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World’s top miners keep performing but investors unimpressed

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The world’s 40 largest mining companies continued to consolidate their stellar performance of the past several years by delivering steady growth in 2018, according to PwC’s Mine 2019 report released today.

As a group, the Top 40 increased revenue by 8%, buoyed by higher commodity price rises, and lifted production by 2%. They also boosted cash flows, paid down debt and provided a record dividend to shareholders of $43 billion.  Forecasts indicate continued steady performance in 2019. Revenue should remain stable, with weaker prices for coal and copper offsetting marginally higher production and higher average prices for iron ore.

Yet investors seemed unimpressed by the Top 40’s result, judging by market valuations, which fell 18% over 2018. While total market capitalization rose in the first term of this year, it remains 8% down compared to the end of 2017.  Over the past 15 years, total shareholders’ return  in mining has lagged that of the market as a whole as well as comparable industries such as oil and gas.

PwC’s Global Mining and Metals leader, Jock O’Callaghan, said: “One thing is clear – mining requires more than good financial performance to continue to create and realise value in a sustainable manner.

“We believe that the market has reservations about the mining industry’s ability to respond to the risks and uncertainties of a changing world.

“With strong balance sheets and cash flows, now is the time for the Top 40 to address the issues weighing down market values: climate change, shifting consumer sentiment, and technology adoption.

“Miners need to move swiftly to restore faith in ‘brand mining. As an industry, this means transforming their reputation as efficient ‘converters of dirt’ posing omnipresent environmental risk  to prominent builders of both economic and societal capital. Prioritising greener  and consumer-centric strategies, enabled by technology, will help earn the trust of stakeholders and enable miners to create sustainable value into the future.”

Balance sheets remain strong; capital expenditure up but slow

In 2018 the Top 40 paid down $15.5 billion in net borrowings, resulting in the gearing position dropping below the 10-year average. All liquidity and solvency ratios improved during the year, leaving the world’s largest miners with strong balance sheets and cash flows.

In line with expectations, capital expenditures started to rise again, albeit from historically low levels.  The 13% increase over the previous year to $57 billion suggests that miners are continuing to proceed cautiously; approximately half (48%) of the capital expenditure in 2018 was for ongoing projects.

Copper and gold dominated spending in 2018, attracting $30 billion worth of investment. Capital expenditure on coal was consistent, year on year, and it is expected that miners will maintain current production levels while the coal price remains high.

Shareholders, government and other stakeholders rewarded

An 11% lift in operating cash flows has allowed the Top 40 to increase shareholder distributions in 2018 to a record $43 billion. Dividend yield for the year was 5.5%. There was a notable jump in share buybacks to $15 billion, up from $4 billion in 2017. Rio Tinto and BHP accounted for 70% of the total activity returning proceeds of non-core disposals to shareholders.

“While their shareholders see buybacks as welcome news in the short term, miners need to ask whether this has come at a cost given the challenges of attracting long-term capital.” said Mr O’Callaghan.  “Equity raisings during the year remained at a paltry $3bn, lower than the preceding two years.”

In 2018 the share of value  distributed to governments in the form of direct taxes and royalties   increased from 19% to 21%. Employees received 22% of the total value distribution from the Top 40.

M&A activity picks up

After several years of sluggish activity, M&A picked up significantly in 2018. The value of announced transactions rose 137% to $30 billion, driven by a flurry of activity in the gold sector, the on-going push by miners to optimise their portfolios, and momentum to acquire energy metals projects.

“The renewed appetite for large transactions looks set to continue this year, with announced deal value to 30 April already exceeding the whole of 2017,” said Mr O’Callaghan. “Post merger disposal of non-core assets in revised portfolios will support more deals activity in the near term.”

Gold sector consolidating

The gold sector is experiencing a renewed round of consolidation, driven by a shrinking pipeline of projects, fewer new high-grade discoveries and a lack of funding for junior developments. Gold deals increased from 8% of total Top 40 deal value  in 2017 to 25% in 2018, and this year are tracking at close to 95% of deals as at the end of April.

“In the current market, gold mining companies need to be rigorous and disciplined with prospective deals. Investors are still reeling from the spate of overpriced deals between 2005 to 2012, the value of which has now been lost,” Mr O’Callaghan said.

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‘Industry 4.0’ tech for post-COVID world, is driving inequality

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Developing countries must embrace ground-breaking technologies that have been a critical tool in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, or else face even greater inequalities than before, UN economic development  experts at UNCTAD said on Thursday.

“Very few countries create the technologies that drive this revolution – most of them are created in China and the US – but all countries will be affected by it”, said UNCTAD’s Shamika Sirimanne, head of Division on Technology and Logistics. “Almost none of the developing countries we studied is prepared for the consequences.”

The appeal, which is highlighted in a new UNCTAD report, relates to all things digital and connective, so-called “Industry 4.0” or “frontier technologies”, that include artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, 5G, 3D printing, robotics, drones, nanotechnology and solar energy.

Gene editing, another fast-evolving sector, has demonstrated its worth in the last year, with the accelerated development of new coronavirus vaccines.

Drone aid

In developing countries, digital tools can be used to monitor ground water contamination, deliver medical supplies to remote communities via drones, or track diseases using big data, said UNCTAD’s Sirimanne.

But “most of these examples remain at pilot level, without ever being scaled-up to reach those most in need: the poor. To be successful, technology deployment must fulfil the five As: availability, affordability, awareness, accessibility, and the ability for effective use.”

Income gap widening

With an estimated market value of $350 billion today, the array of emerging digital solutions for life after COVID is likely to be worth over $3 trillion by 2025 – hence the need for developing countries to invest in training and infrastructure to be part of it, Sirimanne maintained.

