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The Year’s Top Priorities for Mining CEOs

December 31, 2012 Comments off

With rapidly increasing production costs, metal and coal prices stable or decreasing, and general global market uncertainty, 2012 was not an easy year to be the CEO of a mining company. The boards of many mining companies have drawn their conclusions and decided 2013 will be the year in which a new leader will make a start. These new executives and the veterans that survived 2012 will face many similar challenges in the new year. The market for project development appears to cool down, but cost pressures and decreasing margins are real and volatility is here to stay for some time.

Below 7 key priorities for mining CEOs in the coming year:

1. Watch your balance sheet

Global debt problems aren’t over yet, and a company’s debt is never stronger than the host country’s sovereign debt. A lot of national, regional, and corporate debt is still overvalued. The European financial system being too young to make tough decisions, the American political system being to antique and entangled in corporate interests to make tough decisions, and a new Chinese government being too dependent on international markets and national stability to make tough decisions are not going to help to solve the debt issue anytime soon. A new chapter of the debt crisis is likely start in 2013, creating a volatile environment in which prudent balance sheet management is key for business stability, preventing you from finding yourself standing at the edge of a solvency cliff, as many coal miners and even iron ore miner Fortescue experienced recently. Don’t get deep into debt, and don’t wait ‘till the last moment to refinance maturing debt, as many global developments could make raising money in debt markets suddenly very hard.

2. Kill bad projects

As a result of rapidly increasing product prices and in the knowledge that global demand for most commodities continues to grow over the next 2 decades, the project pipelines across the industry have been filled to the max. However, for most products only about one third of the projects currently being communicated as ‘planned’ is actually needed to bridge the supply-demand gap in the 2025. That means two out of three projects need to be stopped. And yes, that includes some of your projects. Deciding which of the development projects in the global industry actually are the good projects, and which not so good projects do have a chance to succeed simply because they have a powerful developer, is going to be a key task for this year. Simply doing an IRR calculation based on an imaginary product price doesn’t do the trick; there might be plenty of better projects out there that will make your price forecasts miss the mark completely. It’s time to rev up the intelligence on competitor’s projects: in the end the best projects survive. Making sure you get hold of your fair share of good projects is the objective for the coming years. Those projects that don’t pass the test and that happen to be yours? Kill them, and move on to priority number 3.

3. Expedite good projects

Hopefully your assessment of global project potential confirms your view that some of the projects in your pipeline will make the cut. Now do everything you can to bring those projects forward. Counter-cyclical investment has been a mantra of management gurus forever, but very few executives actually dare to execute on it. Redirect the resources you free up by killing bad projects – finances, human capital, and equipment – to those projects that might succeed. This does not only help you to bring those projects forward, it also sends a clear signal to the market that those projects really are the probable survivors of the battle of the fittest projects. If you decided that none of your projects are good enough to make it? Get to work on priority number 4.

4. Buy cheap future growth

Many of the important mines of the end of this decade and of the coming decades are still in the hands of explorers or juniors that don’t have the funds or appetite to develop the projects, that are always on the outlook for the acquirer, and that have seen their share price become much more discounted than the prices of their potential acquirers. Buying current production is expensive as always and will be tough on your balance sheet, but this year is not a bad moment to buy the exploration-stage projects that will make your company great in the long run. Be aware that for many of these projects the development capital, that scares most company executives at this point, will actually only be needed during the next commodity price cycle. And yes, those projects are challenged geographically, politically, technically, and environmentally, but so were most of the current great mines 10 years before they started producing.

5. Be tough on suppliers and contractors

The slump for mining suppliers and contractors lags the slump for miners by about a year. Last year was the moment of the great awakening in mining companies that the period of rapid growth is over; this year their suppliers and contractors will feel the pain. Don’t forget to squeeze your suppliers out this year! With many projects being shelved or stopped the bargaining position of engineering and construction constructors and equipment manufacturers is deteriorating quickly. Over the past years they have enjoyed a situation in which there were simply not enough skilled people and production capacity to serve all of the industry’s wants straight away, but that period is about to be over. Cost pressures are still there, but the mining companies can solve part of that issue by paying less in new procurement and trying to renegotiate existing contracts.

6. Get talent on board when the job market is down

The suddenly emerging reality of thinning margins has made most mining companies very hesitant in recruiting, and has led several companies to reduce the size of the workforce or implement hiring freezes. The job market in the industry does not look good, so people stay where they are. Just as you should be searching for the right projects especially during tough times, you should be on the hunt for ambitious talent when the job market is bad. Good people always want to make the next step, and any period in which making steps is hard is a headhunter’s bonanza. Not only half of Xstrata’s executives is seriously looking for a new challenge away from Glenstrata, but junior, mid-management, and executives in paralyzed companies around the world are sensitive to a good offer at this time.

