Articles for February 2016

44. Higher Metal Prices – Should We Lower the Cut-Off Grade?

When metals prices are high, we are generally taught that we should lower the cutoff grade. Our cutoff grade versus metal price spreadsheet tells us this is the correct thing do. Our grade-tonnage curve reaffirms this since we will now get more ounces of gold in the mineral reserve. But is lowering the cutoff grade really the right thing to do?
Books have been written on the subject of cutoff grades where readers can get all kinds of detailed logic and calculations using Greek symbols (F = δV* − dV*/dT). Here is one well known book by Ken Lane that sells for $998 on Amazon the last time I checked. You can also download a 38-page abridged sample of this book at THIS LINK and the full version is available for $150 at the COMET Strategy web site.

Theory of COG

Recently we have seen higher production cash costs at operating mines when commodity prices are high. Why is this? It may be due to higher operating costs inputs caused by increasing labour rates or supplies costs. It also may be partly due to the lowering of cutoff grades, thereby lowering the milled head grade, which then requires more tonnes to be milled to produce the same quantity of metal.
A mining construction manager once said to me that he never understood us mining guys who lower the cutoff grade when gold prices increase. His rationale was that, since the plant throughput rate is fixed, when gold prices are high you suddenly decide to lower the head grade and produce fewer ounces of gold and at a higher cash cost. His point was that we should be doing the opposite; when prices are high you should produce more ounces of gold, not fewer. In essence, in times when supply is low (or demand is high) may not be the right time to further cut back on supply by lowering head grades.
Now this is the point where the grade-tonnage curve comes into play. Certainly one can lower the cutoff grade, lower the head grade and produce fewer ounces now with the upside being extending the mine life. By doing this a company is able to report more ounces in their mineral reserve and the overall snapshot of the company looks better if it is being valued on reserve ounces.
The problem with this is that there is no assurance that metal prices will remain where they are or that the new lower cutoff grade will remain where it is. If the metal prices dip back down next year, the cutoff grade will be increased and the mineral reserve is back to where it was. All that was really done was accept a year of lower metal production for no real benefit. Such a trade-off essentially contrasts a short term vision (i.e. annual production) against a long term vision (i.e. mineral reserves).
My bottom line is that there is no simple answer on what to do with the cutoff grades, hence the need to write books about it. Different companies have different corporate objectives and each mining project will be unique with regards to the impacts of cutoff grade adjustments on their orebody. I would like to caution that one should be careful when taking your cutoff grade spreadsheet, plugging in new metal prices, and then running off to the mine operations department with the result. You need to fully understand the long term and short term impacts of that decision.
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43. Mining Fads and the Herd Mentality

Have worked in the mining industry for over the last 30 years it is always interesting to see the herd mentality that exists and how we all can easily get caught up in fads.  All it takes is a short term spike in a commodity price or a big discovery somewhere and then off we go running in that direction.  It doesn’t matter the rationale driving the event, all we know is that we need to be there and our investors want to be there too.
Based on my experience, the fads that grab us can include specific commodities, locations, or technologies. The industry is very flexible in that regard. I’ll give a few examples below and you probably have more examples from your own experience.

Commodity Fads

It seems that as soon as there is a price spike or positive market narrative, any commodity can take a life of its own.  The following are a few examples and when you think about them ask how many actually came into production or successful production.
  • Potash – a few years ago potash prices spiked and potash properties were all the fad no matter where they were located around the globe, be it Canada, Russia, Ethiopia, Thailand, Brazil, etc.
  • Lithium / Graphite – as soon as green technology started to be promoted in the news, miners couldn’t run fast enough to pick up the lithium properties, same idea hold for the graphite and vanadium and rare earth categories.
  • Uranium – years ago uranium prices spiked and Ur properties were hot everywhere.
  • Nickel; a spike in nickel caused a surge in nickel properties being it sulphide nickel, laterite nickel, or other forms.
  • Iron Ore – in conjunction with the Chinese construction boom, iron ore properties were hot around the globe, in high cost or low cost jurisdictions, it didn’t matter where the property was.
  • Diamonds – in conjunction with the first diamond discoveries in Canada, quickly diamond properties because hot, whether in the Canada or around the globe.  If you couldn’t get a property in Canada’s boom area, anywhere else was fine.
  • China in general – whereby every base metal project was thought of as either a potential supplier to China or a potential acquisition for Chinese companies.  As long as it could meet Chinese investor interest it was good.

Location Fads

We have all seen the staking rushes that occur when a world class prospect is discovered.  I’m sure we can all recall getting the large claim maps (as shown below) with their multicolored graphics showing the patchwork of acquisitions around a discovery. PDAC was great for distributing these and they were well done and interesting to study.
Mineral claim map example
Picking up properties in hot areas became the fad and share prices would move upwards regardless of whether there was any favorable geology on the property.  Who recalls the following?
  • Voisey Bay; with a mad staking rush around there, with nothing else really paying off in the long run.
  • Saskatchewan;  and the potash staking rush where almost every inch of the potash band was staked with only a couple of companies eventually moving forward and only one going into production.
  • Indonesia; during Bre-X people could get properties in Indonesia fast enough.
  • NWT;  where the diamond property staking rush was crazing in the mid 1990’s.

