Major miners braced to weather coronavirus, but cash-poor minnows in peril (Reuters U.S. – April 22, 2020)

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Major miners are better positioned to weather the coronavirus disruption compared with previous downturns, having drastically reined in debt-fueled buying and operating costs amid investor scrutiny and pressure.

But smaller players could find themselves adrift as capital dries up. The International Monetary Fund predicted the coronavirus pandemic could cause the steepest downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

An exception will be companies that have already secured tie-ups with majors on development projects, in arrangements that see investment step up if richer veins are found, according to interviews with a dozen industry executives, investors and analysts. But that is just a tiny fraction of the junior market.

“By and large, mining companies now are a lot more robust than they were. Massive amounts of debt have been retired, massive amounts of cash have been returned to shareholders,” said Justin Mannolini, a partner at Gilbert and Tobin in Perth.

Majors have been repaying shareholders since last decade’s disastrous the top-of-the-cycle buys, such as Rio Tinto’s debt-fuelled $38 million purchase of Alcan in 2007, a quarter of which it wrote off five years later.

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