Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Costs Searing Miners Could Boost Metals
Escalating production costs and cooling commodity prices are dragging down once-mighty mining and metals companies. But high costs could eventually force another price rally. Traders are watching for the point where supply tightens thanks to a shakeout among producers that can't profit amid lower prices. Some of the miners in the most pain are on acid -- lots of it. Sulfuric acid is used extensively in mining to extract nickel, copper and uranium. But miners must compete for sulphur with the booming fertilizer industry. After a period when you could hardly give it away, sulfuric acid has gotten exceedingly scarce, rising some 1,000% in the past year. Some nickel mines consume $10,000 of acid just to extract a ton of nickel, now selling for about $20,000, down from $50,000 last year. Mines and smelters also consume massive amounts of coal and oil to power blast furnaces, fuel trucks and process ore. Oil is up about 57% over the past year, while coking coal has tripled. Steel costs have soared; hard-to-find engineers can name their price; and the escalating cost of explosives -- derived from ammonia, a product of natural gas -- is blowing up margins. In 2006 and 2007, when metals prices were climbing, inefficient and mothballed mines reopened. Now nickel, zinc and aluminum are fetching less than it costs such marginal suppliers to produce them, says Jim Lennon, senior commodities strategist at Macquarie Securities in London. When zinc, used to coat steel, climbed to $2 a pound in mid-2006, mines spending a dollar to produce it thrived. Zinc now runs about 80 cents. Once more high-cost producers fall, says Jeremy Weir, chief executive officer of Galena Asset Management, a subsidiary of oil and metals trader Trafigura, "there's a likelihood that some of these markets that have been depressed from their highs could see a price recovery."