Copper assets are pure gold

COPPER is the one metal sought after by all of the majors, but a lack of available assets means mergers and acquisitions have remained stunted.
Copper assets are pure gold Copper assets are pure gold Copper assets are pure gold Copper assets are pure gold Copper assets are pure gold
In a November 2018 report, RFC Ambrian declared the cupboard was bare for copper merger and acquisition, despite most copper miners having the financial capacity to deal and a desire to restock portfolios.
"Our latest review suggests that this has not changed significantly, and this lack of opportunity continues to raise the stakes for those assets that are available," RFC said.
Fourteen months on, the firm has reviewed its data and found that 2019 merger and acquisition figures in copper were low.
In 2019, there were just 20 deals valued at $3.89 billion, compared with 28 in 2018 valued at $11.56 billion.
The biggest deals of 2019 all featured Chinese companies (Zijin Mining, China Molybdenum and Jiangxi Copper) as the acquirers.
Deal value over the past decade peaked at more than $25 billion in 2011.
RFC reviewed its copper projects database and found the number of development projects with resources of more than 2.5 million tonnes of copper was 64 
That is up from 55 in the November 2018 report, though the threshold was set at 3Mt.
RFC said it lowered the cut-off to broaden the study and capture some greenfield projects that may still have upside potential to at least reach its 3Mt size - which is considered sufficient to build an 80,000-100,000 tonne per annum operation and interest tier one and two miners.
Projects in China and Russia were excluded due to what RFC said was a low level of appetite to own or operate assets in those countries, while projects already owned by the majors were also excluded.
RFC noted many copper companies who could be potential takeover targets had difficult shareholding structures.
Despite the broader scope, the number of projects RFC deemed to have the potential for merger and acquisition involving a third party dropped to 19 from 21.
Of those projects, nine are in South America, three are in the US, two in Mexico, two in the Philippines, and one each in Canada, Papua New Guinea and Kazakhstan. 
Only one has a resource above 20Mt of copper (Pebble in Alaska) and a further four have resources of more than 10Mt.
Just four of the projects have a grade of above 0.5% copper, with a weighted average grade of 0.449% copper, excluding by-products.
Two are categorised as inactive, while one is on hold.
Eight projects were removed from the November 2018 list due to being acquired by majors or starting construction, while one project (NorthMet in the US) was added after reaching 3Mt copper and five met the lower 2.5Mt resource criteria.
RFC concluded that of the 19, there were just five projects with a ‘high' probability of third-party merger and acquisition.
"This has been based on our assessment of a number of factors, including economics, permitting, location and geography, resource quality, the structure of existing shareholders, and other project issues," it said.
The largest of those is SolGold's Cascabel project in Ecuador with a copper resource of 10.84Mt and by far the highest net present value of the overall 19.
It noted Newcrest Mining and BHP each already hold over 14.5%.
"It appears that there is a lot of interest in SolGold and a competitive bid could occur if the Cascabel project achieves expectations," RFC said. 
"We believe there is a high possibility of a third party (including the minority shareholders) looking to acquire the project outright or taking a significant interest in the medium-term."
The other projects are NGEx Minerals' 10.62Mt Los Helados project in Chile, Los Andes Copper's 7.74Mt Vizcachitas project in Chile, Western Copper's 4.4Mt Casino project in Canada, and Oroco Resources' 2.65Mt Santo Tomas project in Mexico.
Seven were deemed as having a low probability of merger and acquisition due to economics, lack of progress or risks associated with the jurisdiction. 
Bernstein recently noted copper was a structurally tricky commodity to get into production.
It argued there were only three ways mined output for any commodity could grow: technological advances; geological breakthroughs; or price.
"To put it simply, both technological and geological advances in copper mining are increasingly difficult, meaning that price becomes the principal motivating force," Bernstein said.
"The only method by which we will grow the copper supply base - and consequently facilitate urbanisation, electrification and decarbonisation - is if the copper price increases."
Notwithstanding the current market panic due to the coronavirus, RFC said the copper price outlook was more positive than this time last year.
A lack of investment is likely to cause supply issues in the longer term, while the demand outlook is positive.
"In the short-term, it is reported that copper demand in China has recently been particularly restrained following lower investment in the electrical grid system, property, and transportation sector and it is suggested that this could change in 2020," RFC said.
"In the medium to longer term, copper demand is expected to rise significantly with increased demand for electric vehicles (EVs). Copper is a major component in EVs used in electric motors, batteries, inverters, wiring and in charging stations."
Wood Mackenzie said the copper market would be finely balanced this year and noted the positive sentiment shift since the US-China phase one trade deal.
Principal analyst Eleni Joannides said there was a risk that wider factors would again impact price.
"The geopolitical issues that have surfaced since the start of the year could derail the rally that emerged in December 2019. On the other hand, further progress in resolving trade disputes will likely encourage a faster than anticipated recovery in demand and underpin prices," she said.
"This year, we are forecasting that positive mine supply growth of 1.3% - after disruptions - will be offset by a recovery in demand. The resulting draw down in total cathode stocks by year-end should be positive for prices."