Articles for February 2016

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

When metals prices are high, we are generally told that we should lower the cutoff grade. Our cutoff grade versus metal price formula tells us this is the correct thing do. Our grade-tonnage curve reaffirms this since we will now have 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, available on Amazon HERE.
Recently we have seen a trend of higher cash costs at operating mines when commodity prices are high. Why is this?
It may be due to higher cost operating inputs due to increasing labour rates or supplies. It may also be partly due to the lowering of cutoff grades.  This lowers the 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 concern was that since the plant throughput rate is fixed, when gold prices are high we suddenly decide to lower the head grade and produce fewer and higher cost ounces of gold.

Do the opposite

His point was that we should do the opposite.  When prices are high, we should produce more ounces of gold, not fewer. In essence, periods when supply is low (or demand is high) may not be the right time to further cut  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 of gold.  The upside being an extension in the mine life.  A company can report more ounces in reserves and perhaps the overall image of the company looks better (if it is being valued on reserves).

What if metal prices drop back?

The problem is that there is no guarantee that metal prices will remain where they are and the new lower cutoff grade will remain where it is. If the metal prices drop back down, the cutoff grade will be increased and the mineral reserve will revert back to where it was. All that was really done was accept a year of lower metal production for no real long term benefit.
This trade-off  contrasts a short term vision (i.e. maximizing annual production) against a long term vision (i.e. extending mineral reserves).

Conclusion

The bottom line is that there is no simple answer on what to do with the cutoff grades.  Hence there is a 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 changes on the orebody.
I would like to caution that one should be mindful when plugging in new metal prices, and then running off to the mine operations department with the new cutoff grade. One should fully understand both the long term and short term impacts of that decision.
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43. Mining Fads and the Herd Mentality

minerals
Have worked in the mining industry for over the last 35 years it is always interesting to watch the herd mentality that exists.  Its obvious how easily we all get caught chasing the latest fads.
All it takes is a short term spike in a commodity price or a big discovery somewhere and then off everyone goes running in that direction.  It doesn’t matter the rationale driving the event, all we know is that we need to be in there and our investors want to be in there too.

Just don’t be the last on the bandwagon

Based on my experience, the fads that grab us can include commodities, locations, or technologies. The mining industry is very flexible in that regard. I’ll give a few examples that I have seen.  You probably have even more from your own experience.

Commodity Fads

It seems that as soon as there is a price spike or positive market narrative, a commodity can take on a life of its own.  The following list gives a few examples and when you think about them ask how many actually came into 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.  That has largely fizzled out as prices returned to normal.
  • Lithium / Graphite:  as soon as green battery technology started to be promoted in the news, miners couldn’t run fast enough to pick up the lithium properties.  The same idea hold for the graphite, vanadium, cobalt, and rare earth categories.  Parts of the sector are still hot in 2018 although lithium stories seem to have run their course.
  • Uranium: years ago uranium prices spiked and Ur properties were hot everywhere.  Prices have dropped but seem to be ramping up in late 2018.
  • Nickel: years ago a spike in nickel prices caused a surge in nickel properties, whether it was 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.  Iron is still being pursued but mega scale projects always overhang the market.
  • Diamonds: in conjunction with the first diamond discoveries in Canada in the 1990’s, diamond properties became hot, whether in the Canada or around the globe.  If you couldn’t get a property in Canada’s NWT boom area, anywhere else was fine.
  • China in general: a few years ago 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

Mineral claim map exampleWe 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) with their multicolored graphics showing the patchwork of acquisitions around a discovery. PDAC was great for distributing these.  They were well done and interesting to study.
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:  the potash staking rush where almost every inch of the potash zone was staked with only a couple of companies eventually moving forward and only one going into production.
  • Indonesia: during Bre-X people could not acquire properties in Indonesia fast enough.
  • NWT:  where the diamond property staking rush was crazy in the mid 1990’s.

