Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Atlas Iron Suspends Itself From Share Trade Amid Plunging Prices


Atlas Iron is stumbling in the face of the slumping ore price, suspending itself from the local share market as it tries to map out a future.

Iron ore slumped over the weekend to a fresh low of $US46.70 a tonne on a key Chinese spot market.
Atlas said it has been surprised by the "extent and the pace of the decline in the iron ore price" which it says has fallen 24 per cent since it released its half-year accounts in February.

"The voluntary suspension is requested pending the outcome of an extensive review of the company's operations, financial outlook, asset sale opportunities and capital structure," the company said in a statement to shareholders.

The company said it has already commenced discussions with a number of its stakeholders in relation to various initiatives it is undertaking to reduce costs and preserve value.

Bulk transporter McAleese Group is one of those stakeholders, it has a major iron ore haulage contract with Atlas worth around $250 million and not due to expire until 2017.

McAleese has issued a statement to shareholders saying it will continue to work with Atlas as a priority to "achieve sustainable solutions for both parties."

Atlas shares, which last traded at 12 cents, will remain suspended until the company makes an announcement at the end of the review, which should be in the next fortnight.

The share price has lost 88 per cent in the last 12 months.

Financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard is assisting Atlas with the review.

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

South32 – Major in the Making - BHP Billiton



I am becoming more known these days for my gripes than my enthusiasms. A long held complaint (extant at least 7 years) has been at the denuding of the middle ranks of miners. If one looks at the mining market from a Darwinian perspective (and that is particularly apt in these days of survival of the fittest) the pyramid of life (and we use that word under advisement in the mining space) is extremely out of kilter. We have a handful of majors and vast plethora of juniors and a mid-tier that is severely underpopulated. 



This is not a natural situation. If one wonders why mining M&A is in such a torpor one not look much further than the lack of mid-tier companies for majors to munch upon. Just as a T-Rex would not have bothered chasing a squirrel (if they had even existed conterminously) thus mining majors cannot be bothered snuffling in the undergrowth of Vancouver or Perth to look for transactions that are canapés rather than main courses.

However, if we look at majors we have two ways in which they are created. One is by an existing historic major (BHP, Anglo-American, RTZ, Freeport-McMoran) devouring other smaller majors of mid-tier companies or by mid-tier companies bulking up through mergers with like-sized entities to catapult themselves into the top tier. 

Good examples of this are Barrick which went over decades, through a series of mergers from being nothing special to being a major (and still nothing special). Goldcorp, through its acquisitions of Glamis Gold and Wheaton River, is a better example of 1+1+1 equaling more than the sum of the parts. The mid-tier during the last decade and a half was not “restocked with names” because of the failure of Darwinian forces in the mining space.

Having bemoaned however the lack of the md-tier we might also bemoan the lack of majors. There has been a massive concentration in this group which has resulted in a situation where, back in the 1950s, one could have pointed to a score of diversified majors (many US-based) to a much depleted band these days. 

The survivors have gone beyond the categorization as majors and now are more accurately described as behemoths. There was a spooky moment late last year when the threatened takeover of RTZ by Glencore threatened to even reduce the ranks of the behemoths. Fortunately this proved to be just an attack of wind by Ivan Glasenberg.

Breaking up the Brontosaurs

There has been a spate of proposals in recent times to break up some of the biggest miners. BHP are spinning out South32, Vale are supposedly setting free the nickel (and other base metal) assets in a New INCO and Anglogold Ashanti went through gyrations last year first claiming it would spin out non-African assets and then doing an about-face. Chatter about RTZ disposing of diamonds or uranium interests, through demergers, surfaces from time to time.

Son of BHP

The Vale proposal is, I suspect, waiting to see how South32 goes (and also for a turn in the nickel price) while the Anglogold breakup is off the table (for now). However the South32 deal is very much alive and kicking, with a mid-May launch date.

