Cablegate: South African Gold Industry in Crisis

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: South African Gold Industry in Crisis

1. (U) Summary: The South African gold mining industry is in
trouble. End of June 2004 company results showed profits sharply
down. In response, companies have laid off workers, closed
shafts, and recalculated ore reserves as they move operations to
higher-grade ore. Companies blame these problems on the strong
rand, which since 2002 has strengthened faster than the dollar
price of gold. Since 1998, however, the average rand price of
gold has actually increased by more than 50%, while the rand has
weakened by 18%. This suggests that the problem is not entirely
due to the strong rand, and raises questions about management's
ability to deal with a steady rise in costs. End summary.

Profits Down
2. (U) Annual and quarterly reports, to the end of June 2004,
show severely eroded profits for the country's gold mining
companies, with many reporting operating losses. AngloGold, the
country's largest gold mining company and second largest in the
world, showed profit declines of 126% and 82% for the quarter and
six-month periods, respectively. Gold Fields, South Africa's
second largest gold producer and the fourth largest producer in
the world, recorded a 60% drop for the year. Harmony Gold, South
Africa's third largest gold producer, showed an $80 million loss
for the year. Durban Roodepoort Deep (DRD), the country's fourth
largest producer, showed a net loss of $45 million for the June
quarter. These top four companies account for more than 90% of
South Africa's gold production. In August, the Chamber of Mines
declared that more than 50% of the country's gold mines were
operating at a loss, and that the industry had not experienced
such hard times since the liberalization of gold in the 1970's.

The Rand/Dollar Exchange Rate Compounds High Rand Costs
--------------------------------------------- ----------
3. (U) Gold mining companies argue that the reason for their
trouble is that they have been caught between strong rand costs
and weak dollar prices. They do have a point. Compared with
2002, South African gold companies earned 20% fewer rands per
ounce of gold despite a dollar price of gold that has increased
by 29%. This is partly because the South African Reserve Bank
inflation fighting policy has kept interest rates high, causing
the rand to strengthen 38% against the dollar the past two years.
The result is that, despite $400/oz prices, the rand price of
gold has actually decreased 32% over the past two years.

4. (U) The strong rand is certainly a major explanatory factor as
to why times are so tough for the South African gold industry
today. However, there may be a page 2 to the story. The fact is
that in 2002 the rand was exceptionally weak, averaging R10.5 to
the dollar. Using 1998 as a base year, when the rand/dollar
exchange rate was more stable, one finds that the average price
per ounce of gold has actually increased by 36% in dollar terms
and a hefty 48% in rand terms. This has led some industry
analysts to ask why are South African gold companies having such
a hard time now when they were making money in 1998?

5. (U) The answer is that costs are much less flexible today than
they were in 1998, and company managers, buoyed by low rand costs
and rising gold prices in 2002, may not have properly considered
this fact when investing in marginal operations. In 2002, when
the rand was exceptionally weak and the rand gold price doubled
to between R3200 and R3800 per ounce, managers aggressively took
on higher cost projects on the assumption that the rand would
stay weak, ignoring the fact that their rand costs had risen and
would be harder to reduce if the rand strengthened. When the
rand did strengthen, mine managers had little choice but to begin
closing down high cost and least profitable operations.

6. (U) The fact is that costs per ounce were on the rise in South
Africa when a weakened rand appeared on the scene to save the
day. Part of this is because most South African gold mines are
now mature, i.e., the high-grade (and lower cost) ore has been
mined and reserves are in decline. Keeping these mature mines
open means mining lower grade (and thus higher cost) ore. New,
high-grade ore reserves in South Africa are located deep
underground and thus much more expensive to mine. Deep and ultra
deep mines require sophisticated cooling and transportation
systems, specialized roof support, and extensive health and
safety measures. Moreover, mineworkers spend 2-3 hours of the
workday simply getting to their underground locations.

7. (U) Other costs in South Africa have also been rising. Labor
costs over the past decade increased by more than 8% per year
while productivity increased by only 3%. As many as 30% of
mineworkers may be HIV positive, shortening job tenure and
requiring additional training, medical, and pension costs.
Spoornet, the state-owned railroad, raised general freight
tariffs by 35% in 2003 and another 16.5% in 2004. Rand Water,
the state-owned water utility, raised tariffs by 18% in each of
the last two years. Eskom, the state owned electric utility,
wanted desperately to raise electricity rates, but the government
insisted on keeping any increase to below inflation. Domestic
steel prices escalated by about 40% along with U.S. Section 201
safeguard action in 2002, benefiting former South African
parastatal and still dominant steel producer Iscor.

8. (U) The situation has left the gold mining industry reeling
over government administered prices and the South African Reserve
Bank's high interest rate policy. Ever more vocal and combative,
several large mining houses have been lobbying the government and
unions for a change, but nothing has seemed to work. Through
petitions to the Competition Commission, several large gold
mining companies unsuccessfully tried to force Iscor to lower its
steel prices. Finally, with quiet industry support, the
mineworker's union marched on the South African Reserve Bank in
August, protesting high interest rates and the strong rand. The
following day, the Reserve Bank lowered its repurchase rate 50
basis points. (The Reserve Bank denies a cause-effect
relationship, but analysts are divided.) The result was that the
dollar value of the rand weakened about 5%. In addition, unions
have begun to soften their stance on bread and butter issues,
such as working Sundays, every second Saturday, plus selected
public holidays, which would add about 80 additional production
days to the year and require a 12% increase in the work force.
These changes have helped, but shaft closures and layoffs

10. (U) Industry analysts project the rand to slowly weaken
against the dollar (about 2-5% per year) and gold prices to trade
in the $400 to $450 range in the medium term. Under these
relatively stable conditions, many marginal mines may stay open,
but at lower production as closures of unprofitable shafts and
working sections will still take place. The larger mines will
continue to produce at current levels, and new production, in
particular from Placer-Dome's South Deep mine and Harmony's
(previously Anglovaal) Target mine, could add about 32 tons net
to annual output. Notwithstanding, the Chamber of Mines
estimates that total South African gold production will continue
its slow decline in the long term, as it has since the 1970's,
until stabilizing at 300 to 350 tons per year by about 2010. In
2003, South Africa produced 375 tons, 14.5% of world production.
The Chamber believes that industry should mechanize its new mines
and better train its work force. [Established infrastructure in
old mines does not allow for much mechanization.] The result
will be that the number of mineworkers will fall even further at
a time when unemployment in South Africa is running at 42% (broad
definition). In the last ten years, the gold mining industry in
South Africa has shed 125,000 jobs.


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