For centuries Latin American mining has captivated international investors. Tales of Birú, a magical gold-laden land that we now know as Peru, were enough to convince Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro to lead a risky expedition against the Incas. In the short-term the mission was an outstanding success with Pizarro ransoming captured Inca emperor Atahualpa for 13,000 pounds (lbs) of gold and twice as much silver. In today’s prices that is almost $3billion worth of gold though the silver comes to a paltry £6million. In the following years waves of fresh investors scoured the region looking for similar pots of gold but often with less success. The mythical El Dorado, for example, first believed to be a king, then a kingdom, finally turned out to be a waste of time and money for the British, Spanish and German investors that backed expeditions to find it.
After Latin American countries gained independence, roughly 200 years ago, international mining investors had to change their approach. But the lure of Latin America’s mining sector remains just as strong. It has the planet’s largest reserves of copper, lithium and silver with plenty of gold to boot. While modest local demand – it has less than 10% of both world population and GDP – makes it a natural exporter. The region’s metal wealth is nothing new – just ask Pizarro – but what has changed are the conditions above ground. Latin America has emerged as a mining-friendly jurisdiction with a wide range of international mining companies listed on Canadian, US, Australian and British stockmarkets. The development of solid democracies across the region since the 1980s has allowed many Latin American countries to finally develop fair systems to manage international mining investment. Of course, profiting from mined metals is a risky business – Pizarro ended up being hacked to death, spending his final moments daubing himself with a cross in his own blood. But from solid, London-listed majors producing a steady flow of earnings, to aspirational explorers looking for that next big find, Latin America has plenty to offer MoneyWeek readers.
Latin America’s metal wealth
The best thing about Latin America for mining investors is that it is incredibly rich in base and precious metals. The region’s mining powerhouses of Chile, Peru, Brazil and Mexico are particularly blessed. According to the US Geological Survey, Chile has the world’s largest reserves of both copper and lithium and the seventh-largest silver reserves. Peru has the world’s largest silver reserves, third-largest copper reserves, third-largest zinc reserves, fourth-largest nickel reserves and fifth-largest gold reserves. Mexico has the world’s fourth-largest zinc reserves, fifth-largest lead reserves, sixth-largest copper reserves, sixth-largest silver reserves and is also a top-ten gold producer. Finally, Brazil has the world’s second-largest reserves of iron ore, third-largest reserves of nickel and fourth-largest reserves of tin and seventh-largest reserves of gold.
“Moreover, it is likely that Latin America has even more mineral wealth than the official statistics suggest…”
Outside of the established powerhouses, you also have world-class metal deposits scattered around the region. So, for example, the Dominican Republic has the world’s third-largest gold mine, while Guatemala has its second-largest silver mine. Argentina and Bolivia form part of the ‘lithium triangle’ with Chile that together holds around 54% of global resources -that is to say potential reserves. While Bolivia also has top ten reserves of zinc and lead.
Moreover, it is likely that Latin America has even more mineral wealth than the official statistics suggest as a mix of political and economic factors have prevented international miners from extensive exploration in Argentina and Ecuador. Given that most of Peru and Chile’s largest mines are found in the Andes, it seems reasonable to suppose that their neighbour’s stretches of the mountain range are also rich in minerals. We interviewed Argentina’s then Mining Secretary, Daniel Meilán, in Buenos Aires last year and he left us in no doubt of the country’s mineral potential. “Mining makes up roughly 15% of Chile’s GDP and something similar for Peru. Here in Argentina it is just 1%, despite the fact that we have a wider share of the Andes than Chile and therefore probably more minerals.” We will soon get to find out, as in recent years both Argentina and Ecuador changed their mining policies and opened up to investors, creating exciting new frontier markets in the region
Copper, lithium and gold
Latin America isn’t just rich in metals – it’s rich in the right metals. Copper and lithium have exciting medium-term prospects while gold miners present an interesting opportunity. That’s confirmed by in a recent study from the market intelligence division of ratings agency, S&P Global, which notes that “for the first time since 2014, base metals matched gold as the top Latin American exploration target, with each garnering 42% of planned spending.” The rise in base metals exploration is being driven by bullish long-term views on copper. As the commodity supercycle began to unwind in 2012, investors turned sour on copper. Its rise had been powered by massive Chinese demand but conventional thinking figured that the infrastructure glut in the Middle Kingdom, combined with efforts to move its economy away from heavy industry, would limit future global copper use. However, the rapid growth in electric vehicles has transformed the outlook for the red metal. A battery-powered electric vehicle uses about 83 kg of copper compared to just 23 kg in an internal combustion engine. Hybrid vehicles, like the Prius are normally somewhere in the middle. Consultant McKinnsey estimates that yearly electric vehicle sales will hit 4.5 million in 2020, up from 1.2 million in 2017. That would still just be 5% of annual light electric vehicle sales, leaving plenty of room for further growth. Copper has been hit by worries of a trade war between China and the US, and prices are still 40% below their 2011 peak.
Another clear winner from the transition to low carbon energy systems is lithium. It’s already established as the battery of choice for electric vehicles. While the search for renewable energy’s holy grail – a cheap efficient battery that can store excess electricity produced by intermittent sources such as wind farms and solar panels – may yet give lithium another boost. At present Australia has managed to become the world’s largest producer despite the fact its lithium is made mined from ore – a more expensive process than extracting it from the lithium-heavy salt brines found in the lithium triangle. That’s because historically Australian has been more welcoming to lithium investors than Chile, which treats the white metal differently to copper, Argentina or Bolivia. Now that’s starting to change, with Argentina in particular receiving a mix of international investment.