BHP-Billiton is of course a behemoth with a heavy weighting towards iron ore, coal and oil & gas, but a plethora of other activities. Some bright spark has clearly persuaded the management that it should get rid of lesser activities (like being the largest manganese operations in the world and owning the largest silver mine) and instead focusing upon its three core commodities which all have a weak outlook at the moment. Perish the thought it might be the same type of investment bankers that thought Time Warner AOL might be a good combo! So this looks like a “taking candy from babies” opportunity for canny investors. Big dumb corporation throws baby out with bathwater and the opportunity is to try and catch the baby mid-air.

The spinout has been named South32 in a rather tenuous reference to the latitude upon which most of the major assets lie. Not really accurate, but in the annals of recent corporate namings it is one of the less obscure creations of the “branding arts”. The new entity will have operations in Australia, Brazil, Southern Africa and Colombia. The main assets will be:

GEMCO: largest Manganese ore producer
Cannington: largest silver producing mine (with lead and zinc)
Worsley Alumina: one of the largest alumina refineries
Hillside (aluminium smelter in South Africa), Mozal Aluminium (in Mozambique), Illawarra Metallurgical Coal, Cerro Matoso (nickel mine in Colombia), Alumar Refinery (aluminium in Brazil) and South Africa Energy Coal
Non-operated JV interests in Brazil (mainly a bauxite mine, refinery and smelter)

This makes for a very diversified company, by commodity and customer, with US$8.3bn of revenue in FY2014. The new company will be headquartered in Perth and will have listings on the ASX, JSE and LSE.

The new entity will be one of the major players in Manganese and aluminium; however as the chart below shows most of the revenue streams are rather well-balanced.



Interestingly the company is way less dependent upon China as a customer than many other majors.

Some have speculated that South32 might turn around and ditch the South African coal assets (to Mick Davis’sX2?). I would not shed a tear on that one. The opportunity then would come in bulking up the nickel part of the business, but more excitingly adding to the lead/zinc component to capitalize upon the Cannington position.

I am becoming more known these days for my gripes than my enthusiasms. A long held complaint (extant at least 7 years) has been at the denuding of the middle ranks of miners. If one looks at the mining market from a Darwinian perspective (and that is particularly apt in these days of survival of the fittest) the pyramid of life (and we use that word under advisement in the mining space) is extremely out of kilter. We have a handful of majors and vast plethora of juniors and a mid-tier that is severely underpopulated. 

This is not a natural situation. If one wonders why mining M&A is in such a torpor one not look much further than the lack of mid-tier companies for majors to munch upon. Just as a T-Rex would not have bothered chasing a squirrel (if they had even existed conterminously) thus mining majors cannot be bothered snuffling in the undergrowth of Vancouver or Perth to look for transactions that are canapés rather than main courses.

However, if we look at majors we have two ways in which they are created. One is by an existing historic major (BHP, Anglo-American, RTZ, Freeport-McMoran) devouring other smaller majors of mid-tier companies or by mid-tier companies bulking up through mergers with like-sized entities to catapult themselves into the top tier. 

Good examples of this are Barrick which went over decades, through a series of mergers from being nothing special to being a major (and still nothing special). Goldcorp, through its acquisitions of Glamis Gold and Wheaton River, is a better example of 1+1+1 equaling more than the sum of the parts. The mid-tier during the last decade and a half was not “restocked with names” because of the failure of Darwinian forces in the mining space.

Having bemoaned however the lack of the md-tier we might also bemoan the lack of majors. There has been a massive concentration in this group which has resulted in a situation where, back in the 1950s, one could have pointed to a score of diversified majors (many US-based) to a much depleted band these days. The survivors have gone beyond the categorization as majors and now are more accurately described as behemoths. There was a spooky moment late last year when the threatened takeover of RTZ by Glencore threatened to even reduce the ranks of the behemoths. Fortunately this proved to be just an attack of wind by Ivan Glasenberg.

Back in the early 1980s the first stock I ever bought was a very tiny amount of BHP (as it then was) and made a good turn on it. The price was embarrassingly low compared to where the stock stands now but the early 1980s were a grim period for most miners. The first time I have even been tempted to buy BHP since then is now… and strangely it’s so I can sell it… after having stripped out the South32 spin-out as a “keeper”.

