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Kinross acquired the Tasiast gold mine in Mauritania in 2010.
Kinross acquired the Tasiast gold mine in Mauritania in 2010.

A rush and a reckoning: Why writedowns are plaguing mining companies Add to ...

Speaking at a mining conference in Florida nearly two years ago, David Garofalo said the words nobody wanted to hear, and most simply chose not to say.

In the midst of a wave of mergers and takeovers, the chief executive officer of HudBay Minerals Inc. fired a warning shot for the whole industry. Taking the microphone in front of his peers, he reminded them that growth for growth’s sake was “very value destructive.” And he took aim at the popular notion that commodity prices were in a “supercycle,” less vulnerable to slowing economic growth.

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“We are not in a supercycle. This is a cycle and when the central banks find religion on inflation again, the cycle will be over,” the 23-year industry veteran told peers, including top brass at the world’s largest mining firms.

Mr. Garofalo may as well have been the prophet of doom, his words heralding the start of a downturn in the global mining sector that has seen a litany of multibillion-dollar losses at top companies.

In the ensuing fallout, chief executives have been fired and project financing has dried up. Acquisitions that were hailed as game-changers are now derided as dumb mistakes. A once-robust pipeline of new projects is all of a sudden looking emaciated, one mining company after another puts its ambitious growth plans on hold.

The implications for Canada, home to more mining dollars than anywhere else in the world, are profound. The resource sector faces the threat of a culling of junior companies, the lifeblood of the industry and a key source of financial activity in Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere.

The sudden turn of fortune is particularly shocking for mining, an industry where resources are constantly depleted. Typically, large mining companies scoop up smaller ones to replenish their reserves and enhance the growth story they tell investors. But recent takeover mistakes have made traditional buyers gun-shy.

This week two of Canada’s largest gold companies, Barrick Gold Corp. and Kinross Gold Corp. , announced a combined $7-billion worth of writedowns related to takeovers of gold and copper companies since the start of the decade.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the past year, global mining companies have erased billions of dollars from the value of acquisitions they once announced to shareholders as “transformational” deals, certain to create new wealth for investors. Most striking was Rio Tinto PLC’s decision to slash $14-billion of value, mostly from aluminum assets acquired with the takeover of Montreal-based Alcan in 2007 in this country’s largest-ever takeover deal. And the list goes on.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Garofalo, said in an interview that revisited his comments this week.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The merger mania that began in the middle of the past decade was hardly surprising, considering the tantalizing numbers. Global commodities prices were in the midst of a long upward trajectory, powered by such strong growth in China that not even the global financial crisis could stop the rise for long.

Barrick, like so many other giants, jumped at the bait, and the story of its missteps demonstrates what happened to so many others.

“Barrick would have been immensely better off if they hadn’t done any of their acquisitions and had just stuck with mining Goldstrike and building out their operations in Nevada,” said Michael Farrant, former Barrick corporate controller and now the chief executive officer of Commonwealth Silver and Gold Mining Inc., referring to his former employer’s leading North American assets.

Instead of focusing on projects it already owned, Barrick opted for growth: Its management believed metal prices would soar on the back of Chinese demand..

The decision to buy Equinox Minerals Ltd. boiled down to a simple opinion: “We were bullish on copper prices,” Barrick CEO Jaime Sokalsky said of the $7.3-billion acquisition. While copper prices still hover around $3.74 (U.S.) a pound, they are below the record prices at the time of the deal.

More importantly, costs have soared and analysts now argue that the acquisition, like so many others, was simply mismanaged.

Management teams will “blame it on labour inflation and cost inflation and ‘how could they have known?’ but I think in this market we’ve been in an inflationary environment for [capital expenditures] and [operating expenditures] for some time now,” said Jorge Beristain, managing director for metals and mining research at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York.

“They go out and buy the asset and then they plead ignorance when the costs go against them, and I think that if you are in the business of mining, you should know the environment,” he added.

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