Author Archives: Stuart Burns

Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal’s audacious purchase of 13% of mining giant Anglo American PLC  took the stock markets by surprise last week. But Agarwal, chairman of London-listed Vedanta Resources is known for his bold and sometimes seemingly counter-intuitive acquisitions.

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Agarwal has bought the shares in the name of his family trust Volcan, saying it is just an investment in a “great company with excellent assets,” stating that he had no immediate plans to launch a takeover, according to the Financial Times.

No one believes him, of course, or at least not the part about it just being an investment in a great company with excellent assets. True, the prospect of Agarwal’s Vedanta with a market cap of $2.99 billion, being able to takeover Anglo-American with a market cap of  $20.84 billion (£16.7 billion) is verging on the absurd, but the truth is Agarwal is probably more interested in a seat on the board and the opportunity to influence Anglo-American’s future in South Africa than seriously taking over a group that is seven times the size of his own.

Source: Financial Times

Anglo-American has made no secret of its desire to divest some of its more troublesome South African investments.

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The political instability and red tape in South Africa has caused the miner problems in recent years and Anglo has already sold two assets to Vedanta including the Gamsberg zinc project in the Northern Cape which Vedanta should bring to production next year. Read more

For an industry that has for decades been criticized by environmental groups as the root of all evil it is ironic that oil and gas producers are aligned in championing carbon capture with such enthusiasm.

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The fossil fuel industry is at the forefront of lobbying for radical changes in public policy into research to cut the costs of extracting CO2 from hydrocarbon energy. Industry leaders like Bob Dudley from BP are quoted in the Telegraph as saying, “we can’t just keep our heads in the sand”.

The reality is the hydrocarbon industry has seen the writing on the wall. Public attitudes are hardening, aided by worries about particulate emissions from diesel cars and air pollution in major cities from Beijing to Delhi and even in western capitals like London. The industry is under huge pressure from sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and activist shareholders to find long-term solutions to the carbon question and thwart claims that hydrocarbons are our sunset energy source. Read more

We haven’t heard much of late about President Donald Trump’s border adjustment tax, but that doesn’t mean to say it has gone away.

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Indeed, the fact that it has a measure of support in the Republican Party suggests it could be on the agenda in the not-too-distant future. The idea is to transform the corporate tax landscape from a system that has prevailed for nearly 100 years, in which profits are taxed at the place of production, to a system in which profits are taxed at the place of sale.

A-destination based cash flow tax (DBCFT), as proposed by the House Republican tax plan, would include border adjustments that exempt exports but include imports in tax bills rather than raising federal income from a corporate income tax. As William Gale, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution explained in a recent article, all advanced countries except the U.S. already have a form of value-added tax (VAT), generally levied on top of corporate income taxes. All of those VAT systems are border adjusted, such that goods that are imported are taxed and those that are exported are not.

BAT or VAT

As part of the president’s pledge to bring jobs back to America, the border tax could have much to commend it. For example, if the U.S. introduces the system unilaterally, a factory in Ohio will pay no tax on the goods it exports to the E.U. while a factory in the E.U. will pay the border tax on its exports to the U.S. If you are a multinational corporation, suddenly it makes a ton more sense to have your new factory based in Ohio rather than some “lower cost” location. Read more

For off-road cognoscenti, there are few automobiles more iconic than Jaguar Land Rover’s Defender. Since its introduction in 1948, the rugged old workhorse has earned a reputation for go anywhere capability and durability as an article in the FT notes.

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The Defender’s engineering simplicity meant that the car could be repaired in the middle of the desert with the sparsest of resources and spare parts. But that rugged simplicity also led to its downfall. The SUV’s body-on-frame construction meant that it failed to meet modern safety crash tests and the engine just polluted the air too much to meet European emission rules. JLR consequently halted Defender production last year to the anguish of its diehard fans.

Land Rover Defender. Source: Autoexpress

Well, it would seem JLR has aspirations for a comeback. According to the FT, the group expect to relaunch the Defender in 2019 and its design group is working furiously to reconcept a new vehicle that meets modern environmental and safety standards, requiring a complete redesign from the ground up of the old Defender.

