Debt Load Digs Into Mining Industry – by Rhiannon Hoyle (Wall Street Journal – July 12, 2015)

Resources firms borrowed heavily to supply China; now boom is ending, prices are down

SYDNEY—When Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, needed cash last year to build a massive iron-ore mine called Roy Hill in northwest Australia, five export-credit agencies and 19 banks teamed up to provide the US$7.2 billion required, sealing the largest project-financing deal in industry history.

The loan deal struck to fund the mine, cut into a vast red plain deep in the Australian Outback, now looks like the high point of a multiyear pileup of debt in the global mining sector.

As forecasts predicting endless growth in China’s appetite for raw materials became a matter of industry faith, mining companies borrowed extensively to build networks of pits, railway lines and port terminals. Megadeals abounded as a merger-and-acquisition frenzy took hold. Cheap borrowing costs, thanks to low global interest rates, fueled the splurge.

Now, as China’s hunger for resources ebbs and mining companies’ profits suffer amid falling commodity prices, those debts have become an albatross around the industry’s neck. Amid a slump in Chinese share prices last week, metals such as copper and aluminum fell to near six-year lows. Iron ore at one point hit its weakest level for a decade.

“There’s been a colossal misjudgment of future demand,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “That long boom made it especially difficult for people to expect anything otherwise. Many bought the big story about urbanization, instead of thinking how things could go bad.”

The world’s largest mining companies by market value had accumulated nearly $200 billion in net debt by 2014, six times higher than a decade ago, according to consultancy EY, while their earnings only increased roughly two-and-a-half times. Large mining companies have written off roughly 90% of all the acquisitions they made since 2007, according to Citigroup Inc.

Even if top mining companies devoted all their earnings less investment spending to paying down debt, it would take up to a decade to clear the decks, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of EY data.

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