Exploration activity could be hit hard in 2020
The global COVID-19 pandemic could have far-reaching impacts on the mining exploration sector according to analysts from S&P Global Market Intelligence who said they expect to see financing slow as miners look to conserve capital amid falling industrial metal prices and in response to pandemic measures aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak.
"Exploration is going to get hit pretty hard in 2020," S&P Global Market Intelligence mining analyst Kevin Murphy said. "We all know that when companies go into cash preservation mode, one of the first things that gets reduced is exploration."
The economic effects of the pandemic continue to unfold but already some smaller explorers may be looking to curtail activity as travel bans have made fieldwork difficult to complete.
Peter Megaw, MAG Silver Corp. co-founder and chief exploration officer, told Market Intelligence that travel bans were having a significant impact on fieldwork and noted that many geologists were diverting focus to desktop work.
"So in the [turning] life's lemons into lemonade department, I'm taking this as an opportunity to revisit data, rethink observations, catch up on the literature and generate some new exploration ideas to pursue when we can come out again," Megaw said.
Murphy said Market Intelligence was working on revised 2020 exploration expectations, but it was clear that junior explorers will have a tough time raising cash to fund exploration programs during the crisis and that cash-flowing miners, especially in industrial metals such as copper, may look to slash operating costs. There are already some signs of mining companies muting expectations, dropping production guidance and cutting dividends in the face of pandemic-related uncertainty.
Smaller junior explorers will likely find it increasingly tough to source funds during the market turmoil with share prices down and investor appetite in financing opportunities shrinking, Murphy said. That will reduce the cash available for exploration.
The price of gold has fared well during the pandemic as investors turn to it as a safe haven. Christopher Galbraith, a mining analyst with Market Intelligence, said the smaller explorers focused on gold may be the first to rebound as the crisis dissipates and investors return to the market. "I think we're going to see gold explorers react to that much faster," Galbraith said.
Gold producers may face increasing costs in 2020, although the outlook remains uncertain, Galbraith said. A slew of miners in the gold sector and beyond have cut back production in response to the pandemic. Lower production and mine shutdowns could pinch margins, according to Galbraith, who described it as a wait-and-see situation. Another uncertainty facing the mining sector is how currency weaknesses in some countries may give miners a boost along with lower prices for oil, which is a significant input for many mining operations.
Market Intelligence had forecast exploration activity to rebound slightly in 2020. Exploration budgets for nonferrous metals declined to US$9.8 billion in 2019 from US$10.1 billion in 2018.