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The mining industry’s annual bash roared into life on Sunday against an unfamiliar backdrop – a market where metal prices are no longer falling and share values in the sector are actually climbing.
After four years of brutal, grinding decline, the beleaguered industry is finally enjoying a spurt of good news. Gold prices have sprinted to their best start to a year since 1980, while even grimy industrial laggards such as copper and iron ore have displayed twitches of life in recent weeks.
There is, to be sure, a contradiction in these trends – gold tends to be most popular during times of economic stress, while base metals thrive when growth is strong and sure – but nobody at the opening day of the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in Toronto was in a mood to question the spate of upbeat developments.
The four-day get-together is the biggest in the global mining industry. PDAC parties are legendary and so is the amount of alcohol consumed in its hospitality suites.
Despite the social lubrication – or perhaps because of it – the convention has earned a reputation as the place where miners come to do business, from landing jobs to finding investors.
“It’s a huge networking opportunity,” said Rod Thomas, president of PDAC. “It’s the one time of year when people in the industry can count on seeing all their colleagues from around the world, face to face, and a lot of deals get done as a result.”
The PDAC convention moves in tandem with mining’s popularity. The first convention that Mr. Thomas attended as a student in the 1970s attracted a couple of thousand people. In 2011, with the commodity boom at its manic height, attendance swelled to a record 30,000.
Last year, the crowd fell to 23,600 and the number may fade again this year. However, after a long period of shrinking prospects, there’s a new belief that the industry is finally looking at better times ahead, Mr. Thomas said.
“We’ve started to see a little light at the end of the tunnel. There’s optimism there, and I haven’t felt that for the past three years.”
He’s not the only one who sees reasons for hope.
On Friday, Capital Economics raised its forecast price for gold to $1,350 (U.S.) an ounce by the end of the year, a big boost from its previous call of $1,250 an ounce.
Earlier in the week, Jessica Fung, a widely followed commodities analyst with Bank of Montreal, told a major industry conference that she has finally become comfortable talking about a commodity-price recovery – a long, slow one, to be sure, but a recovery nonetheless.
Moods, of course, are fickle, and the recent surge in metals prices is only weeks old. It follows a disastrous 2015, a year in which waves of new supply combined with slumping Chinese demand to drive many metal prices to their lowest levels in a decade.
But even in its reduced state, the industry remains a major force. Hundreds of booths sprawled across multiple floors of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Sunday, touting mineral finds, mining products and exploration opportunities.
Governments from Greenland to India are using the convention to assure the battered industry that it can be sure of a warm welcome within their borders. Non-ferrous miners are expected to slash their exploration budgets by 19 per cent this year, according to a new report from SNL Metals & Mining, and competition for those dollars is stiff.
Argentina is one of the countries that is most energetically stating its case for more investment. Mauricio Macri, who was elected President in November, has moved quickly to demolish many of the barriers to foreign miners that had been erected under the previous Kirchner rule.
Daniel Meilan, Argentina’s Secretary of Mining, is at PDAC and pointed in an interview to several encouraging developments, including an end to the country’s export taxes on metals and a radically easier import regime that will make it simpler for miners to source the goods they need.
“Argentina is coming back to mining after several years in which we were effectively out of the market for political reasons,” he said.
He acknowledges that challenges remain – notably, disagreements among the country’s 23 provinces, each of which controls the natural resources within its own boundaries.
But he compared the Macri government’s situation to a new conductor taking charge of an unruly orchestra. “The important thing is that the conductor knows the right symphony to play. We think we do.”