Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

After Descent to Hell, Miners Emerge Blinking Into Daylight

  • Prospects transformed as industry meets in London for LME Week
  • Producers learn lesson of past overspending: Baring’s Burstow

When the biggest names in mining arrive in London this week, the surroundings will be familiar, the mood unrecognizable.

A year ago as prices slumped, talk at the annual London Metal Exchange gathering was of bloodletting and journeys through hell. On Tuesday, the 1,900 dinner guests under the huge tulip-shaped chandeliers of the Great Room in Park Lane’s Grosvenor House Hotel, will be relieved to have survived the industry’s biggest crisis in decades.

“This time last year, I was talking about a commodity-specific financial crisis,” said Colin Hamilton, head of commodities research at Macquarie Group Ltd. “The rally in commodity prices has taken that off the table. The foot is really off the throat.”

The industry hit a nadir in January as some of the largest producers creaked under the weight of their borrowings as commodity prices sank to an almost seven-year low. The slowest economic growth in decades in China, the biggest buyer of raw materials, rocked shares and cast doubt on the credibility of the more than $140 billion of debt piled up by the 10 largest miners.

Advice from Freeport-McMoRan Inc. Chief Executive Officer Richard Adkerson, addressing a shell-shocked LME Week last year, borrowed a mournful country music refrain. “If you’re going through hell, keep on moving,” he said. Codelco Chairman Oscar Landerretche told of a need to “clean the bad blood.”

By now, the purge is well underway.

After years of spending on capacity to meet Chinese demand, the top four diversified miners have cut debt by a combined $6.9 billion, or 8.5 percent, in the past 12 months, according to Investec Plc. The figure may reach $15.2 billion by end of the year, with Glencore Plc forecast to lower borrowings by 38 percent and Anglo American Plc by 26 percent, the bank says.

“The diversified majors have responded admirably to the pressures they faced last year,” Investec analysts including Jeremy Wrathall, head of global natural resources, said in a note. “Mining companies took the requisite actions.”

Adkerson has also been swabbing the decks. Freeport has tapped shareholders for cash, and sold assets. It expects to get $5.2 billion from already announced sales in the fourth quarter, and this month reported its first quarterly profit in two years. Freeport shares are up more than 60 percent in 2016.

Glencore, the top commodity trader, sold shares, suspended dividends, reined in spending and offloaded unwanted bits of the business. It has pledged to cut debt to as low as $16.5 billion by the end of 2016 from about $30 billion last year. Anglo, after also halting its dividend, is radically shrinking with plans to sell more than half its mines. It’s set to meet a $10 billion debt target in 2016.

Glencore’s shares more than doubled this year and Anglo’s more than tripled as investors weigh the prospects for a return of dividend payments. The FTSE 350 Mining Index gained 0.7 percent on Monday to near a 16-month high.

Yet such gains are down to luck as much as management. China’s decision to reignite its growth with stimulus spending and U.S. reticence to damp its economy by raising interest rates have boosted asset prices. The cost of coking coal has more than tripled in 2016 and thermal coal gained about 90 percent.

Investors will be wary of any return to the overspending of past years.

“There’s a better chance than there has been in the past that management teams have got it,” said Clive Burstow, who helps manage about $475 million at Baring Asset Management Ltd. in London. “They seem to understand that they cannot just go back to the bad old profligate ways. Their destiny is in their hands.”

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