Big change needed to save [Australian] nickel producers – by Sarah-Jane Tasker (The Australian – February 25, 2013)

THE majority of Australia’s nickel producers continue to struggle to turn a healthy profit, and analysts say there is little relief in sight unless there is a fundamental change, such as BHP Billiton closing its West Australian operations.

While BHP has no plans to close its Kambalda nickel west operations, market observers say it would take that level of industry event to provide any relief to the sector this year.

“BHP doesn’t have to run loss-making operations,” one respected mining analyst said. “They are a 100,000-tonne producer, so it’s a big change for the nickel market if its operations are put on care and maintenance. That would materially change the outlook for the nickel market and could aid the juniors.”

BHP reported last week that underlying earnings before interest and taxes for its aluminium and nickel division had fallen $US219 million ($213m) to a loss of $US285m for the first half.

Western Areas, Australia’s lowest cost producer, reported on Friday a sharp fall in its first-half profit on the weaker nickel price and on the back of a non-cash impairment charge.

The company said cashflow from operations was significantly affected by a lower nickel price.

“With even Western Areas struggling to make money at currently depressed prices, capitulation in the sector appears necessary,” said Troy Irvin, an analyst at Argonaut Securities.

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