The mining market is under pressure these days and that can be a good thing. There are companies and executives who are succeeding in this environment and those who are not. In many cases, those who have the ability to extract themselves from the trenches to gain a more clear perspective, find non-traditional solutions. The contrarians who go with their gut instinct reap the greatest rewards.
Choose a cliché: The bigger they are, the harder they fall; what goes up, must come down; or nothing ventured, nothing gained. They all seem to apply these days. The groups that track the mining business, both the professional research firms and the gadfly bloggers, routinely paint a grim picture. If one were to judge the industry’s performance on a macro basis over the course of the last two or three years, then there would not be much point in any of us coming to work. The truth is that every day there are miners extracting ore from more than 10,000 holes in the ground worldwide and there is plenty of activity taking place.
As an example, the opening spread for Leading Developments (p. 4-5) carries stories that vary from a major new iron ore mine in Australia to the Chinese purchasing a major copper mine in Peru to mergers and acquisitions activity among four of the top gold mining companies. The exception that proves the rule would be Simon Walker’s potash article (A New World Order?, p 58). He describes in great detail the potash market’s undoing. Spoiler alert: One executive brought an over-supplied market facing declining short-term demand to its knees in days.
Mining companies have enough projects in the pipeline and they are pulling back on exploration investment. Does that mean the exploration sector is dead? No, but the time between major discoveries will likely grow now. The Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) annual convention did not attain the frenetic levels it has in the past two years, but more than 25,000 people still turned out for the event. They weren’t there to preside over the last rites; they were looking for opportunities.
In writing two reports based on PDAC 2014 (see PDAC Highlights, p. 28 and Discoveries & Developments, p. 32), some similar trends bubbled to the surface. Exploration spending tracks along with commodity pricing. Over the course of 50 to 100 years, every time metal prices move higher, prospectors reactivate the drills in search of the next big discovery. Common sense, right? Their success, however, depends on how they looked at the project during the down period between peaks. Some walked away. Others choose to look at the project from a fresh perspective as a new reality set in. This often led to a more disciplined and successful approach.
Another example of fresh perspective and the will to succeed is Russell Carter’s article on Bingham Canyon (See Slope Stability, p. 46). Rio Tinto Kennecott was expecting a slide, but the size of the slide surprised them. They lost a maintenance shop and several major pieces of equipment, but no one was injured. It looked like it would be years before they got the mine back into operation. Then, a group of engineers and managers took a sober assessment of the situation, evaluated their options, and brought the mine back into production much more quickly than anyone thought possible.
The mining business will marshal through this soft period. History has taught us that some of the leaders will fall and new names will emerge. It has also shown us that those willing to take a calculated risk will reap the greatest rewards. Look for those who have skin in the game and are willing to go against the grain, they will emerge as the new leaders of this business.