The junior mining sector is in such brutal shape right now that most companies are unwilling to even pay for booths at conferences that are geared to them.
Mr. Dethlefsen’s firm, Corsa Coal Corp., was approached this year about buying coal assets in Pennsylvania from Russian steel giant OAO Severstal, which was bailing out of the United States.
Severstal had bought these operations for $900 million in 2008, when steelmaking coal prices were hitting all-time highs. Mr. Dethlefsen would not pay anything close to that in today’s awful coal market, but he didn’t have to. Corsa bought the operations for a grand total of US$60 million, or less than 8% of what Severstal paid.
“It’s a tough market. We have our work cut out for us with this business and it’s not going to be easy,” said Mr. Dethlefsen, Corsa’s chief executive.
“But we’d rather start by paying US$60 million than US$500 million.”
Indeed. It used to be that when mining companies put assets up for auction, they wouldn’t actually sell them unless they got a very full price. That could be because their commodity price assumptions were too optimistic, or they were just too attached to them and convinced they could extract more value. Dozens of interesting projects were put up for auction in recent years and never changed hands because sellers demanded too much money.
We have our work cut out for us with this business and it’s not going to be easy
That changed in 2014, especially at the low end. This will go down as the year when miners were happy to dump their troubled assets. They just wanted to get them off the books and make them someone else’s problem.
The Corsa-Severstal deal was one such example. Rio Tinto Ltd., another, sold coal assets in Mozambique for US$50 million, just three years after paying US$3.7 billion for them. Kinross Gold Corp. dumped Fruta del Norte, possibly the world’s richest undeveloped gold project, for US$240 million, or less than a quarter of what it paid six years ago.
A Billion Dollar Loss – and more of these stories to be written in 2015
And then there was the unfortunate tale of Alberta coal miner Grande Cache Coal Corp. A pair of Asian commodity traders (Marubeni Corp. and Winsway Enterprises Holdings) paid $1 billion for the company in 2011. But coal prices turned dramatically against them. So in October, they agreed to sell their Grand Cache stakes for a buck. Each.
These fire-sale prices generated some laughs across the industry. Yet the deals have an undeniable logic in the current volatile market conditions.
During the mining bull market (roughly 2002 to 2011), the industry was undergoing massive consolidation as miners rode the wave of rising metal prices. Senior mining companies like Rio Tinto and Vale SA snapped up almost everything in sight, piling up a lot of debt and unnecessary assets in the process. As long as commodity prices were high, who cared? They were just happy to get bigger.
It took a steep drop in prices — and an embarrassing wave of writedowns — to force them to reconsider their strategy. They realized too much management time was being wasted on non-core assets that deliver minimal or no return. They also recognized that low commodity prices may last for a while and that they needed to shed these assets to get as lean as possible.
It has helped that almost every major mining company replaced its CEO over the last couple of years. These guys have no emotional attachment to the assets their predecessors overpaid for, and are happy to do whatever it takes to get value out of them.
“Everyone is looking at rationalizing their portfolios to their best core assets,” said Melanie Shishler, a partner and mining specialist at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. “In furtherance of that, I think people are being quite unrelenting in what they’re prepared to do to reach that goal.”
And there was nothing CEOs wanted to divest more than their problem assets. These assets were unloaded for bargain-basement prices after they backfired in spectacular ways.
For Severstal, it was a combination of a deteriorating coal market and Vladimir Putin. When Severstal bought the U.S. assets in 2008, coking coal prices were soaring above US$300 a tonne. Supply was so tight that steelmakers were terrified they would not be able to source product, so they started snapping up coal mining operations.
Today, that strategy seems absurd. Benchmark prices have plunged to US$117 a tonne, due to soaring supply and uncertain Chinese demand. Steelmakers no longer see any need to be vertically integrated.
Kinross – Poster Child For Mining Sector Errors
For Toronto-based Kinross, the central issue was also politics. The problem with the Fruta del Norte (FDN) project is that it is in Ecuador, a country with no history of large-scale gold mining. Kinross paid $1.2 billion for FDN in 2008 even though Ecuador did not have a firm mining law at the time. It was a reckless gamble, and it backfired after the government demanded outrageous windfall profits taxes. (Kinross owns equity in FDN’s new owner, so it could still benefit if the mine is built.)
Rio Tinto fell victim to a lack of good due diligence. It paid billions for the Mozambique coal assets without having a firm transportation plan in place. The transportation constraints were far bigger than anticipated, making the coal assets almost worthless in Rio’s eyes.
In the two-dollar Grande Cache deal, the Asian sellers decided the assets definitely worthless to them at these prices. Experts said the sellers were facing potential cash outflows in the short term, something they clearly wanted to avoid.
Senior mining companies are still holding many unnecessary and troubled assets on their books. So it would not be a surprise to see a few more dirt-cheap deals in 2015.
One notable thing about these transactions is they usually involved a large company selling to a very small one. Sometimes it takes a small company to give a problem asset the attention it needs to create value. If they can’t get the assets turned around, then these deals are not such a great bargain.
“I’ve always said one company’s non-core asset is the cornerstone asset of another one,” said Jack A. Bass, managing partner at Jack A. Bass and Associates.
That is certainly the case with Corsa, which transformed into a serious player overnight with the Severstal deal. But now that the excitement has worn off, the company has to prove it can generate actual value out of these operations in a miserable coal market. If Corsa pulls that off and prices rebound, it could turn out to be one of the best mining deals in decades.
“We took the opportunity to come in and buy at what we think is the trough,” Mr. Dethlefsen said.
“To do that, you’ve got to have a pretty strong stomach. Over the next 12 months, it’s going to be a knife fight.”
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Here is our recent letter:
Gold and Precious MetalsThe largest gains for our clients came from the exit from the gold producers at $18oo an ounce and continuing until we hold no gold and no gold miners . This from the author of The Gold Investors Handbook.2015 – We continue to be on the sidelines for this sector – regardless of the gnomes of Switzerland . As a safe haven gold simply wasnot there for investors despite turmoil in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine.How much more frightening can the prospect for peace be than to have wars in multiple locations? Secondly the spectre of inflation – on which I have given numerous talks – simply failed to materialize. In fact economists and portfolio managers such as myself are now more concerned about deflation – and the spectre is a Japanese style decades long slide in the world economy.
Have you avoided these sectors – you would have been better off to follow our advice in 2014 and now you have to decide for 2015.
No one – and I am not being humble here – can project the future with great accuracy but our clients continue to do very well and we offer that experience to you.
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Similar to wise buying decisions, exiting certain underperformers at the right time helps maximize portfolio returns. Selling off losers can be difficult, but if both the share price and estimates are falling, it could be time to get rid of the security before more losses hit your portfolio.
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