Technology Fads

Even mining or processing technologies could get caught up in somewhat of a wave and become a fad for further study.  Sometimes this is driven by suppliers or consultants.  Who can recall…
  • Paste Tailings: with numerous conferences and consultants promoting thickened or paste tailings technology as the panacea.  This lead to numerous studies related to thickening, pumping, and disposal at each mine.
  • 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 highlight 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 in the 1990’s.
  • IPCC: whereby inpit crushing and conveying systems were being promoted in many articles and global conferences as the solution to operating cost issues.  I think implementation of IPCC technology isn’t as simple as envisioned and I’m not aware of many cases of its successful implementation.
  • Dot.com: in the early 2000’s many junior miners left exploration behind and transitioned to the dot.com boom, a fad that essentially went nowhere for most.
  • Medical marijuana: it seemed to be the hopeful future for some junior miners in 2000 and still today. The new marijuana entrepreneurs are building on the junior mining model of heavy promotion with skyrocketing valuations and questionable economics.
  • Pre-concentration: this seems to be a growing technology that may be gaining momentum.  It isn’t new technology and it will definitely have its benefits.  However a big stumbling block is how many deposits are actually suitable for its application.  I have written more about this technology “Pre-Concentration – Savior or Not?

Conclusion

Have I missed anything?
The 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 can predict it you can probably make a lot of money.

 

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42. Global Tax Regimes – How Do They Compare?

mining economics
Update: This blog was originally written in Feb 2016, but has been updated in Dec 2018.
As a reminder for all QP’s doing economic analysis for PEA’s, don’t forget that one needs to present the economic results on an after-tax basis.
Every once in a while I still see PEA technical reports issued with only pre-tax financials.  That report is likely to get red- flagged by the securities regulators.  The company will need to amend their press release and technical report  to provide the after tax results.    No harm done other than some red faces.

Taxes can be complicated

When doing a tax calculation in your model, where can you find international tax information?  PWC has a very useful tax-related website.  The weblink below was sent to me by one of my industry colleagues and I thought it would be good to share it.
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 a searchable database for tax information for specific countries.
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 tax changes happen constantly.   It would be nice to see them add more countries to their 23 country database but it’s already good.  Check it out.

 

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

mining reserves
Question: How important is the integrity of a tailings dam to the successful operation of a mine?
Answer: Very important.
Tailings dam stability is so important that in some jurisdictions regulators may be requiring that mining companies have third party independent review boards or third party audits done on their tailings dams.  The feeling is that, although a reputable consultant may be doing the dam design, there is still a need for some outside oversight.
Differences in interpretation, experience, or errors of omission are a possibility regardless of who does the design.  Hence a second set of eyes can be beneficial.

Is the resource estimate important?

Next question is how important is the integrity of the resource and reserve estimate to the successful operation of a mine?
Answer: Very important.  The mine life, project economics, and shareholder value all rely on it.     So why aren’t a second set of eyes or third party audits very common?

NI 43-101 was the first step

In the years prior to 43-101, junior mining companies could produce their own resource estimates and disclose the results publicly.  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 and/or prepare their own estimate.  Now the QP ultimately takes legal responsible for the estimate.
Nowadays most small companies do not develop their own in-house resource estimates.  The task is generally awarded to an independent QP.

Resource estimation is a special skill

Possibly companies don’t prepare their own resource estimates due to the specialization needed in modelling and geostatistics. Maybe its due to the skills needed to operate block modeling software.   Maybe the companies feel that doing their own internal resource estimate is a waste of time since an independent QP will be doing the work anyway.

The QP is the final answer..or is it?

Currently it seems the project resource estimate is prepared solely by the QP or a team of QP’s.   In most cases this resource gets published without any other oversight. In other words no second set of eyes has taken a look at it.  We assume the QP is a qualified expert, their judgement is without question, and their work is error free.

Leapfrog Model

As we have seen, some resources estimates have been mishandled and disciplinary actions have been taken against QP’s.   The conclusion is that 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 they are competent or qualified. Geological modeling is not an exact science and will be based on their personal experience.

What is good practice?

The question being asked is whether it would be good practice for companies to have a second set of eyes take a look at their resource estimates developed by independent QP’s?
Where I have been involved in due diligence for acquisitions or mergers, it is not uncommon for one side to rebuild the resource model with their own technical team.  They don’t have 100% confidence in the original resource handed over to them.   The first thing asked is for the drill hole database.
One downside to a third party review is the added cost to the owner.
Another downside is that when one consultant reviews another consultant’s work there is a tendency to have a list of concerns. Some of these may not be material, which then muddles the conclusion of the review.
On the positive side, a third party review may identify serious interpretation issues or judgement decisions that could be fatal to the resource.
If tailings dams are so important that they require a second set of eyes, why not the resource estimate?  After all, it is the foundation of it all.
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