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Home » News » Analysis » Economic Aspects of the BCL Liquidation

Economic Aspects of the BCL Liquidation

Publishing Date : 08 November, 2016

Author : KEITH JEFFERIS | SETHUNYA SEJOE

The announcement in early October that BCL, Botswana’s major copper-nickel mining and smelting  operation, was to be placed in provisional liquidation came as a major shock to many people. In part the shock was due to the anticipated impact on Selebi-Phikwe, the town where BCL is located, and on the company’s employees and suppliers.

With around 5,000 workers, state-owned BCL is (was) the second-largest corporate employer in the country (after Debswana).

The shock was also due to surprise that the Government was willing to take this decision, which marks a major turnaround from previous approaches, despite the potential short-term political costs. Because of both of these factors, the closure of BCL is one of the most significant economic events to have taken place in Botswana in recent years. It has some parallels with the diamond market collapse at the time of the global financial crisis in 2008-10, but its impact may be longer lasting, in that BCL may never recover, at least not in its present form. In this feature, we explore the background to the collapse, its likely economic impact, and prospects for resolution.

History / Background
BCL Ltd was established following the discovery of copper in North-east Botswana in 1967. Originally named Bamangwato Concessions Ltd, it was established as a joint venture between two foreign investors – American Metal Climax (Amax) of the USA and Anglo American Corporation of South Africa - and the Botswana Government. The mine and the associated infrastructure developments of the Shashe Dam, rail, roads and the new township, were shortly after independence seen as the key to diversifying the economy away from the historical dependence on cattle and beef.  However, the project has never lived up to those early expectations.

From the beginning, it was plagued by technical problems and huge cost overruns, such that the capital cost of the mine and smelter was more than twice the initial estimates, and from the beginning BCL was burdened by high levels of debt. This was compounded by volatile metals prices in the 1970s, and the company struggled to make a profit ever since. A commentary in 1978 noted: “It seems likely that the mining operation will remain marginal: it will be able to meet its costs only when world metal prices are close to cyclical highs. More efficient management, however, could compensate for some of the high cost of operation. Most important in determining the future profitability of the mine is the world price of nickel”

In the event, the two private investors eventually exited from the project, at a considerable financial loss, leaving the Government with a 93% stake, and as the major source of finance for the company through loans and guarantees. The 1978 comment quoted above proved very prophetic. During the 2000s, when nickel prices spiked to record highs, BCL was profitable and accumulated considerable cash reserves. But apart from that period, the company has struggled to operate profitably, which continues to be the case. In recent years, BCL has been haemorrhaging cash, at an unsustainable rate.

BCL’s recent problems

BCL’s recent problems have been brought about by a combination of events that have put the company’s finances under further pressure and led to demands for injections of substantial additional capital from the shareholder, i.e. government.

Declining ore grades

BCL operates four shafts in two mines, at Selebi and Phikwe, with some very deep mining operations. Two of these shafts in particular have very low ore grades and cannot operate profitably. There has been a lack of investment in mining operations in recent years, i.e. in the company’s core business. Overall, BCL’s reserves were reported as containing 0.67% nickel and 0.87% copper in 2014.

Low commodity prices
Nickel and copper prices have weakened over the past five years, falling by around 50%. In real terms, the prices of the two metals are no higher now than they were in the early 1980s. Compared to the peak prices of $50,000/tonne for nickel and almost $9,000/tonne for copper in 2007-8, prior to the global financial crisis, prices had dropped to $8,500 and $4,500 for nickel and copper respectively in early 2016.

Questionable decision-making

BCL has been implementing a turnaround strategy over the past two years (Polaris II), which was intended to move the company on to a sustainable long-term path. However, it has not achieved this objective. In part this is because it allowed inefficiencies in the core mining and smelting operations to grow as management attention was distracted. Unrelated ventures such as steelmaking, and prospecting for iron ore and diamonds, proved to be a waste of time and money.

The Norilsk deal

An important component of the turnaround strategy was the 2014 agreement with the Russian firm Norilsk Nickel to buy its assets in Southern Africa, which Norilsk was seeking to sell. These included 7% of BCL itself; 85% of Tati Nickel Mining Company (TNMC) (the other 15% owned by the Government of Botswana); and 50% of the Nkomati Nickel mine in South Africa (the other 50% owned by JSE-listed African Rainbow Minerals).