“judging from the desperation in Latin American gold juniors investors are likely to get more for their money at the moment…”
Finally, you have gold. Alex Black, a mining industry veteran who helped investors strike rich in Peru when he turned Rio Alto, his last company, from a penny stock gold explorer into a billion-dollar miner, told us that he’s never seen such tough financing conditions. “Trying to raise $20million for mine development now is like asking for $250million in 2014. We have more than 5 million ounces and a market cap of less than $50million, so investors can get an ounce of gold for under $10.” Of course, a CEO is going to talk up his company to a journalist but the S&P Global report backs him up. “Although financings are moving in the right direction, the $9.6billion raised in 2017 and $9.4billion raised in 2018 remain well below the $19.4billion raised in 2011. Capital offerings targeted primarily for exploration purposes in 2018 were down slightly compared with 2017 and 2016, with the totals for all three years returning to 2012 levels, when equity markets were just beginning to shun the industry.” One theory is that the proliferation of cannabis stocks and crypto currencies have diverted more speculative capital from gold explorers. Gold’s main use is not industrial, so it’s impossible to know if the price will be higher or lower in a few years’ time. But it’s always good to have some in your portfolio for diversification and judging from the desperation in Latin American gold juniors – the small companies trying to develop projects – investors are likely to get more for their money at the moment.
Above ground risk
Mining investors judge potential projects on ‘above ground’ and ‘below ground’ risk. Latin America’s geology means it has plenty of exciting mining projects yet the above ground risks have often made it difficult them difficult to realise. Latin America was blighted by political instability ever since independence, with frequent periods of military rule and most countries only returning to democracy within the last 40 years.
The political instability hindered mining investment in the region because you need a relatively stable and efficient state to create a fair mechanism for the ongoing transaction between the country’s citizens – the ultimate owners of the metal – and the mining company Mining has a massive environmental impact on local citizens, while there are also political and economic consequences of extracting a non-renewable resource to export for profit. In many Latin American countries, the state’s role as arbiter is complicated by the fact that strong indigenous populations have alternative concepts of land ownership, such as ancestral community territories. Those community rights are recognised in many Latin American post dictatorship constitutions but not clearly defined, leading to a legal standoff as miners and locals vie for a greater share of profits in proposed projects.
These political issues can have a direct hit on investors’ pockets. Investors in US-listed precious metals miner, Tahoe Resources, learnt that first-hand when it was forced to cease operating Escobal, the world’s second largest silver mine, because of opposition in Guatemala. Its shares plummeted and was bought out by a rival for a knockdown price earlier this year. Even well-established mining jurisdictions, such as Peru, can have problems. For example, one of the country’s most important mining investments, the $7billion Las Bambas copper mine, has spent two months this year under a blockade from angry members of the neighbouring communities.
Those costly lessons have taught mining companies that they need to get community relations right. That begins when they assess a potential project, as there are big differences in local attitudes to mining. For example, central Peru, which has a longer mining tradition, typically sees less protests than the north or south of the country. But ultimately miners need to follow the minerals, so it’s also important for investors to pick firms that have a well-thought out community strategy. Last month in Lima we interviewed Victor Gobitz, CEO of Buenaventura, a Peruvian non-ferrous metals miner, and he explained how the firm has learned to work with local groups. “If a miner just tries to exchange money for lands it is a big mistake. You need to create a long-term relationship based on generating employment for local workers and providing some social infrastructure such as drinking water, energy, sewerage and so on.”
“Those costly lessons have taught mining companies that they need to get community relations right…”
Not only are miners becoming more adept at handling these issues, there are also signs that most Latin American states are improving their ability to regulate this complex transaction between investors and the citizens. The Fraser Institute is a Canadian think tank that publishes a global ranking of mining jurisdictions. It judges both the mineral endowment and the policy framework to score the overall attractiveness for investors. Latin America and the Caribbean was the standout performer in the latest report, with the region’s median investment attractiveness jumping 16% in 2018, more than any other region. That’s even more impressive considering the negative weighting of disaster cases such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Unsurprisingly Chile, Peru and Mexico were in the top three. However, Ecuador and Colombia also made big improvements, jumping into the top half of the regional table and overtaking Brazil. However, just as with community protests, the reality of mining policy can differ greatly within countries. Argentina’s national score was poor, dragged down by the extreme anti mining policies of some individual provinces, yet others, such as Catamarca scored excellently. So, investors need to understand the local reality of a company’s projects.
This improving policy landscape isn’t down to luck. It reflects the trend of general improvement in Latin American institutions as the young democracies across the region begin to mature. Barring sad cases, such as Venezuela, most other states in the region are gradually becoming more efficient, less bureaucratic and now, thanks to the repercussions of long-running, region-wide graft scandal, slightly less corrupt.
Readers may be sceptical of international rankings. They may even suspect a pro-Latin America bias on our part. However, LatAm INVESTOR’s optimism is shared by international mining companies, with Latin America attracting more exploration capital than any other region in the world. According toS&P Global, Latin America received 28% of the total global mining exploration budget. “Six countries, Peru, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador, together accounted for the lion’s share (90%) of the region’s total budget”, explains the report.
The fact that industry insiders are targeting Latin America for future projects shows that the region is fertile ground for profit-hunting investors.
A version of this article first appeared in MoneyWeek on the 28th of June.