SUNDAY TIMES - Five years after Marikana, Lonmin fights for survival
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Sunday Times Business By LUTHO MTONGANA, 2017-03-12 00:02:00.0

Five years after Marikana, Lonmin fights for survival

Lonmin's Marikana Platinum mine near Wonderkop on August 12, 2012. File Photo
Image: Kevin Sutherland

Almost five years since the tragic events outside the gates of its Marikana operation that saw 34 mineworkers lose their lives in a strike over wages, Lonmin finds its future on the edge once more.

Over the past week, its shares have lost more than a quarter of their value as the company struggles under the weight of a stubbornly low metal price and a stronger rand, which is eroding profitability.

The mining house, which has had three rights issues over the past decade, is running out of options and may have to return with another rights issue.

On the prospect of another round of restructuring and asking shareholders to shore up the company, Ben Magara, who took over as CEO in 2012, said: "You can never say never because the market conditions tell you what to do and right now the price is telling us that the market is oversupplied.

"It's getting tougher to cut costs because we have done all the low-hanging fruits, we have done all the capex reductions and we have done a big restructuring."

Platinum, one of South Africa's biggest foreign exchange earners along with gold, peaked in March 2008 at more than $2250 an ounce. The metal, primarily used in the motoring sector, has weakened more than 58% over the past nine years and remains in a bear market.

Over the past 24 months the rand has strengthened more than 6%, eating into the already wafer-thin margins of mining houses .

"Without a rally in the PGM [platinum group metals] prices, or a weakening of the rand, Lonmin will likely struggle to be cash-flow positive and may have to look to another bail-out," said René Carlo Hochreiter, an analyst at Noah Capital Markets with a " buy" recommendation.

Marc Elliott, an analyst at Investec with a "sell" recommendation, believes that within the next two to three years a rights issue is a possibility.

"The balance sheet is steadily eroding and the options to reverse that seem limited unless there's a strong price recovery in PGM's," he said.

Lonmin had $50-million (about R664-million) left at the end of December. It has been a swift turnaround in fortunes for the company, whose shares gained just over 28% last year on the back of improved sentiment towards resource shares. This year alone, the stock has plunged 42%.

"Investors and shareholders do choose what they want to do with their money, but the bottom line is the underlying asset of Lonmin is still a robust asset," Magara said.

"It is exposed, like all platinum players, to very tough headwinds right now, so the operating environment is tough. I think we have proved in the last two years that we have repositioned the business really well, but the tough conditions continue."

Outside of market pressures, investor concerns over production at Lonmin's sole operation, Marikana, were raised this week with the resignation of chief operating officer Ben Moolman.

In 2015, his predecessor, Johan Viljoen, resigned less than a year after taking the position.

"While the departure of one is not always welcome, people make choices all the time and he has chosen to move on, but we have a robust operational team," Magara said.

Since November last year, there have been reports of production problems intensified by absenteeism and the extra holiday President Jacob Zuma added on December 27.

South Africa's economy shrank 0.3% in the fourth quarter of last year, according to StatsSA data. The largest negative contributor was the mining and quarrying industry.

The resignation of Moolman was probably the start of Lonmin's slow collapse, said an analyst, who requested anonymity.

However, the Public Investment Corporation would probably continue to back Lonmin at this stage, more to secure jobs than as an investment, the analyst said.

Lonmin employs 24552 people and the PIC, with a stake just over 29%, is its biggest shareholder.

The PIC wasn't available for comment at the time of publication.

The woes at Lonmin have raised the prospect of a bid from the Neal Froneman-led Sibanye, which has been on an acquisitive path and has earmarked the troubled platinum sector as a key area of growth.

The company has already scooped up some of Anglo American Platinum's more labour-intensive mines. Buying Lonmin would give Sibanye a smelter complex, which it doesn't have.

Magara wouldn't be drawn on market speculation, but said every industry's players talk to see how to maximise value for shareholders.

"We have great assets and we are in a great industry that is going through a difficult time. We explore all those options, all boards look at what is in the best interests of its shareholders and we do that all the time, " he said.

A Sibanye spokesman said consolidation in the sector made sense and at the right price it would be something to consider. "We are not in talks [with Lonmin] at the moment."

mtonganal@sundaytimes.co.za