The logic behind this deal was that it would secure flows of concentrate from TNMC and Nkomati for processing in the BCL smelter. This was important not just to bring in a new revenue stream but also to optimise the use of the smelter, which needs to operate on a continuous basis, but which has insufficient supplies of copper-nickel concentrate from BCL’s own mines. Of course, ownership of these companies is not necessary for concentrate supplies, and TNMC concentrate has been smelted by BCL for years. But the thinking was that ownership stakes in TNMC and Nkomati would make those supplies more secure.

It was agreed that BCL would pay US$337 million for these assets, approximately P3.5 billion. Our view at the time was, and remains, that the deal made sense from a business perspective, but only if BCL was not overpaying for the Norilsk assets. And of course, BCL had to find some way of raising the P3.5 billion necessary to pay for it. By August 2016, the various conditions precedent for the Norilsk deal to be completed had been fulfilled, notably permission from the South African government for the transfer of Nkomati shares from Norilsk to BCL. Hence the payment to Norilsk became due.
BCL’s financial crisis

By early 2016, the combination of declining ore grades, low metals prices, and an expensive smelter refurbishment – largely prompted by the need to accommodate the Nkomati concentrate – that interrupted production for many months, had depleted BCL finances. Indeed, in order to keep going, BCL had requested to defer mineral royalty payments to the Government, accumulating a debt of nearly half a billion Pula in the process. It had also depleted funds of over P1 billion that had been specifically put aside for end-of-life rehabilitation expenses.

Furthermore, it had borrowed USD100 million (almost P1.1 billion) from Barclays Bank, which was made available on the basis of a Government guarantee. It had also accumulated debts to suppliers. BCL had therefore accumulated debts of nearly P3 billion. On top of this, BCL needed to spend more money in order to stay in business. The acquisition of TNMC may have been at a low cost, but the company was in a parlous state. The operational Phoenix open cast pit near Francistown was approaching the end of its economic life. TNMC also owns the nearby Selkirk deposit, which had previously operated as an underground mine but had been mothballed since 2006.

TNMC intended to re-open the Selkirk mine as an open-cast operation, but this required considerable investment. And in both cases ore grades were low: in its last published report, Norilsk stated ore grades of 0.22% nickel and 0.18% copper at Phoenix, and 0.27% Ni/0.3% Cu at Selkirk. Despite mining at Selkirk being economically marginal, its development and re-opening was seen by BCL management as the mainstay of a restructured BCL, and crucial to securing a sustained concentrate flow to the BCL smelter.

BCL therefore required additional funds of at least P2 billion for expenditure on mining development at Selebi-Phikwe and TNMC. We understand that in total, BCL needed some P4.6 billion to clear existing debts and invest in production. And on top of that, with the completion of the conditions precedent for the Norilsk deal, that bill became due. It is not clear quite how much this amounted to. The original contract specified a price of US$337 million (P3.5 billion), but some reports say that this had been negotiated down substantially in view of the deteriorating values of copper and nickel deposits, or that Nkomati portion of the deal had been removed. But in total, BCL needed to raise somewhere between P5.5 billion and P7.5 billion to be put on a firm footing.

Where could this money come from? The company had already sought recapitalisation through a cash injection from the shareholder, which was declined. During 2015 the company had been canvassing the capital market to ascertain the appetite for a bond issuance of US$325 million (P3.5 billion). The response was that BCL itself was not credit-worthy, and that there would only be purchasers for the bond with a 100% government guarantee, and that even with this, the amount was far in excess of what the domestic market could absorb.

In view of BCL’s financial position, all of its funding would have to come from Government, through a mixture of direct finance (as a subvention to provide additional capital) and indirectly through guarantees. In the latter case, the proposed bond issue would virtually exhaust government’s ability to borrow or guarantee foreign currency debt, taking it up to the statutory ceiling of 20% of GDP, and restricting government’s ability to borrow externally for other projects. Any capital subvention or government lending to BCL would have to come directly from the budget.