7. Prepare for the low/now growth era

Most of the young talent you recruit at this point will witness the age of ‘peak mining’ during their career. Riding the wave of development in emerging countries the mining industry’s output will grow over the next decades. Still, driven by demographics, economics, and increasing recycled metal supply, the demand for most mined metals is likely to start a slow decrease around 2040. Your investors don’t really care about anything that happens after 2020, but the talent you are recruiting and the communities you are operating in do care. Rio Tinto’s ‘Mine of the Future’ program is focused entirely on the technological future of mining. However, preparing your company for a new, low or no growth, normal implies exploring a whole new way of doing business, technology only being a minor part. Wouldn’t it be great to be known as the CEO who prepared the company for ‘Mining of the Future’?

Enough to work on to keep the miner’s job interesting in the new year! Do you happen not to be the CEO of your company? Don’t hesitate to forward this text to him/her to make sure the most important to-do list in the company includes these priorities. Happy new year!

2012 | Wilfred Visser | thebusinessofmining.com

Mining Week 39/’12: Fortescue moves on; GlenStrata almost there

September 22, 2012 Comments off

Top Stories of the Week:

  • Xstrata’s board votes October 1st on Glencore offer
    • The decision by Xstrata’s board on whether or not to endorse Glencore’s new bid for the company is delayed by a week to October 1st. The endorsement might help to convince a majority of shareholders to accept the offer for 3.05 shares of Glencore per share of Xstrata.
    • The debate around generous retention packages for Xstrata’s key managers started again as several large shareholders voiced their discontent. Glencore stressed nothing will change to those packages unless Xstrata’s board wants to adjust them. Finding a compromise to satisfy the key shareholders might be the final step for the board to make the deal happen.
    • Sources: Wall Street Journal; Financial Times 1; Financial Times 2
  • Fortescue solves debt problems by refinancing $4.5b debt
    • Fortescue announced refinancing of $4.5bn debt with Credit Suisse and JP Morgan as underwriters. Debt maturity of the new deal is 5 years. The company was facing liquidity problems as low iron ore prices and aggressive investment schedules were undermining its ability to repay debt.
    • Sources: Wall Street Journal; Fortescue announcement

    Fortescue’s debt profile prior to refinancing

  • Oyu Tolgoi waiting for power
    • Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi mine is 97% complete, but negotiations with Mongolian and Chinese governments on power supply delay startup. Oyu Tolgoi built 220Kvolt power line to connect to the Chinese grid, but can’t sign a offtake agreement without consent of the Mongolian government
    • Sources: Financial Times; The Australian; Project website

Trends & Implications:

  • Oyu Tolgoi’s trouble to get powered is just one example of the challenges many large operations face to secure affordable power supply. The power requirements of a large operation require a significant change and development of power grids of many developing nations. Generation capacity is typically not readily available and the large offtake trigger discussions about long term price agreements.
  • After meeting with Glencore’s board this week, Xstrata’s board appears to be working hard to make the merger/acquisition go ahead. It is hard to imagine another outcome in which Xstrata’s shareholders get more value for their company, making it likely they will accept the offer. If the deal is approved by Xstrata’s shareholders, the changes in holdings various large investors will likely make will give an interesting insight into the clientele effect the integration of a mining house and a commodity trader could have.

2012 | Wilfred Visser | thebusinessofmining.com

Mining Week 23/’12: Investment dilemmas for BHP and Fortescue

June 3, 2012 Comments off

Top Stories of the Week:

  • Rumour around retention plan for Xstrata executives
    • Several major shareholders have voiced discontent with the approx. $370mln retention bonuses for the top 72 executives of Xstrata that has been made part of the vote on the Glencore-Xstrata merger.
    • Sources: Financial Times 1; Financial Times 2; Wall Street Journal
  • Australian state governments fight for BHP investment
    • BHP Billiton received environmental clearance for the expansion of Port Hedland’s iron ore harbour. The project could cost around $20bln up to 2022 to increase export capacity to 350Mtpa.
    • The government of Southern Australia is pressuring BHP to start the expansion of its Olympic Dam copper/uranium project before the end of the year, threatening not to extend the permits. The Olympic Dam expansion is one of the key projects that might be cancelled or delayed as BHP tries to limit investment and return money to shareholders.
    • Sources: Bloomberg; Business Spectator; Financial Times
  • Fortesque worries about debt servicing
    • Fortescue, Australia’s third largest iron ore miner, is close to completion of an expansion that will enable it to export 155Mtpa iron ore.
    • The CEO of the company has indicated that it will focus on repayment of debt before undertaking further expansion. The company has received negative feedback from investors because of its high gearing. Its Debt/Equity ratio stands at approx. 45%, versus 26% for Vale and Rio Tinto and 15% for BHP Billiton.
    • Sources: Fortescue media release on expansion progress; Wall Street Journal; 9News