Aluminum Everywhere

It would be inconceivable if the new Defender was less capable than the old, a betrayal of that once iconic brand and, by all accounts, JLR has no intention of letting them down. Like the old Defender, a new version will employ considerable use of aluminum in the body, but unlike the old steel chassis will have an entirely new aluminum frame construction. Read more

If you can’t beat them, then join them? That may be the gist of UC Rusal’s latest proposal for dealing with Chinese aluminum overproduction: an OPEC-like organization for the global aluminum industry.

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In a Reuters article the world’s largest aluminiu producer outside of China was quoted by the TASS news agency at an economic conference in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi as suggesting that Industry ministers should get together and explore ways and means of creating a producers club.

Liquid metal

The Chinese aluminum industry has been able to cut costs by essentially selling liquid metal to nearby product manufacturers. Source: Adobe Stock/Kybele.

The trade minister quoted by TASS, Denis Manturov, talked of creating a single policy in the area of standards and technology but, in reality, there would be little to be gained if that was the sole purpose. More attractive to western smelters in general, and Rusal in particular, would be any mechanism that curbed China’s growing dominance of the primary aluminum market.

Rusal was, until a few years ago the world’s largest aluminum producer. In 2016 Rusal produced 3.685 million metric tons, according to Reuters, but China now produces over half the world’s aluminum with Chinese producers overtaking the Russian firm. China’s Hongqiao is now the world’s biggest aluminum producer overtaking Rusal in 2015 and again in 2016. Read more

Those not involved in the steel industry tend to look at large, integrated blast furnace steel plants as dated technology light-years from the gleaming glass and concrete operations of IT or electronics. However, steelmakers are constantly striving for technological improvements.

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In fact, the very marginal nature of steel production in the western world means that constant innovation is a necessity for a firm’s survival. Comparisons between U.S. Steel and Nucor Corp. illustrate this point. When U.S. Steel was focused on cost reduction and rationalization at the turn of the century, Nucor was innovating and investing not just in alternative electric arc furnaces, but in direct casting and other downstream technologies. As a result, Nucor is now North America’s most successful steel company but they’re not alone in looking to technology for their future prosperity.

Continuous Casting

An interesting article in the Economist details efforts at a number of steel producers around the world to find a better alternative to the traditional blast furnace. The slab casting and re-rolling route is epitomized by the likes of U.S. Steel and the major Asian steel mills. For years, the only real challenger to this process was the electric arc furnace which enjoys the benefits of scrap as a raw material and greater flexibility and economies of scale allowing it to operate profitably on a fraction of the cost required throughout for a traditional blast furnace-based integrated steel plant.

Liquid steel.

Innovation in steelmaking is coming from novel uses of liquid metal. Source: Adobe Stock/Photollug.

One of the major attractions most EAF plants have is that they produce final product by the continuous casting route. The liquid metal is taken from the refining vessel and, for flat-rolled products, continuously cast into 80-120-mm thick slabs, which can then be further rolled to thinner gauges. Read more

As one might misquote Mark Twain, we have been here before.

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In 2016, analysts were queued up to predict the iron ore price was going to collapse only for it continue its relentless rise. The recent pull back from $90 per metric ton has brought a fresh crop of dire predictions. Yet maybe, just maybe, there is more validity this time around for caution as to future price direction. There are a number of factors, each of which individually does not signal a price reversal but collectively suggests iron ore prices later this year could be lower than they have been in the first quarter.

Why Iron Ore Prices Might Really Fall

An article in the Australian Financial Review quotes analysts saying, the strength of recent pricing is encouraging Chinese domestic production to increase. In the first half in 2016 it was averaging a 220 million mt per year run rate, but rose to 280 mmt per year in the second half of the year. At the same time, global supply continues to rise with not just increased shipments from Australia but also number three miner Vale SA expanding supply from its $14 billion S11D mine. Read more

I know it sounds a bit geeky, but we at MetalMiner love to hear about new applications for aluminum. This latest development is not exactly going to change the global demand-supply balance for aluminum but it does showcase one of the many qualities the metal possesses, one which is sometimes overshadowed by aluminum’s lightweight or easy formability.