With the Norilsk payment due imminently, a decision had to be made. BCL’s failure to pay Norilsk under the binding contract they had entered into would have most likely led to a petition to wind up the company and sell its assets to pay the debt. Given the many other demands on the budget, including from other parastatals such as BPC and WUC, as well as ongoing priority expenditures such as on anti-retroviral drugs, government decided that it could not afford to bail out BCL.

Rather than waiting for Norilsk or another creditor to initiate proceedings against BCL, government took a decision to enter voluntary provisional liquidation, which gave it a bit more control over the process and a possibility that BCL could be sold as a going concern. In some respects, the collapse of BCL should not be a surprise. It has long been known that eventually, BCL would close due to declining ore grades and rising production costs. And Botswana’s two other copper mines – Boseto near Maun and
Mowana near Dukwe – have both closed down in the past 18 months due to high costs and low metal prices.

Economic impact of closure

What is the economic impact of the BCL closure likely to be? The brief answer is, at a national, macroeconomic level – significant, but not too serious, but at a regional level, in north-east Botswana – a major, negative and potentially long-lasting impact.

GDP

In the first half of 2016, copper-nickel mining accounted for 2.4% of Botswana’s total economic output (GDP). The BCL closure will reduce GDP by this amount. If the mine remains closed, over a full year it would reduce GDP growth from an estimated 3.5-4% to 1.0-1.5% in terms of the direct impact, and perhaps to zero once indirect impacts are taken into account. This would be a one-off impact and would not necessarily reduce future growth.

Exports

In the first half of 2016, exports of copper-nickel amounted to P2.03 billion, or 4.5% of total goods exports. While copper-nickel used to be Botswana’s second largest export, after diamonds, this is no longer the case as it has been substantially overtaken by tourism. Although the loss of copper-nickel export earnings would harm the balance of payments, the impact can be accommodated given that in the first half of 2016 there was a total balance of trade surplus of P11.7 billion. Reduced copper–nickel exports would also be offset to some extend by reduced imports, particularly of electricity.

Employment

With just over 5,000 employees at BCL and Tati Nickel, this amounts to around 1.5% of total formal sector employment. Total monthly payroll of P68.7 million amounts to an estimated 3% of total wage income in Botswana.
Financial Sector


The Botswana banking system has substantial exposure to BCL group, to both the company and its employees, although there is no reliable figure for the total amount. Some of this is secured by a GoB guarantee, e.g. the loan of $100 million (approx. P1.07 billion) from Barclays. Of the remainder, some is secured against other assets, such as receivables or assets owned by employees including houses and vehicles.

It is likely that a proportion of the outstanding credit (apart from the Barclays loan) will not be recoverable. Although some of it will be secured, the banks are likely to be in the same queue as other creditors, and it is likely that a substantial proportion of this credit could be lost and hence written off. The impact of this on bank profits could be substantial. However, it is likely these losses can be absorbed by the banking system’s capital base without major disruption.

Regional impact
BCL/Tati is the largest single employer outside of government in north-east Botswana. Its closure will have a major impact on the households affected, both directly and indirectly. BCL/Tati employs just over 5,000 workers directly, and injects P68 million a month into the local and regional economy through wages. Therefore, in addition, some workers will be employed as a result of spending by BCL employees. There are no reliable figures available on the indirect, multiplier effect of such spending, although in general spending multipliers in Botswana tend to be quite small given the tendency to spend wages on imported items (vehicles, clothing, food etc.).

Nevertheless, it is probably reasonable to assume that an equal number of people would be employed nationally (not necessarily regionally) as a result of spending by BCL/Tati employees, hence an additional 5,000 jobs. Selebi-Phikwe and the surrounding region (Central-Bobonong) had a total of 35,000 households at the time of the 2011 population and housing census, and a total population of 121,000 of this, Selebi-Phikwe has 16,000 households and a population of 49,000. Hence BCL directly supports a substantial proportion of the households in Selebi-Phikwe and the surrounding region through employment – perhaps 15% of the total.

