PS: Just to be clear, the accurate word is "oligopoly", but as the IKN Weekly coverage of this issue has developed I started using the word "oligarchy" as the descriptive. It's a better fit in many ways. Read on...
Chile: Latest investment figures offer a window on the future of copper
Some interesting figures out of the Chilean cabinet ministry last week regarding the change in investment dollars in its mining industry. The main point picked up by the local media (25) offers few surprises, that the amount of investment dollars in mining projects in the country has dropped considerably in the last four months, but the details offer more.
According to the data-filled report, in December 2015 mining projects under development in Chile were worth a total of U$15.122Bn, down 29% from the U$21.347Bn registered in its last beancount in August. The drop is due to three projects being shelved (the on-off-on-off Antucoya owned by Antofagasta Minerals (ANTO.L) and Actualización Esperanza, also ANTO.L), plus the BHP Billiton OGP1 project, as well as other projects moving from development into production and therefore off this count’s radar.
So far so normal, but when we look at what’s left it becomes more interesting. Of the eight major works projects left on the list (that U$15.122Bn total), four of them are Codelco projects worth a total of U$10.531Bn. Add in the only other big ticket project, that of BHP’s desalinization plant for La Escondida and there’s little else happening in Chile.
Put simply—> If it weren’t for the State-run Codelco, which has a business and economic agenda which is wholly different from the normal capitalist-profit-only focus of a privately owned multinational and often works its investments to a counter-cyclical economic clock for national GDP reasons, plus a desal project that’s a no-brainer build for La Escondida (it pays for itself a dozen times over even if copper drops to $1.50/lb and stays there forever), there would be precious little growth in the world’s biggest copper producing nation right now.
It also has me thinking about bigger things, such as the way on which the copper production market is concentrating to the mega-players and away from the small and medium scale operations. I believe the Codelco policy of investment now is the right one, as it would be very difficult for a big mining company to convince its shareholders to keep the investment spigot running but for the nationalized, Pride-Of-Chile Codelco keen on keeping its world number one status (11% of world copper comes from them) it’s an easy sell which will give it the upper hand in the world market come the day that copper moves back up on its cycle. But aside from Codelco, it’s a window on how difficult it’s going to be for smaller entities to keep competitive (look at the enormous debt troubles of The IKN Weeky’s three touchstone stocks HudBay, Capstone, Copper Mountain, for an obvious example) or even for junior explorecos looking for the Next Big Porphyry in the Andes (or anywhere else) to compete efficiently. It’s far from the first time I’ve mentioned this but it bears repeating (for one thing I’m seeing a new batch of commentaries from higher profile anal ysts saying roughly the same thing): Copper is going the way of iron ore, where three players (BHP, RTZ, Vale) hold the market by its throat and can kill off competition in good old-fashioned oligarchy theory style.