HARUKI KITAGAWA, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — In a city near Toyota Motor’s hometown, police were recently confronted by a rare kind of theft, even for low-crime Japan.
A Toyota Prius hybrid reported stolen last month in Nagakute, Aichi Prefecture, was later recovered with its catalytic converter cut out.
“I’d never heard of such a case in this prefecture until now,” a source close to the police said.
American and British police would be unlikely to say the same. Emissions-reducing catalytic converters have become a target of choice for thieves worldwide, notably in the U.S. and the U.K., as the precious industrial metals they contain have surged in price.
Catalytic converters use rhodium and palladium, two of the so-called platinum group metals. A vehicle’s catalytic converter contains a few grams apiece of both, but that is enough to lure thieves. Rhodium and palladium are produced in low quantities and were already expensive before recent gains.
The price of ultrarare rhodium jumped from the latter half of 2020 to reach a record of nearly $30,000 per troy ounce this March — five times the year-earlier level. Palladium futures marked a record exceeding $3,000 in May.
Both rhodium and palladium are worth more than gold, which trades around $1,800 per troy ounce. Disruptions caused by COVID-19 and mining troubles have tightened supplies, even as demand for autos has rebounded as economies recover from the pandemic.
In the U.K., thefts of catalytic converters peaked in March at more than 3,200, the National Police Chiefs’ Council reported in August. The U.S. logged more than 2,300 thefts in December, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, quadrupling from a year earlier.
The price of platinum group metals used in a single catalytic converter has risen from around $100 about three years ago to around $400 to $800, according to British metal refiner Johnson Matthey.
Recyclers typically pay $50 to $250 for used catalytic converters, the NICB reported earlier this year.
Thieves in Japan are increasingly going after copper. August saw 743 confirmed cases of copper theft nationwide, according to the National Police Agency — up roughly 80% on the year.
In Sagamihara, southwest of Tokyo, more than 130 water faucets were stolen in May. Nagoya suffered 13 water meter thefts between June and September.
In May, the price of copper reached an all-time high exceeding $10,700 a ton. After prices eased for a time, the metal once again climbed above $10,000 in mid-October.
Rhodium and palladium are trending downward now. But with supplies still limited, prices could rebound sharply if auto production recovers.
The Japanese authorities and businesses are responding to the thefts. Aichi prefectural police plan to investigate how stolen catalytic converters are resold. The National Police Agency is calling on recyclers to verify identities and keep records of transactions.
“If someone brings something in, we may ask that person to present identification,” a representative for a Tokyo-area copper scrap buyer said.