Mining slump, China's M&As to the rescue

Updated: 2012-10-17 17:39

By Tom McGregor (China Daily)

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The mining sector had enjoyed ten glorious years of soaring commodity prices and even higher demand. Yet, this was never guaranteed to last forever, as the sector would inevitably succumb to the ups and downs of the global economy.

As miners experience a sudden downturn, they should adapt to a new era of cutting costs, take less risks and debts, while mergers and acquisitions, or M&As, would become more of a necessity for some companies.

Mega mining giants have already anticipated a shift in their fortunes. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, miners have scaled back "on expansion plans and cut costs, with top global miner BHP Billiton shedding jobs in its most profitable iron ore business and rival Rio Tinto also deepening a cost-cutting program across its back office."

"Everyone's back to square one. We can deliver outcomes, but you've got to reduce your costs and manage your business," Australian Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said to Reuters.

Tom Albanese, chief executive of Rio Tinto, told the Financial Times, "we have seen contractor rates in particular starting to go down, rolling back some of the unsustainable cost increases of recent years."

A new phase for miners could offer opportunities for Chinese companies to emerge as stronger competitors.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) reports, "the number of Chinese-led mining merger and acquisition deals nearly doubled in the first half of 2012, despite the slowdown in the world's second largest economy."

"China accounted for 13 percent of all mining M&A deals completed in the first half of the year, against 7 percent in the same period last year," according to PwC.

Related reading: China increases influence in subdued international mining M&A market

The downturn of the mining sector could create better buying opportunities for Chinese companies. Ken Sun, PwC China mining leader, believes that Chinese miners could see "overseas resource assets at attractive valuations" in North America, South America and Africa."

Sun added, "China's miners have shown that despite the macro global challenges, they still have an appetite for doing deals abroad."

China has a population at over 1.3 billion and its annual GDP is expected to grow by nearly 8 percent this year. The country maintains strong demand for commodities, although it won't be as strong as a year ago.

Hence, Chinese miners can play a pivotal role in sweeping up struggling mining companies into its operations to capture more global influence among their peers.

The London Metals Exchange has hinted at "reducing or eliminating barriers" for Chinese investors "to trade on the world's largest metal exchange," as reported by the Chinese media.

Plans include: Hong kong Exchanges and Clearing Ltd (Hex) to offer new commodity offerings from the London Metal Exchange. The LME may also introduce renminbi clearing, and working the potential of renminbi denominated products, since the globalization of the RMB has been picking up pace.

The LME should have implemented these proposals a few years ago. China consumes approximately 60 percent of the world's base metals. Nationwide demand for copper has increased by 16 percent annually in recent years.

Meanwhile, "China consumes 651 million tons of steel per year," according to a Chinese media report, "compared with 71 million tons in Japan and 95 million tons in the United States."

Such high demand for metals could not be sustainable, since China's GDP had witnessed at or near double-digit annual growth rates in recent years. So it would seem that commodity prices might remain lower.

Nevertheless, the mining slump provides favorable circumstances for bargain hunters, which could spark a buyers' market for Chinese companies.

Perhaps the downward trend would serve a useful purpose. Labor and operational costs for miners had surged too high. Some companies were assuming greater risks and debts. A drop in commodity prices would change how mining companies conduct their business activities. It's time for Chinese companies to adapt and dig into the changing miners' market as well.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.