TNMC has a smaller, but still significant effect on the Francistown regional economy. Although there are no accurate figures, our estimate is that BCL is directly responsible for around 20% to 25% of spending by households in the region (although not all of this is spent locally).


The impact of the BCL liquidation/closure on the economy of Selebi-Phikwe and the surrounding region is therefore likely to be substantial, through the impact on employment and household spending. There will also be a smaller impact on the Francistown regional economy, both from the closure of TNMC and money that would previously have been spent by BCL employees in Francistown.

Beside the impact on household incomes and spending, and hence on the firms that supply goods and services to households in the region, there will also be an impact on the private sector through the BCL supply chain. Various entities are suppliers to BCL and Tati, including BPC (electricity), MCM (coal), BR (rail freight services) and road haulage firms. Other affected firms include those providing engineering and maintenance services, accommodation/hotels, vehicles, consumables etc.
There is no information readily available to estimate the magnitude of the impact on these suppliers.

However, in some cases it is no doubt a significant proportion of their business.
On a positive note, the closure of BCL will relieve pressure on the national electricity grid, and make it less likely that other consumers and business will experience load-shedding in future.

Options for the future

Many commentators have said that government should have made more effort to save BCL from liquidation, because of the impact on the 5,000 employees of BCL and TNMC, and the region more broadly. While government could, in principle, have contributed the necessary funds, should it have done so? As noted above, the total cost to government of bailing out BCL would be in the region of P5.5 – P7.5 billion. This is a large sum, equivalent to nearly half of annual government development spending. It is also equivalent to P11,000-P13,500 per household in Botswana. Perhaps most importantly, the rescue plan would have cost government between P1.1 million and P1.5 million per job saved at BCL and TNMC.

With this magnitude of funds required, it is not surprising that the government said, “enough”. BCL management have claimed that their turnaround plan would pay off eventually, and that some or all of the capital injection requested would be repaid. But this is based on some ambitious expectations for recovery in nickel prices, as well as confidence in their ability to successfully implement an extensive restructuring process. Of course nobody knows what level prices will be in the future, but various estimates are available, and these vary a great deal. If the most optimistic of the sources below is correct, then much of BCL’s production would be profitable by 2019. However, these are only forecasts.

The only actual price is the one from the futures market, i.e. the price that would be realised today for a contract to sell nickel at a specified date in the future. At present, the futures market is not pricing in a recovery, with the price only 1.8% higher in December 2019 than it is today.

Given that some of BCL’s Selibe-Phikwe deposits are close to exhaustion, the management’s turnaround plan also involved developing the Selkirk mine (near Francistown) as the main source of ore within the BCL group. It also involved renegotiating the contract with Norilsk to reverse the commitment to buy 50% of Nkomati, while keeping the agreement to buy the Botswana assets. At the same time, it required securing a long-term contract with Nkomati to process its ore in the BCL smelter. All of which entailed considerable risk.

Now that BCL is in provisional liquidation, one of the liquidator’s tasks is to try and find a buyer for BCL as a going concern. This will be challenging, but not impossible. If other mining companies share the optimistic view of future price rises for nickel, then it could be a worthwhile investment to take over BCL and TNMC. However, government may still have to write off some of the money it is owed, and it should not expect to receive any significant monetary value from any sale.

Somewhat ironically, the government had a chance to sell its stake in BCL back in 2006, when the previous owners of Tati Nickel, Lion Ore, wanted to buy BCL. Lion Ore was subsequently taken over by Norilsk. Whether BCL would have been in a different position in 2016 if this option had been pursued is impossible to know, but clearly it would have been much better for government to have sold out at a time of booming metals prices. One of the positive outcomes from the BCL saga is that government has finally made a choice about where it should devote its limited resources.

As we have been arguing for some time, government cannot continue to throw money at problems, and given the many demands on fiscal resources, choices are necessary about where money is best spent. Having made such a choice, the challenge now is to make sure that the spending decisions that it makes in future do indeed lead to money being well spent, and not wasted on unproductive projects. It will also be necessary to aggressively support private sector development in Selebi-Phikwe and the surrounding region, particularly by accelerating long-overdue regulatory reform and removing barriers to local and foreign investment.

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