The second positive remark is that it could have been so much worse, given the big fall in the iron ore price and the persistently low gold price.
A third upbeat reflection is the number of people keen to shrug off the problems and look for good news, which they seemed to find in the outlook for most of the base metals, especially zinc, and the strong demand for diamonds at a time when supply seems to have peaked.
Rated, and everyone always asks that question, the London edition of the worldwide Mines and Money circus was probably worth a five out of 10, perhaps a six, in terms of confidence about the outlook for mining.
If it was to be treated in the same way that China and the US measure their manufacturing sectors through a purchasing managers’ index (PMI) where a score of anything above 50 represents growth and below 50 represents decline then London Mines and Money deserved a 50.1 – which is actually better than it sounds.
The organisers, always stressed by the demands of delegates, exhibitors and speakers, might disagree with such a modest rating but when you consider what’s been happening in the real mining world, where cutbacks and closures are the theme of the day then 50.1 isn’t a bad achievement.
Highlights, and there really were not a lot, included a standard “it’s a great time” talk from Robert Friedland, a man who seems to be able to find a positive tone whenever and wherever, except when bearded by the media, when he flashes his fangs, a performance which always leaves Dryblower wondering why?
If only the great man would pause for a second and discard his dislike because of past slights it might be possible to dig a little deeper into his optimism and test its veracity.
Mark Bristow from Randgold Resources and Evy Hambro from the investment giant, BlackRock, were other highlights of the official program, albeit because they gave the gold sector a fresh serve about the mess that has been created by focusing too much on tonnes and ounces and not enough on dollars and cents (or should that be sense?).
Away from the auditoriums and a confusing use of multiple speaking streams which always bewilders delegates because you can’t be in two places at the same time there was a reasonably buoyant mood among the poor souls manning corporate booths.
Perhaps the people consigned to the thankless task of booth-manning are paid to be optimists because their job is to promote their employer, but as Dryblower wandered around the marvelous old hall which was once home to London’s agricultural society he could not detect any of the gloom that seems to have infected the Australian mining sector.
Understanding why London is feeling so much more buoyant than in places where mining actually takes place, such as Canada, Australia and South Africa, might seem to be a challenge, until you realise that the money men in The City have been playing this cyclical game called mining for centuries and it’s times like these that the foundations of fortunes are laid.
What’s happening is actually in the name of the event; Mines AND Money. For the past few years the name of the game was all about mining. Today it’s all about money.
The change, which essentially means that investors have taken total control of the mining industry, can best be seen in the way the world’s biggest mining companies are behaving, mothballing projects and cutting costs while boosting dividends to shareholders.
At the small end of the industry the rules are slightly different but the objective is the same and it comes down to this question: how do you make money at a time of low commodity prices.
The answer is that you must have your money in the right sector; and while it’s hard for an iron ore mining company to make a sudden switch, it’s easy for the chaps in London who are rapidly rotating their funds away from yesterday’s minerals into the next star performers.
That means no-one at London Mines and Money was particularly interested in iron ore or coal but very interested in zinc, diamonds, nickel and copper.
Boiled down, the key lesson from a week in London is that the era of the bulk minerals has passed (for now) giving way to a time for base and minor metals – an observation which Australian mining companies would do well to note.