Success in the technology sector can be fleeting, and pharmaceutical stocks can fall ill without a moment's notice. But after nearly a decade of digging for profit within the mining industry, I am convinced that no industry in the world suffers so daunting an array of roadblocks, pitfalls, and risks.
For starters, miners share the same baseline of challenging economic conditions that have been felt throughout the business world. BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) chairman Jacques Nasser summed it up nicely at the company's annual meeting in Sydney last week: "Given the fundamental shifts taking place, the low levels of growth in many developed countries and the volatility in just about every facet of life, from stock markets to politics to the weather, the business world is as tough as ever. Our industry is particularly challenging."
Particularly challenging indeed! While it can take a decade or more to progress a new mine project from first discovery to production, the factors supporting the operation's successful completion and operation can yield violent reversals of fortune with gut-wrenching volatility. Industrial commodity prices have been down in the dumps lately, while continuing cost pressures have placed marginally profitable operations under the microscope for a rash of mine closures production curtailments, and stalled capital projects. Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO) last week announced a further $2 billion reduction in its previously scaled-back plans for near-term capital spending, while targeting aggressive cuts of $5 billion from its operating and support costs over the next two years. Impaired market prices for both iron ore and metallurgical coal have contributed to an inglorious fall at Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE:CLF), and forced Walter Energy (OTC:WLTGQ) to seek a clean slate with a $1.1 billion goodwill impairment charge.
In addition to those more pervasive headwinds, individual operations face a barrage of risks including: political uncertainty or upheaval, tax policy, permitting, seismic activity or other safety risks, grade variability, and the list goes on and on! Goldcorp (NYSE:GG) recently ran into two such challenges simultaneously at its high-grade Red Lake mine in Ontario. Hecla Mining (NYSE:HL) lost an entire year of production at the Lucky Friday mine after regulators required the miner to refurbish its main production shaft.
The prize for taking your hard knocks
During this difficult period for the mining industry -- when the world's top diversified miners are busy tightening their belts in response to slack global demand and rising costs -- I want to remind investors that the potential for dramatic profit does still coincide with the frequent hard knocks associated with investments in this space. Major producers will continue to move swiftly to match their production to current demand, easing some of the downward pressure on product prices. Demand for select products like silver and gold, meanwhile, remains resilient with a strong long-term outlook for further price appreciation.