% this year and has hit repeated records in recent weeks.
“You look at these numbers and what this company’s done—it’s almost without precedent,” said Mike Ogborne, founder of San Francisco-based hedge fund Ogborne Capital Management, who counts Nvidia among his top five biggest holdings . “It is nothing short of amazing.”
Ogborne compared AI with the launch of the internet more than two decades ago, which kick-started a technology craze that lasted years.
“It’s exciting,” Ogborne said. “It’s great for America.”
Tamar June in Reno, Nev., is one investor along for Nvidia’s furious stock-market ascent. Since the 1990s, the 61-year-old software-company chief executive has been buying shares of tech firms, including Apple , Microsoft , Cisco, Intel and Oracle . June had been familiar with Nvidia for some time but in recent years kept reading about the chip company in the news. She liked that it was profitable and growing.
June decided to purchase some shares in 2022 at about $260, then watched the stock erase more than half of its value later that year. She held on, knowing that Nvidia’s graphics processing units were in high demand for cloud computing. Then, an AI frenzy hit the stock market in 2023, sending Nvidia’s stock soaring.
Now, Nvidia shares are closing in on $800, and June is looking for opportunities to buy more. She isn’t fazed by worries that the AI boom is bound to come crashing down. June experienced the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the 2008 financial crisis—and watched stocks bounce back to new highs.
“I think it’s still in the beginning stages,” June said of AI developments. “There’s still a lot of headroom for technology because our whole future depends on it.”
A herd of investors chased Nvidia while it raced toward its $2 trillion valuation.
At Robinhood Markets , Nvidia was the most purchased stock by customers on a net basis and received the heaviest notional trading volumes over the past month, according to Stephanie Guild, head of investment strategy at the digital brokerage.
The rise drove many traders to pile into the company’s options, a risky corner of the market notorious for boom-and-bust trades.
Nvidia has also morphed into one of the most popular trades in this market, with traders placing more than $20 billion in stock-options bets tied to the company over the past week, according to Cboe Global Markets data. That was more than what they spent on Tesla , Meta Platforms , Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet combined.
Call options, contracts that confer the right to buy shares at a specific price, were particularly popular. And many of the trades appeared to suggest that investors were fearful of missing out on bigger gains to come. Some of the most active trades Friday were calls pegged to the shares jumping to $800 or $850, up from their closing price of $788.17. Betting against the shares has been a losing game , leading many investors to throw in the towel on bearish wagers.
The values of many of these options bets exploded while Nvidia soared, rewarding those who piled in. The big gains also enticed others to join in the trades while the stock’s rally continued.
“There’s a snowball effect,” said Henry Schwartz, a vice president at exchange-operator Cboe Global Markets, of the options activity surrounding Nvidia.
Ahead of the tech behemoth’s earnings report Wednesday, options pegged to the shares jumping to $1,300 —around double where they were trading at the time—were some of the most popular trades.
And for some investors, the 16% one-day jump in Nvidia’s share price Thursday wasn’t enough. They sought even bigger returns and piled into several niche exchange-traded funds that offer magnified exposure to Nvidia stock.
The GraniteShares 2x Long NVDA Daily ETF has taken in almost half a billion dollars from investors on a net basis since launching late in 2022. The fund’s shares have more than doubled in 2024 and have surged nearly 650% since inception.
There have been few signs of profit-taking so far. Investors added a net $263 million to the fund in the past month. The fund’s cousin, which turbocharges bearish bets against Nvidia, has been much less popular.
The euphoria surrounding Nvidia has spread to other stocks, too. Shares of Super Micro Computer , a much smaller company worth less than $50 billion, popped more than 30% Thursday after Nvidia’s earnings report. Traders spent more than $5 billion on options tied to the company, more than what they spent on Tesla this week. Tesla is worth about 13 times as much as the company.
Nvidia’s continued, rapid ascent has stunned even early bulls on semiconductors and generative AI.
Atreides Management founder Gavin Baker, who started covering Nvidia as an analyst at Fidelity in 2000, reminded investors in his Boston hedge fund in an early 2021 letter of Marc Andreessen ’s adage that software was eating the world. “Today, AI is replacing software,” he wrote.
Atreides started buying Nvidia shares in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to regulatory filings.
The wager proved profitable. But as Nvidia shares kept soaring, Baker started selling. Atreides was out of Nvidia by the end of the second quarter of 2023. “This has been a painful mistake,” Baker wrote in a June 2023 letter to his clients, when Nvidia was trading north of $420 a share.
Atreides’s stake in competitor Advanced Micro Devices has helped alleviate the pain from missing out on larger gains. The firm made nearly a quarter billion last year alone on AMD, which it continues to hold along with several other related bets.
Michael Hannosh, a 20-year-old college student in Chicago, said he first purchased shares of Nvidia in August 2022, when the stock traded below $180. Nvidia was one of his first-ever stock purchases. He had built a custom computer for videogaming and used a lot of Nvidia parts.
Hannosh said he kept the shares until last March, then sold them for a roughly 30% profit. He later bought a few more shares at about $230 and sold them over the course of the next several days at a profit.
The shares have tripled since.
“It’s blown my f—ing mind to bits. It’s insane,” said Hannosh. “I really wish I held it, obviously.”