Approval for the Demerger is being sought at shareholder meetings to be held in Perth and London on the 6th of May 2015. Under the spin-out proposal eligible shareholders would retain their existing shareholding in BHP Billiton and also receive a new share in South32 for every BHP Billiton share held (at the applicable record date which I understand to be mid-May). After that date South32 will be able to be kept and the BHP Billiton ditched with alacrity.

Perversely this opportunity (probably much to the chagrin of BHP’s execs) reminds me of Morticia Addams chopping the heads off roses to keep the thorny stem.

In the minds of the big strategists in the corporate suite of BHP, the “big metals” are the ones to keep. I would rather grasp the thorny stem any day….

Metal Prices Aid Glencore’s Chances with Rio Tinto



The biggest, most complex mining deal ever broached could boil down to a simple ratio: the price of copper versus the price of iron ore.

Glencore PLC, the Swiss mining giant with massive copper holdings, last year proposed a roughly $US150 billion merger with Rio Tinto PLC, among the world’s biggest producers of iron ore. Glencore’s announcement that Rio rebuffed the bid on October 7 set off a six-month moratorium under UK law from another approach.

That cooling-off period ends tomorrow, potentially opening the door to more talks. The two miners had never publicly disclosed potential terms, and Rio (RIO) executives haven’t encouraged new talks.

But two factors have swung in Glencore’s favour that could encourage a deal creating the world’s largest mining company and give investors exposure to every major commodity.

Glencore’s shares are up more than 15 per cent since mid-January, when they briefly hit their lowest level since the company went public in 2011 amid a decline in copper prices, while Rio’s have dipped 3 per cent.

A big reason for the divergence: Ironore prices have continued their long decline from highs of $US190 a tonne reached in 2011, recently hitting a 10-year low below $US50 a tonne. Copper prices, meanwhile, have rebounded by about 5 per cent to just north of $US6,000 a tonne in the past month.

Industry experts also don’t expect to see a recovery in the price of iron ore, a primary steelmaking ingredient, anytime soon. Caroline Bain, senior commodities economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London, last month forecast that iron-ore prices are likely to hit $US45 a tonne by year-end as large surpluses of iron-ore continue to flood into the market and Chinese demand cools.

Such declines have been driven by unrelenting increase in iron ore production from Rio Tinto and its competitors such as BHP Billiton Ltd. and Vale SA. If production isn’t curbed, prices could continue to fall, analysts say.

“Sooner or later either (Rio is) going to have to back away from the volume-growth strategy, or they’re going to have to face the prospect that their earnings are going to fall through the floor,” said Sanford C. Bernstein mining analyst Paul Gait. If Rio’s earnings keep falling and its share price suffers, “they’re going to be vulnerable to Glencore, “ he said.

Rio Tinto chief executive Sam Walsh has repeatedly said he isn’t interested in a deal with Glencore. At a February event in London, Mr Walsh said bluntly the merger “isn’t going to happen,” indicating he thought Glencore couldn’t pay a high-enough price.

Glencore’s shares have lost about one-fourth of their value since last July, when its chief executive, Ivan Glasenberg, placed a call to Rio Tinto Chairman Jan du Plessis to discuss a potential merger. Since Glencore would need to offer shares as part of the deal, the math has become significantly more daunting for Mr Glasenberg.

Glencore also is heavily exposed to the price of coal, which has stumbled for similar reasons to iron ore. Plus, any deal would face strict scrutiny from antitrust authorities in the UK and Australia, where Rio Tinto is based.

One of Glencore’s main hurdles in executing a Rio Tinto deal is its debt-heavy balance sheet. Glencore had $US30.5 billion in net debt at the end of 2014, compared with Rio’s $US12.5 billion in debt. That puts Glencore’s leverage ratio — net debt divided by the sum of debt and total equity — at about 40 per cent, roughly twice the leverage at Rio Tinto.

That could put a cap on how much more debt Glencore can take on to fund a Rio bid. More debt could threaten its credit ratings, putting pressure on its trading arm, which relies on leverage to fuel its operations.

In Glencore’s favour are rebounding copper prices, which could help push its share price higher. Mr Gait of Sanford C. Bernstein expects copper and other factors to help lift Glencore’s share price to nearly double where it currently stands.

