Miners are budgeting for a recovery in copper

Escondida Mine, Chile – the largest copper mine in the world. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto)

Don’t listen to what miners say. Look at what they do.

That’s good advice for working out the long-term direction of commodities prices. Ask mining companies which of their mineral assets will see good long-term demand and they’ll naturally answer, “All of them.” But a look at spending can give the lie to that rosy outlook – and highlight the times when they’re putting their money where their bullish mouths are.

The recent gloomy outlook for copper may not last

Right now, that suggests that the recent gloomy outlook for copper may not last. More than a third of capital spending by big diversified miners is being dedicated to the metal at the moment, up from levels of 20 percent or less earlier in the decade. That represents a substantial bet that forecast deficits for copper over the next decade will indeed materialize. Aluminum, zinc, and platinum-group metals are currently running red-hot, too – but iron ore, petroleum and fertilizers seem to be fatally out of fashion.

To get an idea of where mining executives are allocating their capital, we’ve combed through the past five years of reports from the eight major diversified miners that have a real choice of where they spend their money – BHP Group, Rio Tinto Group, Vale SA, Anglo American Plc, Glencore Plc, South32 Ltd., Vedanta Resources Plc and Teck Resources Ltd.

The trend underlying all this is the way capital spending collapsed after the boom in the early part of this decade, and is yet to show strong signs of recovery. Mining executives are still donning the sackcloth-and-ashes of “disciplined capital allocation,” which they took up to atone for the vast sums of wasted cash during the market’s last peak.

(By David Fickling and Elaine He) 

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