Megatrends to shakeup world order in mining

IT IS hard to find a commodity, which is not experiencing an uptick in prices at the moment, and the geopolitical landscape is providing a further boost for mining companies. However, instability is afoot, and it is not all good news.
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Paul Hunt

Deputy Editor: Energy & Commodities

Paul Hunt

This month, bauxite supply was cut short when a military takeover in the West African country of Guinea caused disruptions.

The price of aluminium reached an all-time high above US$2700 a tonne in September.  

Bauxite prices jumped as much as 47%, which is good news for Australian bauxite producers. Not so much if you're in Guinea. 

Ilmenite is also trading at all time highs, above US$322 a tonne, driven by shutdowns at international mineral sands projects and soaring forecast demand, also due to geopolitical happenings. 

Meanwhile, China's housing market is weighing heavily on iron ore futures. It remains to be seen what further measures Xi Jinping will take to curb the bubble. Undoubtedly it will have a flow on affect to Australia's iron ore industry.

There is an old saying that when the US coughs, the world reacts. The same can now be said for China. Any major move to curb China's potential housing crisis will have a ripple effect throughout the world.

A recent report from KPMG warns of volatile commodity markets ahead.

Waves and troughs in the mining sector are not uncommon. There is even talk of another mining supercycle - powered by investment for battery minerals in an era of decarbonisation.

However, KPMG analysts said the global geopolitical landscape was, to some extent, unstable.

The report notes considerable "structural shifts" to the old international system.

"The operating principles and assumptions of the 1990s and early 2000s no longer apply to the world in which the Australian minerals industry now operates," KPMG said.

Analysts believe over the past decade there has been a disintegration of "openness, multilateralism, globalization and free trade".

This is cultivating an era of rising strategic competition, inequality, lack of trust, nationalism, and protectionism.

KMPG warns that none of this bodes well for commodity markets. In other words, throw out the geopolitical textbook. 

This combined with increased consumer awareness of environmental, social and governance obligations, along with fresh expectations from consumers, heightens risk.

In essence the climate crisis is just one of four areas of concern for Australian miners.

Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, iron ore, and gold.

It also has vast potential for battery minerals and rare earths.

KPMG identifies four "interconnected megatrends" that have been exacerbated and accelerated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. These megatrends will have very real implications for Australia's mining industry.

Firstly, there is a shifting in economic powers - China rising has been at the forefront of every geopolitical textbook for more than a decade. Rising powers are gaining "more voice and agency", very quickly, in the aftermath of the pandemic.

KPMG said competition between the US and China could not be underestimated anymore.

Australia recently found itself on the sharp end of the stick when China decided to ban coal imports from the island nation.

Whether iron ore suffers the same consequences will remain to be seen in mid-to-long-term.

The European Union is also gaining more stability and has taken a bullish approach to tackling climate change.

These two political shifts mean Australian miners are balancing the interests of the US and China, as well as the EU's expectations.

KPMG analysts believe Australia grappling with both sets of circumstances, at the same time, will pose challenges.

"The trajectory is not positive," they said in the report.

KPMG notes China's five-year draft plan, which explicitly states China will look to lessen its dependency on Australian iron ore, despite it sourcing about 60% of its imports from there.

"As Chinese state-affiliated newspaper, The GlobalTimes, put it in mid-2020, it would be a mistake for anyone to thing that despite its dependence on iron ore, China wouldn't cut Australian imports," KPMG said.

China will turn to iron ore opportunities in Africa, including large deposits in Madagascar and Gabon.

Both are third world countries and China has a knack for taking advantage of developing nations and securing long-term deals in its own interests.

"For now, Australia is in a very strong position in global iron ore trade," KPMG said.

"Over the longer-term, however, Australia should not be complacent about its markets for, and competitive advantage in, iron ore production and export."

How quickly China and Africa can bring those iron ore assets online remains to be seen.

Pressure from the EU meanwhile will continue. Its Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism will undoubtedly hit Australian exports of iron ore, steel, aluminium, and coking coal.

The Minerals Council of Australia has labelled the mechanism "essentially a tax" that targets countries without a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

Australia is one such country.

General market sentiment outside the EU for lower-emissions iron ore, gold, and other metals will pose a risk, unless Australia's mining sector moves quickly to reduce its exports' carbon footprint.

Technology for low-carbon heavy industry, however, is still in its infancy.

A second megatrend identified by KPMG is what it called "domestic discontent".

Analysts noted a "rising sense of anger" worldwide, including in Australia.

KPMG says that is based on both real and perceived inequality within countries.

"There is a growing perception among the working and middle classes that the benefits of globalisation and free trade are not ‘trickling down' as was promised," KPMG said.

Try telling that to mine worker in Western Australia.

Nevertheless, it is a valid argument in other states and territories, and internationally.

In Australia, KPMG also noted its own research found the average Australian sees no real improvement to their own wellbeing, despite the iron ore, coal and gold price hitting records.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is driving increasing levels of inequality." KPMG found.

This is a global trend.

"Between March 18 and December 31 2020, billionaires increased their wealth by $3.9 trillion, predominantly off the back of stock market returns," KPMG said.

"Their total wealth now stands at $11.95 trillion."  

This is equivalent to the amount the G20 spend in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

KPMG warned commodity markets could be impacted by this sense of inequality because the political settings would change.

"As inequality increases, disillusioned populations turn away from the political centre and look for alternatives, often populist and authoritarian leaders," it says.

These leaders tended to value nationalism and protectionism, something KPMG said would diminish trade openness.

According to the firm's research this political discontent could happen rapidly, causing disruption.

"Gold is one of Australia's key mineral commodities and is highly vulnerable to geopolitical trends as the PNG and Venezuela examples demonstrate."

So is LNG and oil. The Myanmar coup threw a spanner in the works this year for Australian Securities Exchange-listed Woodside, for instance.

There is another aspect to the research KPMG conducted around inequality.

Earlier this year silver markets went on a rapid run as everyday investors almost overnight created a bull market - and it seems they did it just for fun.

Silver prices hit an eight year high in February.  Some analysts attributed it to a "frenzy" created by retail investors spurred on by groups such as WallStreetBets and RobinHood trading platforms.

Retail investors went to war with big investment firms to shake-up the market. This was attributed to their perception of inequality.

The volatility brought by new and even organised retail investors should be a cause for concern.

Australia now has more retail investors than ever before. It coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic as the federal government opened access to superannuation savings early, allowing everyday Australians to take a punt on stocks without necessarily giving thought to their nest eggs.

KPMG said the growing role of technology, data and cyber was changing not only our daily lives, but also the structures and systems for miners - dubbing this the "Industrial revolution 4.0."

"Data will be the new oil, and data requires a whole new range of tech components, which rely on minerals," KPMH said.

The scalability and pace of technology itself is a third area KPMG identified as having "potential to create crisis" for Australian mining companies.

 KPMG noted technology disruption was "highly geopolitical" and relied on Australia's minerals.

However, the US is investing heavily in finding its own minerals and resources to fuel its energy transition and meet demand for new technologies.

"On one hand, having the US strengthen its semiconductor manufacturing capabilities builds stability and security for us," KPMG said.

"At the same time, the potential for an increasingly decoupled and competitive technology and semiconductor landscape will create considerable uncertainty."

The demand for critical minerals will only increase, and Australia needs to build its downstream capabilities rather than rely on the US.