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Aluminum’s use in batteries is nothing new. Aluminum–air batteries have been a topic of research for some time and work by producing electricity from the reaction of oxygen in the air with aluminum. They have one of the highest energy densities of all batteries, but they are not widely used because of problems with high anode cost and by-product removal when using traditional electrolytes. Read more

Just a few weeks ago, the future looked bright for the oil price. Back in November, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and a number of non-OPEC producers agreed to cutbacks intended to reign in surplus global oil stocks and, in so doing, support the oil price.

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Initially, the agreement met with considerable success. Hedge funds and speculative investors went long on oil and the price rose. But, this week several comments and statistical reports coincided to remove some of that optimism and resulted in steep price falls. The West Texas Intermediate benchmark fell under $50 for the first time since December while Brent Crude was also down to $52.41 a barrel, its lowest level since November.

Source: The Financial Times.

According to the Financial Times, Wednesday’s decline came after the Energy Information Administration said inventories of U.S. crude stocks climbed by 8.2 million barrels, far more than analysts expected, as refinery oil purchases declined. If the rise in inventory was solely down to refineries slowing or delaying purchases, the impact would not have been as dramatic but the fear among investors is U.S. shale production is roaring back.

Reshalience Explained

Even Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Khalid al-Falih, is quoted as saying OPEC’s agreement and the corresponding price increase has helped the U.S. shale market to recover and, perversely, undermined efforts to stabilize crude prices. U.S. shale producers have responded to low crude prices by innovating and cutting costs. Breakeven for many is now $40 a barrel, with some said to be as low as $25. Rig counts have doubled since the Spring of last year and output has continued to rise, contributing to the increase in WTI inventories.

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The oil price faces two major headwinds the FT reports. The first is little or no evidence the global oil market is really coming into balance as signatories to the agreement continue to cheat, and the second is an overhang of speculative length in the futures market. Part of this week’s price falls are said to be due to speculators bailing out of long positions after the realization that the market may not be coming back into balance as hoped late last year.

Where to, Brent?

Where the oil price goes from here is anyone’s guess but with even Saudi Arabia threatening not to renew the cutback agreement in the summer if global inventories do not fall back as expected — if other members of the agreement continue to cheat — the probability is the market overhang could get worse in the second half of the year.

U.S. shale oil producers appear to be enthusiastically ramping up production which will likely add do U.S. oil inventories and further depress the price. The oil price has a level which realistically reflects supply and demand but it’s almost certainly below $50 a barrel in today’s market.

It is rare that companies with a professional reputation like those of Thomson Reuters and the CME Group compete for the privilege of running such an important price benchmark as the London Silver Fix, a global benchmark that has been in place 117 years and has its origins in the London coffee shops of the 1700s. Even more rare? To announce after three short years they are stepping down from providing that service.

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CME Group and Thomson Reuters assumed control of executing the daily Silver Price Fix on Aug. 14, 2014, from the London Silver Market Fixing Company. CME Group has been providing the electronic auction platform on which the price is calculated and Thomson Reuters has been responsible for administration and governance of the LBMA silver price both our own Jeff Yoders and Reuters reported. So why, once a suitable replacement can be found, are the two firms stepping down from their respective roles in running the LBMA Silver Auction?

The simple truth seems to be that they are not making any money out of it. According to MarketWatch, new European legislation set for implementation in January 2018 will regulate the provision of, contribution to and use of a wide set of benchmarks which are highly regulated and deeply scrutinized, the site quotes Ross Norman Chief Executive Officer of Sharps Pixley Ltd. as saying.

“It follows there is much work and cost, but for very modest commercial reward, plus the ever-present danger of legal action or reputational damage — whether guilty or not.” Norman said. ‘Few sensible or sane people would want to create a financial benchmark — and, yet, it is absolutely necessary for the normal functioning of markets.”

You should ask, if that is the case, and Ross Norman probably knows better than anyone, who is going to take it on?

One site valued the total of above-ground silver holdings at approximately 1 billion ounces, putting the physical value at some $17 billion, but Bloomberg assessed the total silver-based financial market at closer to $5 trillion, much of which takes its price cue from the London Fix. It seems inconceivable that one of the major banks, or a number of them in cooperation, that currently contribute to the LBMA silver price will not step in to take over.

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If they don’t, the Silver Fix could conceivably migrate to Shanghai in the same way that the center of gravity for gold price-fixing has been gradually migrating east over the last decade.