Finding the Next Oyu Tolgoi: All Eyes on Mongolian Copper

For too long the Mongolian mining story has focused on Rio Tinto and little else. Through its joint venture with the government, it will deliver the third largest copper mine in the world- a project that could contribute as much as 30% of the country’s GDP. With billions spent and committed, it’s little surprising minds have fixated on this project.

But recognizing the global significance of Oyu Tolgoi, should not obscure the wider prospects for copper, and the contribution Mongolia could make. If estimates are accurate, Mongolia has the thirteenth largest reserves in the world, with extraction still minimal. Until one year ago, only 10% of the Mongolian landmass was permitted for exploration. Even after doubling available land, there is much to be done to locate deposits.

If finding copper is complex, what is simpler to understand is why it matters. A report by the International Copper Association (ICA) in 2017, predicted a nine-fold increase in global demand by 2027, based on electrification of vehicles and the increased use of renewable energy. The most exciting developments of our times, need copper in abundance, and we’re running out of places to find it. South American nations benefit from climates that permit drilling all year around, but they suffer from large populations, making meaningful expansion challenging.

The climate in Chile, in particular, has become increasingly fraught in recent years. The 44-day strike at the Escondida mine raised serious concerns, and led to what many deemed to be an undesirable outcome for both employers and employees. This allied to pervasive allegations of corruption against many mine owners, has led some to question Chile’s ability to provide a supportive business environment. Mongolia, by contrast, has shown political resilience in recent years, a fact underscored by the confidence of global capital markets, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Historically Chile has been the world’s largest copper producer, and the largest company engaged in that market has been Codelco, owned by the government. With dwindling resources, miners are looking further afield, including Codelco itself. And when Codelco announced its first foray outside of Latin America, where did it choose? Mongolia. Like Rio, its army of geologists recognize that with hard work and perseverance, Mongolia presents one of the most exciting copper opportunities anywhere in the world.

Reuters recently published a fascinating article profiling some of the smaller players in Mongolia. A band of international mining companies and opportunistic investors in search of large copper reserves. Amongst these, Xanadu, listed in Australia, Kincora, in Toronto, and Wood Capital Partners from the US. After the collapse of the Mongolian economy, companies have bought distressed licenses and are ramping up drilling with the recovery in prices. As Reuters points out, CMCU3 copper prices are up to nearly US$7000 a tonne, from a cyclical low of $4,300. This seems unlikely to soften any time soon.

Nothing, though, is assured. Mining is a capital intensive business and to find the next big thing requires money. The gains, though, could be outsized. Who can forget Hunnu Coal’s IPO at A$20m before sale eighteen month later for A$500m? This is not to overstate the potential, but underscores the need for intelligent due diligence. What seems certain though, is that good prospects, are not likely to be overlooked for long as the market matures.

Mongolia has a unique topography and great geostrategic importance. Located between China and Russia, it is set to benefit from significant improvements to its infrastructure through Xi Jingping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ program. This will give it the tools to better exploit its resources, in a manner, an economy of its size could little afford. As prospectors and consumers seek the copper necessary to power the latest technologies, Mongolia may well have its day in the sun. Recent investment flows, however, show the field is filling, and competitors will fight hard to maintain their positions.