Did you ever play Red Alert or Starcraft?
If so, your first impression of how the economy works might have been: “Well you dig ore out of the ground and turn it into everything else.”
Like generic blue ore. You can make almost anything out of that.
The crazy thing is that it’s almost true. Sure there are a million types of businesses but the actual physical stuff we all use daily? It’s mostly just rock that’s been dug up and refined.
Iron and aluminium for construction and vehicles. Copper for electronics and wiring. An iPhone alone contains over 60 metals.
On that point, fun fact, a tonne of iPhones contains more gold than a tonne of gold ore.
Mining is one of the most ancient industries and still one of the most powerful and consequential. And the companies who make it happen have some of the craziest stories around.
That’s so metal
While mining generally means digging something out of the ground, there’s a lot of diversity among different miners: what they mine, what impacts them and how they operate.
Sirius Minerals , for instance, is completely focused on developing a not yet operational mine in Yorkshire to unearth potash and polyhalite, potassium-rich minerals used for fertiliser.
So it’s pretty hard to establish broad patterns among miners and there are a few different ways to slice it. However, in the commodities market, there is a loose distinction between base metals and precious metals.
Base metals are abundant, inexpensive ones widely used in manufacturing and construction. Stuff like aluminium, zinc, copper and tungsten. On the commodities market, iron isn’t included in the base metals for historic reasons but it has similar characteristics: common, relatively cheap and widely used.
Precious metals are rare, non-reactive metals like gold, silver and platinum. There are some industrial uses for precious metals (gold is in lots of electronics, for instance) but their demand is largely driven by their use in jewellery and as financial assets.
Precious metal miners operate a bit like prospectors and a bit like asset managers. It’s incredibly important for miners to manage their balance sheets so that price declines don’t render the mines loss-making.
In fact in the 1980s, a bubble in silver prices actually harmed silver miners more than it helped because their short hedging contracts (derivatives that pay out when a price declines) were costing them more on a daily basis than the extra value of the silver they were mining.
Still though, not all miners hedge.
Mining, in general, is a contentious industry. Harsh labour practices, ecological impact and corruption can happen in any type of mining. But the geography and high-risk/high-reward nature of precious metals mining have made it a magnet for controversy.
One gold miner that’s stirring a lot of interest right now is Acacia Mining
Acacia Mining was launched in 2000 to operate the Tanzanian gold mining interest of gold giant Barrick Gold. Tanzania now has the 4th largest gold production in Africa and Acacia’s mines are largely responsible for that. [https://www.tanzaniainvest.com/gold]
In 2010, Barrick listed Acacia as a separate business on the London Stock Exchange, raising new funds for exploration and expansion through the IPO. But Barrick Gold remained the majority owner, with 64% of the shares.
However, independence hasn’t proved a bold new dawn for Acacia, For over two years they’ve been engaged in a bitter stand-off with the Tanzanian government, led by President Joseph Magufuli.
Not as genial as this photo implies
In 2017, Magufuli banned unrefined gold ore exports on the basis that it was too difficult to assess its value and to encourage more of the value creation to remain in Tanzania. Acacia is accused of flouting this ban, effectively hiding the amount of gold it mined.
For this, as well as multiple environmental allegations, they’ve been charged with a $190B tax bill. That, to be fair, is more tax than all gold miners have collectively paid since 2000 so it seems on the high side.
Now, the allegations have neither been proven or disproven and mining companies are hardly paragons of virtue. In 2019, The Guardianreported terrible atrocities at Acacia’s North Mara mine. But it’s also possible that this is more a power-grab and muscle flexing by an authoritarian leader than a drive for ethical business.
In any case, with no political support, Acacia has floundered and their share price has declined sharply from 2016.
For the last few weeks, Barrick and Acacia have grappled over the future, as the former owner wants to take back control. Barrick insisted that the only route forward was cooperation, while the latter insisted that Acacia was grossly undervalued in the proposed offer.
Magufuli is much closer to Barrick Gold. He’s been sighted in meetings with their executives and the company reported that they had come to an agreement with the government over the back taxes.
Two weeks ago, Barrick and Acacia reached an agreement on the merger. By the terms of the pact Barrick will acquire Acacia and the shareholders will get 0.168 shares of Barrick for each share of Acacia. This would value Acacia shares at roughly £2.32/share: roughly half where it was before the ban.
The agreement still has to win a vote, but it looks like Barrick has won the day.
Regardless of the justification of the exports ban, for Acacia’s minority shareholders it looks like a political intervention has basically cut their investment in half. However, in the turbulent world of mining, maybe that’s just another risk.
Freetrade does not provide investment advice and individual investors should make their own decisions or seek independent advice. The value of investments can go up as well as down and you may receive back less than your original investment. Tax laws are subject to change and may vary in how they apply depending on the circumstances.