From Gold to Dust in South American mining

By: Rakesh Saxena

Last month, citing the need to exercise greater control over national mineral resources, Ecuador suspended exploration and revoked a series of mining concessions. Late this week, Venezuela banned open-pit mining, and halted all activity in the vast Imataca reserve, which includes the town of El Dorado in the remote south-eastern part of the country.

Equity and debt prices for internationally listed companies mining in large parts of Latin America have deteriorated sharply in recent weeks. What does the future hold?

Before assessing where prices, ratings and insurance costs are headed, it is critical to address the ideological gap: while foreign companies already invested in Latin America are claiming, expressly or implicitly, that left-wing governments are reneging on lawful contracts, the Latin protagonists of new legislation are making the case that existing laws are outdated, and bear no relevance to the fundamentals being cited by international companies, to either boost share prices or to reflect the value of securitized assets.

For example, the Ecuador mining condominium structures were conceptualized, historically, in an extremely restrictive context, to encourage small-scale placer-based exploitation of gold and silver; though a plain reading of the law has resulted in condominium concessions passing into the hands of foreign listed companies, such transfers are without foundation if the correct historical interpretation of the law is applied. Government royalties reflected in condominium-type mining properties are not legitimate for larger, mechanized operations undertaken with modern technologies.

Risk Insurance syndicates who have provided Latin American mining coverage over the previous decade are now in a quandary of their own making. Quite overwhelmingly, the pricing of risk on equity and securitization was predicated on the notion that the value of foreign capital, and fiscal realism, would far outweigh transitions in government. Quote Platform has always maintained that such risk was under-priced, and for good reason.

The pricing of political risk entails a thorough understanding of the law of the land, and the sustainability of such law within the framework of an evolving economic and political reality. Risk cannot be priced on populist notions, however persuasive.

Ever since the early 1990s, it was apparent that developments in Latin American mining laws (with few exceptions) were lagging the new emerging reality. In effect, laws which are inherently crying for change must attract a higher-than-usual risk premium.

Quote Platform must point out that the decline in share prices of Latin American-based mining companies does not represent the truth on the ground at all. At this juncture, the very concept of an equity valuation in countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua is undergoing substantive change.

The problem of pricing of Latin American corporate debt and equity has, without doubt, been aggravated by the widely-respected rating agencies who have blundered badly in utilizing two flawed statistical formulations for their assessments: (a) GDP growth data to determine that a vibrant business climate is either already in place or just around the corner and (b) the quantum of mining revenues to assume that future governments in the region will be hesitant to upset foreign investors.

Today, informed sources inside those agencies acknowledge that GDP growth numbers should not have been confused with poverty statistics. And as far as mining revenues are concerned, Latin American governments are realizing that foreign capital, if available, must be employed to prove up national mining reserves in the first instance, not to exploit existing concessions with proven surface mining opportunities.

In this regard, it cannot be over-emphasized that end-user pricing only enters the risk equation if there is a product to sell; we are dealing now with a situation where many of the international companies may have to spend money on identifying reserves, not on exploiting them, if they are to sign equitable agreements in Latin America through the course of 2008 and 2009.

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