Perhaps the biggest wildcard is China. China’s state-owned aluminium company, Chinalco, is Rio Tinto’s biggest shareholder. It has seen the value of its 9.8 per cent stake in the company cut roughly in half since it made the investment in 2008. Rio in 2009 rebuffed a bid by Chinalco to double its stake, which would have given it a seat on Rio’s board.

Those factors have brewed tensions with Chinalco, potentially leaving Beijing open to new leadership at Rio Tinto, said Michael Komesaroff, a long-time analyst of China and natural-resource trends.

A person who picked up the phone at Chinalco’s Beijing office said nobody was available for comment over the weekend, which was also a holiday in China.

Glencore in its 2013 merger with Xstrata proved it could bargain with the Chinese, getting Beijing’s approval for the deal in part by agreeing to sell its Las Bambas Peruvian copper project to a Chinese consortium.

China, the world’s biggest consumer of copper, is unlikely to have lost its appetite for ownership of copper mines, analysts say. One option for Glencore would be to offer to sell one of Rio’s prized copper mining assets, such as its 30 per cent stake in Chile’s Escondida mine.

“If the Chinese want to make it happen, it’s more than likely going to happen,” said Mr Komesaroff said.



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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

BC Iron to Cut Costs as Iron Ore Prices Tumble

BC Iron to Cut Costs as Iron Ore Prices Tumble

Australia's smaller iron ore miners are struggling to keep their heads above water as the price of the steel-making commodity hits a fresh post-global financial crisis low.

The price of Australia's biggest export fell more than two per cent to $US52.90 overnight following a four per cent fall the previous day.

Junior and mid-tier miners are having to reassess their costs as the world's biggest iron ore miners continue flooding the market despite a softening in Chinese demand.

Morgan Ball, the chief executive of junior Pilbara producer BC Iron, says his company is planning more cost reductions after recently meeting with Chinese steel mills.

"Clearly there is a significant supply influx still to come primarily out of Vale and Roy Hill in the short-term and that's why we're setting our business up for a couple of years, but we think we can operate through that," Mr Ball told AAP.

"We have more costs to take out of the business that will help us through this period."

Mr Ball said there were no plans to make further cuts to staff as he keeps a close eye on how many Chinese domestic mines re-open after winter.

Still, there could be some support for the iron ore price after China's central bank eased restrictions on down-payments for second homes and cut taxes to boost its housing market.

"It all helps," Mr Ball said.

"I think we'll see more of those kind of initiatives."

He added that mills and traders in China, India and Indonesia would prefer to deal with more than two or three companies.

Fortescue Metal's chairman Andrew Forrest last week called for a cap on iron ore production, sparking an investigation by the competition watchdog the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims will focus on cartel conduct in government procurement and in the commodities market, particularly iron ore in the year ahead.

"Mr Forrest has helpfully made that an important issue for us," Mr Sims told a business briefing in Perth.

"As someone who has been watching the mining industry for 40 years, I'm staggered that people don't realise that prices go up, people invest, production comes on, prices go down."

But he said it was hard to prove an attempt to illegally cap production.



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Friday, March 27, 2015

China’s Iron Ore Mines Keep Digging Despite Losses



About three-quarters of Chinese iron ore mines are in the red, according to remarks on Friday by Yang Jiasheng, chairman of the Metallurgical Mines Association of China, with operating rates as low as 20 per cent of capacity.

Shi Zhenglei, iron ore analyst at Mysteel, reckoned that about half of China’s estimated 1,500 iron mines would be forced to close this year, removing 20 to 30 per cent of national capacity. Many Chinese mines produce low grades of ore.

“Some miners will sell out, but the problem is that it will be hard to find buyers,” he said. “It is also difficult for state-owned companies to acquire small mines due to reasons pertaining to capital and local government.”

While many smaller, private iron ore miners may be willing to sell or at least mothball production, state-owned mines are locked into contracts with mills and may come under pressure to keep going.

Local governments also generally oppose closures that might raise local unemployment rolls. State-owned metals trader Minmetals, for example, has been unable to get permission to close a costly mine in northern China, in spite of the availability of cheaper imported ore.

