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What is concerning mining and metals industry executives today?

Recent surveys conducted in the mining and metals industry sector indicate that climate change, price volatility and the risk of a global depression are the top concerns for executives.

The KMPG Mining Risk Forecast 2020/21 Report nominates climate change and price risks as top-of-mind for executives while a mid-year survey by White & Case found that the fear of a global recession was the most common concern amongst those surveyed. It’s worth noting that the KMPG survey was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the concerns raised have ongoing relevance both now and into the future.

Climate change

Climate change poses a number of risks to the mining industry. Cyclones can cause mine shutdowns while drought can have a deleterious effect on water supply and affect the granting of water licences. Bushfires may also threaten operations in some areas.

As climate change becomes a bigger political issue, mining executives are also feeling the pressure from governments and consumers to be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem. The larger players, like Rio Tinto and BHP, have all faced pressure at shareholders’ meetings to align with the Paris Agreement. Companies are also looking at ways to reduce emissions, divest from coal and work with customers to reduce domestic emissions. Historically, commodity prices were the primary influencer of capital investment. Now mining executives must factor in environmental, social and governance measures to attract investments.

Price risk

Commodity prices have been volatile for a while, with the COVID-19 pandemic amplifying executive concerns. Price and currency hedging has resulted in several currencies experiencing short-term volatility. This is affecting businesses with overseas operations and those with overseas customers and suppliers: in other words, the vast majority of the mining and energy sector.

Different commodities are facing different market pressures. KMPG reports that while metallurgical coal is down 21% and thermal coal 23%, gold and iron ore are both up by a similar amount. The rally in gold prices is likely to be driven by economic uncertainty, suggesting it will continue for some time: in contrast, iron ore is up due to specific supply disruptions in Brazil.

Since the long-term effects of the pandemic are still unknown, executives are struggling to know how to plan effectively. There are business continuity plans in place to address the logistical difficulties of COVID-19, but macroeconomic risk remains high.

Global recession

The third concern is the risk of global market weakness, with 39% of respondents in the White & Case survey nominating this as their top concern. As country after country has shuttered its businesses in an attempt to control COVID-19, the International Monetary Fund projects that global growth will be -4.9% in 2020.

The slowdown in the growth of the Chinese economy is of particular concern to mining and energy executives. China consumes around half of the world’s commodities, so a dip in their economic growth will have a significant effect on demand.

What can mining and metals industry executives do?

While the global outlook has changed since the KPMG survey was conducted, many of the medium and long-term risks identified remain the same. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for business resilience in the mining and metals industry.

Now more than ever, companies need to embrace operational agility. While nobody could have foreseen the effects of COVID-19, the companies who have been able to adjust quickly have weathered it better than most.

This means embracing technology and processes that allow you to work remotely and creates efficiencies in the system. It may also mean addressing supply chain risk to reduce your vulnerability to crises overseas. Environment, social and corporate governance policies will help to address climate change risks, including reputational and regulatory risk.

Executives who embrace innovation and are willing to be proactive about risk may find that they can turn concern into opportunity.

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