Trends & Implications:

  • If BHP decided to press on with the Port Hedland expansion at the expense of large development projects in other business units that would be a next sign that the supermajors are preferring the relatively predictable iron ore market over further diversification. Both Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are considering sale of their iron ore business, BHP is in the process of reviewing the options for its Australian manganese operations, and Vale reached a deal last week to dispose its coal operations.
  • The proposed retention bonuses for the top 72 managers of Xstrata add up to around $370mln, an average of some $5mln per person, 4% of last year’s profit, roughly 1-2 annual executive salaries per person, about $0.8 per share, or some 0.1% of share price. The bonuses are set up to keep the managers with the company for at least another 3 years. Even though we are talking about a lot of money that could trigger ethical debate about the executive pay in the industry, the shareholders hardly have any ground to protest the plan from a business perspective. Retention of the top managers after the merger should certainly enable the company to get a quick payback on the $370mln.

©2012 | Wilfred Visser | thebusinessofmining.com

Mechel Mining Plans London IPO

July 26, 2011 Comments off

“Russian coal and steel group OAO Mechel’s mining division, Mechel Mining, plans to hold an initial public offering in London this year, two bankers familiar with the matter said. The deal may raise between $3 billion and $4 billion, the first banker said adding the placement will most likely take place in the fourth quarter.

Morgan Stanley will take the lead roles on the deal, the bankers said. ‘It’s one of half a dozen Russian deals due out of the blocks in the fall,’ the first banker said. A handful of Russian deals were withdrawn from marketing in London in the first half of the year, after investors pushed back on price and amid volatile markets.”

Source: Wall Street Journal, June 3 2011

Observations:

  • Mechel’s mining segment includes: Southern Kuzbass Coal Company, Yakutugol, Mechel Bluestone coal company (USA), and the Korshunov Mining Plant. In 2010 Mechel’s plants produced 21.6mln tonnes of coal and 4.2 mln tonnes of iron ore concentrate and 3.8mln tonnes of coke.
  • Mechel announced the intention to bring the Mining division to the stock exchange in November 2010, still doubting between London, New York, and Hong Kong. The company itself listed at the end of 2004 in New York.
  • Based on a new share offering of 25% of common shares the size of the IPO still will be in the range of $3.3-4.0bln, above earlier expectations.

Implications:

  • The proceeds of the IPO will help Mechel to expand production capacity by developing the Elgo coal deposit and to reduce its gearing. Like many Russian companies Mechel is facing high debt costs while and at the same time needs to invest heavily. This combination of issues drives many Russian companies to an IPO this year.

©2011 | Wilfred Visser | thebusinessofmining.com

Capital Structure after the Crisis

November 15, 2010 Comments off

The global recession has forced many companies to reevaluate their capital structure. Both the cost of debt and the likelihood of bankruptcy at high debt levels increased, offsetting the benefit or reduced tax expenses at high debt levels. It is therefore no surprise that the largest diversified miners have decreased their gearing. They have benefited from increasing commodity and share prices to reduce debt stake of firm market value to around 33% ((D/E); or 25% in D/(D+E)), in line with the industry’s historical average. A year ago Ernst & Young observed in a report on debt in the mining industry that the gearing had increased to 46%.

 
Liability comparison
The liability breakdown based on market value of equity for the 4 major diversified miners shows the strong position of BHP Billiton (Figure 1). The 86% equity in the financing mix, combined with over $12bln in cash, gives the company an enormous financial flexibility. Anglo American struggles to keep up with the other majors at a total of 66% equity (gearing of approx. 50%).

The Book Value liability comparison does not show significant differences. The relatively large portion of common stock in Vale’s balance sheet mainly indicates that the company issued large amounts of stock more recently than the other companies.

Figure 1 - Liability structure comparison


 

Asset comparison

Figure 2 - Asset comparison

While gearing of the companies varies quite a bit, the asset base is remarkably similar (Figure 2). The assets of the large miners typically show approx. 67% Plant, Property & Equipment (PP&E). The most obvious variation among the companies is the percentage of “other fixed assets”, which hold the goodwill created by paying a premium in acquisitions of other companies. Rio Tinto’s balance sheet still holds $14bln goodwill (33% of total assets), mainly because of the acquisition of Alcan in 2007. The relatively high percentage for Anglo American is not caused by goodwill but by a high proportion of long term investments in other companies.

Another important difference is the percentage of cash carried by the various firms. While the diversified miners typically need approx. 2-3% of asset value as operating cash, BHP Billiton holds 14% ($12bln), signaling a pile of excess cash held as a war chest for potential acquisitions. Rio Tinto’s cash at 4% of asset value is a healthy level, but indicates the company does not have much flexibility for acquisitions and/or capital projects in the short run.