“Many of the iron ore mines have signed contracts with steel factories,” said Wang Lin, analyst at Lange Steel Information Resource Center in Beijing. “Many are still operating because they want to make sure they have stable supplies for steel factories.”

The drop in prices has also hit higher-cost international miners including Australia’s Fortescue Metals Group, once hailed by the Chinese for its potential to break the market dominance of BHP Billiton and Rio. Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Fortescue founder and chairman, this week called for a cap to help revive prices.

China’s flagship steel producer Baosteel has joined Rio Tinto in rejecting that suggestion.




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Monday, March 16, 2015

BHP Reveals Dividend and Debt Plan for South32

The new entity will also be given $US2.2 billion of BHP Billiton's debt, in keeping with the company's promise to ensure the new company begins its life with a small and manageable debt load. Photo: Reuters

The company that will be spun out of BHP Billiton later this year will return at least 40 per cent of its underlying earnings to shareholders in the form of dividends, according to information on the demerger revealed this morning.

Dubbed South32, the new entity will begin its life with about $US2.2 billion ($2.9 billion) of balance sheet items, in keeping with the company's promise to ensure the new company begins its life with a small and manageable debt load.


About $US1.5 billion of that will be closure and rehabilitation provisions, along with $US674 million of net debt.

Some of BHP's biggest shareholders had urged the miner to give South32 no more than $US1 billion of net debt, so the details announced today were welcomed by institutional investors.

Australian Foundation Investment Company is the eleventh biggest holder of BHP's Australian stock, and managing director Ross Barker praised the low debt levels.

"That is a good thing, those resources (bound for South32) are fairly volatile so you wouldn't want a large debt on a potentially volatile company," he said.

"We are encouraged to see a 40 per cent dividend payout policy too ... on top of the fact BHP will be keeping their progressive dividend."

BHP shares were 25 cents higher at $29.65 around midday.

The man who will serve as South32's first chief executive, Graham Kerr, said the low debt levels were very important given the current market conditions.

"One thing the market often underestimates is the impact and the risk that comes with leverage, we have really thought deeply about what the balance sheet of South32 should be and we think it is at the appropriate level to allow us to fulfill the strategic priorities we think are important," he said. 

RBC Capital Markets analyst Chris Drew said the total liabilities were "in line" with the guidance from BHP.

"It is a very manageable balance sheet. The targeted payout ratio of 40 per cent is also within the range the market was anticipating," he said.

BHP's net debt will reduce slightly as a result, and BHP chairman Jac Nasser urged shareholders to vote in favour of the demerger in May.

"Having assessed a number of alternatives, the BHP Billiton board considers the demerger to be the preferred approach to achieving simplification of our portfolio and maximising shareholder value. The board unanimously recommends that shareholders vote in favour of the demerger," he said in a statement.

BHP was unable to confirm how the new company would manage its franking credit balance, saying only that South32 would distribute its dividends with the "maximum practicable franking credits".

South32 is expected to list on the ASX, the London Stock Exchange and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange before the end of the financial year, and BHP has hinted it will be primed to pursue investment and acquisition opportunities almost immediately.

The new company will start life with a $US1.5 billion revolving syndicated bank facility to ensure liquidity.

When asked about what sort of new investments South32 would be interested in, Mr Kerr said the company had to crawl before it walk, and walk before it could run.

The 11 operating assets bound for South 32 include the coal mines of Illawarra and South Africa, the manganese assets strewn across the southern hemisphere, the Cerro Matoso nickel mine in Colombia, the aluminium division and the Cannington silver, lead and zinc mine in Queensland. 

BHP estimates those assets would have generated a combined $US8.3 billion of revenue in the 2014 financial year, and would have been cash generative over the past three years.

RBC speculated recently that the demerger was a good idea, but was increasingly poorly-timed given the price collapse in some of BHP's major commodities.

But BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie said on Tuesday that productivity measures were more important during times of weak commodity prices.

"I can't think of a better time to do this transaction," he said.


In a recent interview, Colonial First State Global Asset Management resources portfolio manager Todd Warren said he believed the demerger still made sense despite the fall in commodity prices.