“Most Industry 4.0 technologies that are being deployed in developed countries save labour in routine tasks affecting mid-level skill jobs. They reward digital skills and capital”, she said, pointing to the significant increase in the market value of the world’s leading digital platforms during the pandemic.

Innovation dividends

“The largest gains have been made by Amazon, Apple and Tencent,” Sirimanne continued. “This is not surprising given that a very small number of very large firms provided most of the digital solutions that we have used to cope with various lockdowns and travel restrictions.”

Expressing optimism about the potential for developing countries to be carried along with the new wave of digitalisation rather than be swamped by it, the UNCTAD economist downplayed concerns that increasing workforce automation risked putting people in poorer countries out of a job.

This is because “not all tasks in a job are automated, and, most importantly, that new products, tasks, professions, and economic activities are created throughout the economy”, Sirimanne said.

‘Job polarization’

“The low wages …for skills in developing countries plus the demographic trends will not create economic incentives to replace labour in manufacturing – not yet.”

According to UNCTAD, over the past two decades, the expansion in high and low-wage jobs – a phenomenon known as “job polarization” – has led to only a single-digit reduction in medium-skilled jobs in developed and developing countries (of four and six per cent respectively).

“So, it is expected that low and lower-middle income developing countries will be less exposed to potential negative effects of AI and robots on job polarization”, Sirimanne explained.

Nonetheless, the UN trade and development body cautioned that there appeared to be little sign of galloping inequality slowing down in the new digital age, pointing to data indicating that the income gap between developed and developing countries is $40,749 in real terms today, up from $17,000 in 1970.

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Greater Innovation Critical to Driving Sustained Economic Recovery in East Asia

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Innovation is critical to productivity growth and economic progress in developing East Asia in a rapidly changing world, according to a new World Bank report launched today.

Countries in developing East Asia have an impressive record of sustained growth and poverty reduction.  But slowing productivity growth, uncertainties in global trade, and technological advances are increasing the need to transition to new and better modes of production to sustain economic performance.

To support policy makers in meeting this challenge, The Innovation Imperative for Developing East Asia examines the state of innovation in the region, analyzes the key constraints firms face in innovating, and lays out an agenda for action to spur innovation-led growth.

A large body of evidence links innovation to higher productivity,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and Pacific. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, along with the fast-evolving global environment, have raised urgency for governments in the region to promote greater innovation through better policies.

While developing East Asia is home to several high-profile innovators, data presented in the report show that most countries in the region (except China) innovate less than would be expected given their per capita income levels. Most firms operate far from the technological frontier. And the region is falling behind the advanced economies in the breadth and intensity of new technology use.

“Aside from some noteworthy examples, the vast majority of firms in developing East Asia are currently not innovating,” said Xavier Cirera, a lead author of the report. “A broad-based model of innovation is thus needed – that supports a large mass of firms in adopting new technologies, while also enabling more-sophisticated firms to undertake projects at the cutting edge.”

The report identifies several factors that impede innovation in the region, including inadequate information on new technologies, uncertainty about returns to innovation projects, weak firm capabilities, insufficient staff skills, and limited financing options. Moreover, countries’ innovation policies and institutions are often not aligned with firms’ capabilities and needs.

To spur innovation, the report argues that countries need to reorient policy to promote diffusion of existing technologies, not just invention; support innovation in the services sectors, not just manufacturing; and strengthen firms’ innovation capabilities. Taking this broader view of innovation policy will be critical to enabling productivity gains among a broader swath of firms in the region.

“It is important for governments in the region to support innovation in services, given their rising importance in these economies – not only for better service quality but increasingly as key inputs for manufacturing,” said Andrew Mason, also a lead author of the report.

Countries also need to strengthen key complementary factors for innovation, including workers’ skills and instruments to finance innovation projects. Building stronger links between national research institutions and firms will also be critical to fostering innovation-led growth in the region.

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Sea transport is primary route for counterfeiters

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More than half of the total value of counterfeit goods seized around the world are shipped by sea, according to a new OECD-EUIPO report.

Misuse of Containerized Maritime Shipping In the Global Trade of Counterfeits says that seaborne transport accounts for more than 80% of the volume of merchandise traded between countries, and more than 70% of the total value of trade.

Containerships carried 56% of the total value of seized counterfeits in 2016. The People’s Republic of China was the largest provenance economy for container shipments, making up 79% of the total value of maritime containers containing fakes and seized worldwide. India, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are also among the top provenance economies for counterfeit and pirated goods traded worldwide.

Between 2014 and 2016, 82% of the seized value of counterfeit perfumes and cosmetics by customs authorities worldwide, 81% of the value of fake footwear and 73% of the value of customs seizures of fake foodstuff and toys and games concerned sea shipments. Additional analysis showed that over half of containers transported in 2016 by ships from economies known to be major sources of counterfeits entered the European Union through Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. There are also some EU countries, such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Romania, with relatively low volumes of containers trade in general, but with a high level of imports from counterfeiting-intense economies.

To combat illicit trade, a number of risk-assessment and targeting methods have been adapted for containerised shipping, in particular to enforce against illicit trade in narcotics and hazardous and prohibited goods. But the analysis reveals that the illicit trade in counterfeits has not been a high priority for enforcement, as shipments of counterfeits are commonly perceived as “commercial trade infractions” rather than criminal activity. Consequently, existing enforcement efforts may not be adequately tailored to respond to this risk, according to the report.  Tailored and flexible governance solutions are required to strengthen risk-assessment and targeting methods against counterfeits.

As well as infringing trademarks and copyright, counterfeit and pirated goods entail health and safety risks, product malfunctions and loss of income for companies and governments. Earlier OECD-EUIPO work has shown that imports of counterfeit and pirated goods amounted to up to USD 509 billion in 2016, or around 3.3% of global trade.

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