Mining executives, like the commodities they manage, tend to go in and out of fashion according to long, hard-to-predict cycles. So you could take Rio Tinto’s decision to appoint Jean-Sebastian Jacques as chief executive officer as a bad sign for copper, the metal he’s spent most of his recent career digging up.
Looking back on the previous six appointees at the traditional big three London-traded mining companies, one could be forgiven for imagining that their boards attracted some sort of ancient curse while looking for mineral reserves in the rougher corners of the planet.
Why? Because the background of a new chief executive is a weirdly reliable contrarian indicator of commodities that might head south over the next few years. Traders who drove copper up to $5,062 a metric ton today might heed that warning.
At Rio Tinto, Jacques is replacing Sam Walsh, a former General Motors executive who took charge of Rio’s iron ore division in 2004, just as China’s industrialization began propelling the metal toward a peak of $192 a metric ton in 2011. Walsh, who started in 2013, replaced Tom Albanese, who took on the job in 2007 after running Rio’s copper group as the metal more than tripled in price between 2004 and 2006.
With a background overseeing divisions that delivered such outsized returns to shareholders in recent years, both executives must have seemed like safe pairs of hands to look after the company as a whole. It didn’t work out: in each case, the past outperformance eventually looked like the market bidding up prices that it was about to start bidding down.
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