15 September 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, platinum, titanium, silver, diamonds, 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. And while metal prices has soared recently, many jewelers, like Design Bands, buy up front, and have a large inventory that was bought at yesterday's prices. Companies like Design Bands are able to sell designer wedding rings at affordable prices.

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."

Factory Reading Is Key on Tuesday

Like commodities, the U.S. economy has been supported by strong global demand, a prop that has grown shaky.

Further evidence of this may come Tuesday morning, when the Institute for Supply Management releases its U.S. manufacturing index for August. Economists, on average, think it will slip a bit, to 49.5 from 50 in July. Any reading below 50 indicates factory activity is shrinking.

Though hardly robust, such a reading would be much higher than the 41 that usually marks a recession. Though it has slowed considerably in recent years, the index hasn't come close to that level, even during the fourth quarter of 2007, when gross domestic product contracted.

Healthy export demand has kept factories treading water. A weak dollar has helped, by making U.S. exports cheaper and more competitive. The dollar has rebounded this summer, but that shouldn't affect exports for some time.

What could show up soon is the slower growth gripping various economies around the world. The ISM's index of new export orders fell to 54 in July -- still relatively strong, but the lowest reading of the year.

By: Ann Davis
Wall Street Journal; September 2, 2008

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