Mining more difficult than Disney makes out
Young commerce graduates often ask me what course they should pursue to become an investment professional. Some choose honours degrees in finance or economics whereas others register for a three-year programme offered by the US-based CFA Institute, regarded in the industry as the most influential international qualification for financial analysts.
While the CFA and the honours degrees may cover all aspects of investment analysis and portfolio administration, including directives of how to behave when managing other people's money, students never really acquire a deep insight into the workings of the companies or businesses they evaluate during their training. Their knowledge is primarily drawn from interviews with executives, site visits and the application of valuation techniques generated from historical income statements and balance sheets.
My advice is to initially consider chartered accountancy.
As an articled clerk, one obtains a far greater understanding of how all moving parts in an organisation must work in harmony to warranty its success. A corporation's books and records are always open to audit clerks for inspection, providing students valuable lessons about the complexities required to run a commercial enterprise, from the skills of procuring the raw materials that go into the manufacture of a product to machinery required to convert those ingredients into a finished article. One learns at source, for example, about internal controls, asset registers, tax allowances, stock records, capital structuring and regulatory compliance. Undoubtedly, though, the biggest lesson is that one develops a firm grasp of how big and small companies can add or destroy economic value.
A number of successful groups have been launched on the experience their founders gained while completing articles at an accounting firm, the best known being Liberty Life. Its creator, Donald Gordon, changed the face of insurance in South Africa on the know-how obtained as a clerk at Kessel Feinstein (now Grant Thornton,) where he audited the books of a local assurer.
As a non-practicing chartered accountant, I have huge respect for the skills and talents exhibited by the management teams who make up our corporate sector that, on balance, continue to grow and prosper despite the disadvantages of operating in a climate where administrative obstacles are constantly placed in their path.
Most executives will confess that in business there are expenses that can be controlled through improving productivity, introducing more efficient equipment and eliminating waste, but there are costs over which they have little or no control like resource prices, the international trade environment, inadequate infrastructure, inflation, administrative bumbling and, naturally, the weather.
Anybody studying Royal Bafokeng Platinum and Impala Platinum's earnings numbers last week will appreciate the difficult conditions under which some of our mining companies are presently operating.
While metal prices are dictated by the health of world demand and the variance in grades is a risk facing nearly all underground operations, increased work stoppages, above inflation rises in power and labour are wider issues dragging down South Africa's importance as a resource nation.
I have no brief for the country's platinum industry and remain harshly critical of their antiquated divisional structures, perhaps one of the root causes of the present unrest. But platinum is an important strategic metal that could bring significant wealth and growth to our economy when the financial crisis finally lifts, hopefully, somewhere in the near future.
In the interim a mountain of work is needed to repair the sorry state of mining in the country. Over the last few years mining, as a percentage of the country's economy, has been in decline against a surge in global output, the upshot of unquenchable demand originating from developing economies like China and India.
Most of our troubles, though, are self-inflicted; government dithering on issues like nationalisation and the allocation of mining rights has scared away investors, while rising energy costs, patchy power supply and ballooning labour costs have reduced profitability, stalling necessary development. To top that, the industry is now faced with unwarranted wage demands and strike action at certain platinum mines that could inflict lasting damage on a sector already battling for its survival.
One hopes that commonsense soon prevails.
In the meantime, before we can hope to make any progress, perhaps government should explain to some political figures, like the dim-witted Julius Malema, who are exploiting the current turmoil by promising the masses economic freedom through state intervention and nationalisation, that mining is a lot more intricate, skilled and involved than the widely-held belief that polished jewels can simply be chipped out of a rock just like Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey do in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.