 

Company specifics

The figures below show the evolution of asset base and capital structure of each of the four miners over the past 4 years.

BHP Billiton

BHP Billiton has maintained a stable asset base over the past years, using the large profits to slowly build a war chest for acquisitions. After the failure of the bid for Rio Tinto in 2008 and the potential failure of the bid for PotashCorp of Saskatchewan this year the company will have to reconsider announcing a superdividend or repurchasing shares to give cash back to shareholders.
Read more…

Is BHP Billiton too big to grow?

November 5, 2010 1 comment

The (provisional) refusal of the Canadian government to let BHP Billiton acquire PotashCorp of Saskatchewan is the third regulatory limitation to growth the company faces in a short period. As regulators around the world are afraid the company gains a dominant position in mineral markets, what options does the CEO, Marius Kloppers, have left to grow the company?

Observations:

  • In February 2008, shortly after mr. Kloppers took over as CEO, BHP did a hostile takeover bid for its largest rival: Rio Tinto. The offer, worth approx. $165bln, was withdrawn in November 2008 after regulators indicated the deal would not gain anti-trust approval and the access to debt dried up in the capital markets.
  • After the failed acquisition, the two companies agreed to try to realize a significant part of the synergies the merger would have created by setting up a Joint Venture to develop the Pilbara iron ore deposit in Western Australia. However, after both Australian and European regulators indicated this would create an iron ore player that would be too dominant, the plans were cancelled last month.
  • The $39bln offer for PotashCorp appears to be a move in which BHP Billiton does not build up a dominant position in any market. If BHP manages to break the cartel-based pricing system for potash the deal might actually benefit the world economy. Still the Canadian government seems to be inclined to let the deal stall to protect the domestic industry and tax revenues.

Implications:

  • BHP Billiton has approx. $12bln cash on the balance sheet and is earning more cash rapidly due to the high iron ore price. Typically mining companies need approx. 2-3% of asset value in operating cash, leaving BHP with some $10bln excess cash. The low leverage and the high credit rating of the company enable it to raise at least $30bln additional cash by increasing debt. However, it is hard to select acquisition targets that might actually lead to a combination that will be approved by regulators.
  • The company will either need to focus on acquiring large players in markets where it does not have a strong presence yet, or focus on acquiring many smaller players or individual assets. As the company is trying to reduce the portfolio complexity, expansion into completely new markets is unlikely. Potential acquisition targets might be Newmont, Goldcorp, Freeport-McMoran or Eldorado in the gold market and Eramet, Inmet Mining and Outokumpo in the base metal market. Expansion into the industrial minerals sector would also be an option.
  • The best way for mr. Kloppers to make a name for himself would be to make BHP Billiton the first major western mining company to build up a strong operating presence in China and/or India. Creating a Joint Venture with a local player might be the best option to achieve this.

©2010 | Wilfred Visser | thebusinessofmining.com

Reviving Codelco

October 25, 2010 Comments off

“During last year’s election campaign, Sebastián Piñera, who became Chile’s president in March, often criticised Codelco, the country’s state-owned copper company, for its inefficiency, griping over its stagnant output and climbing costs. Yet it was engineers from Codelco who stood beside him this month as the 33 miners trapped since August 5th in the privately owned San José copper and gold mine in northern Chile were hoisted to safety. … Other big mining companies helped with advice and equipment. But Mr Piñera looked to Codelco, which runs the world’s biggest underground copper mine in El Teniente, to lead the rescue operation.

Today, Codelco still mines over a tenth of the world’s copper, but it has seen its share of Chile’s output dwindle from 75% in 1990 to 32% last year. … For the past decade, its production has been stuck at around 1.6m tonnes (although it reached 1.8m tonnes last year), while more expensive inputs and overstaffing have pushed up costs. Its stagnation is largely the fault of past governments that, eager for tax revenues, short-changed the company’s investment budget.”

Source: The Economist, October 21 2010

Observations:

  • Codelco hired Diego Hernandez, BHP Billiton’s former base metals head, as CEO in 2008 to return the company back to growth.
  • The company is planning a $12bln capital investment offensive in Chile in order to ramp-up production. However, issuing equity is not an option due to Chilean legislation.
  • Analysts expect Codelco to increase its debt by up to $7bln and use cash generated from operations for the rest of the investment plans.

Implications:

  • Codelco still has ample investment opportunities in Chile in its core copper business. The company is unlikely to diversify in products or geographies, as the Chilean government has an important voice in the investment decisions.
  • Codelco would be a logical partner for Vale to strengthen its copper business. The geographical proximity would help to create strong synergies and a merger, partnership or Joint Venture would help Codelco to secure the funds needed for expansion.

©2010 | Wilfred Visser | thebusinessofmining.com

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