"The South32 business is much more non-OECD in its concentration and certainly does require a greater percentage of management time, so from that perspective only you can argue its a positive for BHP to simplify its business to more simple businesses to manage," he said.

Shareholders will get a chance to vote on the demerger plan on May 6.

The demerger will require $US738 million of one-off costs, such as stamp duty and fees to investment bankers such as Goldman Sachs, but Mr Mackenzie said that was "good value for money from a superb cast of advisors" whose efforts had been "herculean".

The likes of KPMG, Grant Samuel, Herbert Smith Freehills and Ernst & Young also played advisory roles on the mammoth demerger task.

In documents published today, BHP said those one-off costs would be paid back very quickly.

"We expect the value of the cost savings arising from portfolio simplification alone to more than offset the demerger's one-off transaction costs," the company said.

Beyond the demerger, BHP has today revealed a plan to cut its pre-tax cost base by a further $US100 million, with 90 per cent of the task to be complete by June 30, 2017. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

BHP Defends Iron Strategy as Good for Australia Amid Surplus


BHP Defends Iron Strategy as Good for Australia Amid Surplus


BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s largest mining company, defended its strategy of boosting iron ore supplies at a time of falling prices, saying a focus on raising output and efficiency was aiding Australia’s competitiveness.

Production from its operations in Western Australia was a record 124 million metric tons in the first half, and may reach 245 million tons in the 2015 financial year, BHP said in a statement on Tuesday as Jimmy Wilson, head of its iron ore business, addressed a conference in Perth. The company is on track to achieve unit cash costs below $20 a ton, BHP said.

“With this strategy, we are maintaining Australia’s competitive position in the global market and providing the revenue, royalties, employment and innovation that is so important for this country’s future,” said Wilson.

Iron ore sank 47 percent in 2014 and extended losses this year as surging low-cost supplies from BHP, Rio Tinto Group and Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., Australia’s top producers, outpaced demand growth, spurring a surplus just as China slowed. The slump hurt government revenues in Australia, the world’s biggest shipper, while squeezing smaller producers. Iron ore may find a floor at about $50 a ton, Citigroup Inc. told the conference.

“We have no major projects in execution and our growth pathway will be achieved by continuing to make our existing infrastructure more productive,” said Wilson. BHP anticipated the increased supply of seaborne ore and approved the last of its major capital investments in the Pilbara in 2011, it said.



Lower Prices

Ore with 62 percent content at Qingdao fell 1.5 percent to $58.58 a dry ton on Monday, declining for a fifth day, according to data from Metal Bulletin Ltd. That’s the lowest price since at least May 2008, when Metal Bulletin started compiling weekly prices. The commodity is 18 percent lower this year.

“Is there any chance the major producers will reassess and downgrade their plans, given where the price is? We think not,” Laura Brooks, a senior consultant at CRU Group, told the conference. “One reason for this is that competitive pressure is driving producers to seek cost reductions, and volume is critical if unit costs are to be cut.”

Rio Chief Executive Officer Sam Walsh said last month that if his company reduced output, forfeited supply would be made up by higher-cost competitors, adding that producers made decisions independently. The London-based company, which mines in the ore-rich Pilbara region, is on track to deliver 330 million tons of output by 2015 and 350 million tons by 2017, Iron Ore Chief Executive Andrew Harding said at the at conference.



Rio’s View

“The broader Pilbara shows that from January 2011 to December 2014 inclusive, 248 million new tons entered the market from Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and FMG,” Harding said. Of that increase, “Rio Tinto accounted for 63 million tons, or 25 percent. As you know, some would like you to believe that Rio Tinto has had the largest volume increase in that time. But as you can see, this is simply not the case.”

The global surplus will surge to 437 million tons in 2018 from 184 million tons this year, Morgan Stanley said on Feb. 22. Global seaborne supply is projected to increase 4.6 percent in 2015, topping the 3 percent growth in demand, according to the bank, which sees iron ore averaging $79 a ton this year.

There’s a floor for prices at about $50 a ton, Citigroup Iron Ore & Steel Head Mark Lyons said at the conference. At current prices, an estimated 38 percent of global output isn’t generating cash, according to CRU