Technology Fads

Even mining or processing technology could get caught up in somewhat of a wave and become a fad for further study, a rationale often driven by suppliers or consultants.  Who can recall…
  • Paste Tailings; with numerous conferences and consultants promoting thickened or paste tailings technology as the panacea leading to numerous studies related to thickening, pumping, and disposal.
  • Block Caving; whereby in order to deliver high tonnages at low cost, bulk underground mining was being promoted.  Everyone wanted their underground project to be a low cost caving style operation.
  • High Pressure Grinding Rolls (HPGR); where process consultants would tout HPGR as the new replacement for conventional grinding mills.  I’m not sure this technology has taken the industry by storm as they were hoping.
  • IPCC; whereby inpit crushing and conveying was being promoted in many articles and global conferences as the solution to operating cost pressures.  I think implementation of IPCC technology isn’t as simple as envisioned.
  • Dot.com; in the early 2000’s many junior miners left exploration behind and transitioned to the dot.com boom, a fad with generally poor results.
  • Medical marijuana; seems to be the hopeful target for some junior miners today. Unfortunately there is only so much marijuana you can sell.
  • Pre-concentration; this seems to be a growing technology fad that may be gaining momentum, with a few consultants pushing for it to be studied more.  This isn’t new technology and will have its benefits but a big stumbling block is how many deposits are actually suitable for its application.
My bottom line is that over the years it has been interesting to watch the mining industry react to events.  Sometimes it seems like we’re passengers on a boat running from one side to other side and then back again.  Unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily make for smooth sailing and can result in upset stomachs.
What’s the next fad? I don’t know but if you could predict it we can probably make a lot of money.

 

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42. Global Tax Regimes – How Do They Compare?

Just as a reminder for all QP’s doing financial analysis for PEA’s, don’t forget that one needs to present the financial results on an after-tax basis.   Every once in a while we still see a PEA technical report issued only with pre-tax financials.  That report is likely to get red- flagged by the securities regulators and the company will then have to amend their press release and technical report in order to show the after tax results.    No harm done other than some red faces.
When doing a tax analysis in your model, where can you find regional tax information?  For those of you that prepare financial models or are simply looking at mining projects in different jurisdictions, PWC has a very useful tax-related website.  The weblink was sent to me by one of my industry colleagues and I thought it would be good to share this.
The PWC micro-site provides a host of tax and royalty information for selected countries.  The page is located at http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/energy-utilities-mining/mining/tax.html
On the site they have tax information for specific countries and you can either view the information on your computer screen or download a PDF version.  Below is a screen capture from the PWC website.

 

PWC Mining taxes information

The PWC tax and financial information includes topics such as:
  • Corporate tax rates
  • Excess profits taxes
  • Mineral taxes for different commodities
  • Mineral royalties
  • Rates of permissible amortization
  • VAT and other regulated payments
  • Export taxes
  • Withholding taxes
  • Fiscal stability agreements
  • Social contribution requirements
PWC has a great web site and hopefully they will keep the information up to date since changes in the laws are occurring constantly.   It would be nice to see them add more countries to their 22 country database but it’s already good as it is.  Check it out.

 

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41. Resource Estimates – Are Independent Audits A Good Idea?

Question: how important is the integrity of a tailings dam to the successful operation of a mine?   Very important; so much so that in some jurisdictions regulators may soon be stipulating that mining companies must have third party independent review boards or third party audits done on their tailings dams.  The feeling is that although a team of capable engineers may be doing the dam design, there is still a need for some outside oversight to get another perspective.  Differences in interpretation, experience, and errors of omission are always a possibility regardless of who does the work.  Hence a second set of eyes can be beneficial.
Next question is how important is the integrity of the resource and reserve estimate to the successful operation of a mine?   Very important; the mine life, project economics, and shareholder value all depend on it.     So why aren’t a second set of eyes or third party resource audits commonly done?
In the years prior to 43-101, junior mining companies could produce their own resource estimates and disclose the results.  With the advent of NI 43-101, a second set of eyes was introduced whereby an independent QP  could review the company’s internal resource estimate and/or prepare their own estimate and ultimately take legal responsible for the estimate.
Nowadays most small companies do not produce their own in-house resource estimates and the task is generally awarded directly to an independent QP.   Maybe companies don’t prepare their own in-house resource estimates due to the specialization needed in modelling and geostatistics, and the knowledge needed to use today’s block modeling software.   Maybe they feel doing their own internal resource estimate is a waste of time since an independent QP will be preparing an estimate for them anyway.
Given that, in many cases the project resource estimate is prepared solely by the QP or a team of QP’s.   In many cases this resource gets published without any other oversight, in other words without a second set of eyes taking a look at it.   The assumption is that QP doing the work is a qualified expert, their judgement is without question, and their work is error free.

Exploration Program in Andes

As we have seen recently, some resources estimates have been mishandled and disciplinary actions have been taken against some QP’s.   I guess one can conclude that maybe not all QP’s are perfect.  Just because someone meets the requirements to be a Competent Person or a Qualified Person does not automatically mean that they are competent or qualified. Geological modeling is not an exact science and will be partly based on the person’s experience and what they have seen in the past.
My question is whether it wouldn’t be good practice for companies to have a second set of eyes take a look at their maiden resource estimates produced by independent QP’s?   For example, where I have been involved in mining mergers or takeovers, often one side will tend to rebuild the resource model using their own team.  They don’t put 100% confidence in the original resource model handed over to them.  “Just give me the database” they ask.
One downside to a third party review is the additional cost.  Another downside is that when one consultant reviews another consultant’s work there is a tendency to list numerous concerns that are not really that material, which then can muddle the conclusion of the review.  On the other hand, a third party review may identify serious interpretation or judgement issues that could be fatal if they impact on the viability of the resource.
If tailings dams are so important to require a second set of eyes, why not the resource estimate that is the foundation of the project?
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