Former Chilean President Salvador Allende once called Calama City ‘Chile’s bread’. This is a statement that still rings true today, over forty years after his unfortunate demise.
Calama, which sits in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, is the home of Chilean state-owned mining company Codelco and the gateway to one of Codelco’s biggest assets, Chuquicamata copper mine. Chuquicamata is the largest open pit copper mine in the world by excavated volume.
Previously, when the copper price was reaching $4 per pound, Codelco’s robust profits – around 75% of which come directly from copper – provided the government with a generous bounty that paid for social programmes, hospitals and schools.
However, the drastic halving of the copper price, which fell by around 20% in 2015 alone, has left the company fighting to stay afloat and unable to pay its premium to Chile.
For every cent the copper price drops Codelco loses $36m and Chile $50m, Codelco’s CEO Nelson Pizarro said earlier in the year.
Pizarro, who took the helm of Codelco in 2014, managed to increase production by 3.6% and reduce costs by nearly 7.8% per pound of copper in 2015, but despite this the company still reported net losses of $1.4bn for the year – its worst figures since 1990.
This squeeze on Codelco’s finances comes at a time when the company is trying to roll out a much-needed $18bn spending programme – the company announced in 2014 it was rolling out a $25bn investment plan it now says it has $18bn further to roll out – after decades of under investment in its ageing mines with dwindling ore grades.
The programme includes taking Chuquicamata, which dates back to 1882 and is Codelco’s second-biggest asset, underground by 2020.
The $4bn project started in 2012 and will dig 200m below the surface, creating 1,000km of tunnels. The underground operation is expected to reduce pollution at the site by 97%, extend the life of the mine by 40 years and halve operational costs.
"If we do not carry out these changes…definitely our level of production will collapse, and Codelco’s position in the world copper market will decline," Roberto Pasten, who manages Codelco’s Chuquicamata division, told AFP in May.
Chuquicamata is just one of a number of projects the company has under construction or planned, including expanding its Andina and Salvador mines, in order to maintain its current level of production.
At the current copper price, can Codelco continue with these major projects in order to maintain its number one position in the copper market?
A shortage of copper funds
Codelco produced 1.73 million tonnes of copper from its wholly-owned mines in 2015, including its main assets Chuquicamata, Andina, Salvador and El Teniente mines. However, it’s doubtful that Codelco can keep up this level of production without continued investment.
"Unless they invest in these multi-billion dollar projects their production is going to fall," says Tom Azzopardi, a stringer for S&P Global Platts.
"They are not going as fast as they said they would and some of their major projects are facing delays."
Codelco announced in April that it has already decided to scrap plans for another mine in Salvador, opting to expand the mine instead, reducing total investment needed to $600m from the original $3bn estimated.
The company is struggling to find the money to cover its investment costs. In 2014, the newly appointed Chilean Government agreed to invest $4bn in Codelco during its term, from 2014-2018, with the money mostly coming from a cash injection and letting the company reinvest its profits. But now the company isn’t making its projected profits there is expected to be a shortfall.
Codelco was also being supported in large part by the strong dollar, which the company gets paid in. However, in recent weeks the dollar has been weak, serving another blow to the company.
If the copper price was to fall below $2 a kilo it could put some of the company’s operations, such as Chuquicamata, in serious doubt. According to Codelco, in 2015 it was mining copper at a cost of $1.39 per pound.
When asked about the progress of its projects, a Codelco representative said: "Today, due to the economic scenario and the need to strengthen the quality of these projects, Codelco is studying each of these projects to ensure their development is in the best conditions."
Raising support to outlast Chile’s downturn
Codelco is also limited in how it can raise new funds. A source of national pride, the company’s main resources are mostly protected under the constitution covering state-owned assets, making it hard to sell them off.
"It would require congressional approval and the Codelco Workers Union would be completely against it [selling of the company’s assets]," says Azzopardi.
"Most politicians are against it because they see Codelco as an important source of government finance. Most Chileans are also against it."
Azzopardi adds that, instead of Codelco investing in its current risky, large-scale projects, the company should spend money on buying other peoples’ assets because the current prices for mining assets are so cheap.
"But perhaps they don’t have any money to do that either," he adds.
To save money Codelco has culled jobs. The majority of cuts have been from white collar and executive positions, with only limited job losses for blue collar workers who are protected by the powerful and influential unions.
However, there is a growing sense of unease amongst Codelco miners that their jobs could be cut next as the copper price remains low.
According to a March 2016 Codelco report, the company expects copper to be at a surplus until 2017, after which it anticipates that supply will struggle to reach demand.
"The forecast for copper price is expected to be weak until end 2018, at which time we hope to count with an average price at $3," says María Javiera Contreras, partner of EY and leader of Mining and Metals.
If Codelco was to fall on extremely hard times in the meantime, could the company rely on the government for a bailout?
Azzopardi says this scenario is most likely, but would be ‘difficult’.
"The reason people support Codelco is because it raises money for Chile, it pays for schools and hospitals, if they have to pay for the company then they [the public] would re-think the idea of public state ownership and perhaps be for opening up the company for foreign investment."
Tough road ahead for investments
Codelco’s representative says: "Currently, our cash cost is around $1.25, which still allow us to sustain our operations."
But even if the company can survive the low copper price its operations are being worn down and extra investment is vital.
"Even if the copper price picks up, Codelco is going to go through a stage where the end investment is going to bite into production so they might – there is talk – lose their position as the world’s number one copper producer, which will be a blow to their reputation," says Azzopardi.
"In regards to Chuquicamata," he adds, "There is going to be a shortfall at some point when the company stops mining overground and starts mining underground.
"It is going to take several years to go from zero production up to full capacity."
Previously, Codelco was looking to raise its total production up to two million tonnes before 2020, a figure that seems highly unlikely now, with an opposite trend a more realistic scenario.
Looking further into the future, Contreras has a more positive outlook for any mining company, including Codelco, which can stay afloat during the current commodities downturn now.
"Once the price goes up to an average of $3 and the industry has learnt to be as efficient as possible the margin will be attractive and will pay-off to those that were able to stay in the game."
However it may take a fall in production and a blow to the company and Chile’s pride before Codelco finds itself in this more favourable position. Only time will tell.