Years-Long Copper Glut Can Still Flush Out Deals for Antofagasta

  • Miner keeps vigil for bargains as rout spurs industry distress
  • Company also interested in exploration projects in Argentina

As metals from silver to zinc rally, copper is stuck in a glut that will probably last another two or three years, and that may flush out bargains, according to Antofagasta Plc.

Until now, the copper miner controlled by Chile’s wealthiest family hasn’t seen opportunities that are attractive enough coming to market as producers cut costs and hold on for a recovery in prices, Chief Executive Officer Ivan Arriagada said in an interview in Buenos Aires Wednesday. 

But that might not happen in any significant way until 2019 as a slowdown in demand and fresh supply keeps the market in surplus, Arriagada said. In the meantime, he expects prices to trade around today’s levels with the possibility of going lower at particular points in time.

“We have not seen everything yet in terms of eventual distress conditions,” Arriagada said. “So we remain vigilant” for acquisition opportunities.

While Antofagasta continues to prioritize cost reductions and protecting margins after copper’s 30 percent slump in the past two years, the Santiago-based company is one of the world’s least-leveraged copper miners and remains open to opportunities.

Last year, it paid Barrick Gold Corp. $1 billion for 50 percent of the Zaldivar mine in Chile.  Still, the $6.4 billion miner doesn’t have outstanding bonds and its net debt is 1.2 times earnings compared with an average of 4.7 among members of the Bloomberg World Mining Index.

Copper prices are up less than 1 percent in New York this year, while silver has surged 37 percent and zinc has gained 42 percent. Even so, the red metal’s longer-term outlook is promising with Chinese demand continuing to grow and a lack of new projects, Arriagada said. And the current surplus is fairly small at 300,000 to 350,000 metric tons, he said.

Arriagada was speaking in the Argentine capital, where he was attending an investor conference that included President Mauricio Macri. The new government’s efforts to kick start the economy -- by repealing currency controls and export taxes and resolving a bond dispute to rejoin debt markets -- has attracted the interest of mining companies.

Antofagasta is interested in establishing a foothold in Argentina by entering early-stage exploration projects. “This is early days for us in terms of looking at the transformation that is taking place, but I am very encouraged from what I’ve seen,” he said.

Back home in Chile, the company is in “very advanced talks” to sell its Michilla copper mine, where operations have been halted, he said. Antofagasta expects to sign a deal by the end of the year.

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