Volatility Characterizes Current Mining Sector Outlook

Avinash Kalkerpersad, Head Research Analyst and Arnold van Graan, Equity Research Analyst, of Nedbank shed insight on the current market cycle within the South African mining industry and how other sectors have fared from a price-performance perspective.

While no two cycles are the same, what stands out about this market cycle is its sheer volatility. There have been massive moves daily, not just weekly or monthly, which leaves analysts confused as to whether the mining industry is up or down. Another item that stands out is the breakdown in several long-term metrics that are usually tracked.

Avinash Kalkerpersad, Head Research Analyst

There are certain factors that drive the metal price, but over the last few months, these seem to have fallen by the wayside. What is reflected in the market and on the ticker boards are not necessarily a reflection of what’s happening in the fundamentals, which is challenging.

So, what is really driving this market? What are the factors that one should look at to understand where it’s going and what the new norms will look like? This is quite challenging, but the cycle has been good to the sector, with most resources going up sharply, gold being the standard – and that is key. It is the breakdown of fundamentals and the volatility that are the real challenges within the mining sector.

Gold has seen a 100% return, year-to-date compared to the All Share Index at -1%. The resource sector is up 18%, including platinum, which is up by 13%. This indicates good performance. On a one-year basis, resources are up 34%; platinum is up 100%; gold is up by 140%; and the All Share Index is up only four percent. Looking at the market on a five-year basis is where the excitement around gold lies, as it is projected to go up by 580%, platinum up by 250% and resources in general up by 75%, compared to the All-Share index going up by only 12%. This is the wonder of resources and mining. When you think it is down and out, you get a bull market. The uniqueness of this sector is that a big reset can occur and make up everything you’ve lost in the past few years within a few months.

Arnold van Graan, Equity Research Analyst

The direction of this rally will be determined by two things – one being the outcome of COVID-19 and whether we will peak, or see a second round of infections. The other factor is how much money central banks and governments will invest into their respective financial systems to boost the economy. These will be key drivers of commodity prices and their trajectory, gold included.

There are two important drivers of demand – one being China and the other being stimulus – and these are interlinked. Most of the metals produced both in South Africa and globally are consumed in China. The resource sector is greatly affected by the Chinese economy. With a strong rebound in China after the damage from their lockdown, it is net positive for the rest of us.

There are a lot of goods that are manufactured in China, which end up being exported and consumed elsewhere. They are a big vehicle manufacturer, so approximately 65% of platinum group metals (PGMs) are consumed in China. This is important for the PGM sector.

We are in a familiar situation, which we saw at the end of the global financial crisis in 2008. A good way to get the economy going again is to get people to spend money, and this comes down to stimulus, quantitative easing and the like. It will not only push money into the system, but also revitalize it.

Approximately 70% of all PGMs produced go into the auto industry, and the bulk of that goes directly into China. There was a decline in global vehicle sales pre-COVID-19, which raised questions around the long-term future of the industry. A major disruptor in the industry remains electric-powered vehicles and the impact they will have. This has become more relevant with Tesla’s increasing share prices. We need to answer the question of post-COVID-19 recovery and the future of electric vehicles. They go hand-in-hand. The recovery of the auto sector will depend on stimulus measures. We predict a strong recovery in global vehicle sales on the back of stimulus and continued growth out of the global auto sector.

There is an increasing need for private transport to avoid using public transport considering the current pandemic. This is a positive for the auto sector in terms of a rebound. There is still the threat of electric vehicles on the horizon, and we believe it is not a near threat – not within the next five years, at least. The transition to electric vehicles will be a long-term theme.

Pre-COVID-19, the PGM market looked good and prices were starting to increase due to a potential shortage of metal because the industry had been under-capitalized. We haven’t built enough mines to sustain long-term demands. With the hard lockdown, we will see 15% of 2020’s production taken offline.

This is a positive, as you are losing supply when there is no demand. The shortages pre-COVID-19 will push through and continue. Platinum tends to be in oversupply, whereas palladium and rhodium will be in deep deficits for the foreseeable future. Our view is that we will see the substitution of palladium into platinum. If we look at it from a basket perspective, we do see these shortages.

Ultimately, we will be discussing the impacts of COVID-19 on the industry for much longer than it will be trending in the news. The ramp-up post-pandemic is deliberately slow, with mining companies focusing on the health and safety of workers and not on production. As a result, most mines only reached a somewhat steady state towards the end of July 2020. Underground mines sit at 80% production levels due to social distancing, which results in delays and challenges in getting some members back to work. There is always a risk of COVID-19 impacting production on the mines.

Since the 1990s, there has been a big push to expand offshore. This continued and we saw disinvestment by major listed producers like Anglo Gold, which recently sold its last operations in South Africa. In our research, we found that in the gold sector, companies went offshore due to weak papers. However, they didn’t have the buying power to purchase the best assets and ended up buying lower-tier assets in new jurisdictions, different from the mining methods they were used to. The sector spent a lot of money buying lower-tier assets, but was not the best at running them, which resulted in a lot of value destruction in the process. While companies are becoming more prudent in their offshore expansions, we’re not seeing major deals as we have in the past. South African companies have become better international operators, not just in mining, but in other sectors, too. A cautionary warning to offshore expansion would be to have a thorough understanding of the new jurisdiction, its legislature and its people, and to ensure that you buy the best quality assets – not just buying assets for the sake of buying an asset offshore. This will be key.

Headquartered in Johannesburg, Nedbank Group is a financial services group in South Africa offering wholesale and retail banking services, as well as insurance, asset management and wealth management. While Nedbank’s primary market is South Africa, the company also operates in six other countries in the Southern African Development Community.

Disclaimer: Op-ed contributors Avinash Kalkerpersad, Head Research Analyst and Arnold van Graan, Equity Research Analyst of Nedbank share their short- and long-term market outlooks for the mining sector. The opinions stated in this article are those of the authors.