By Jason Simpkins
While the rest of the world is grappling with the global slowdown, China is figuring out ways to exploit it.
Over the past few months, China has capitalized on the financial turmoil that has paralyzed the world's "developed" economies by stocking up on cheap commodities, weeding out competition to its largest state-run companies, and acquiring even more foreign assets.
Indeed, with China's economic growth projected at an enviable 8% for this year, that country's government has been able to spend less time promoting immediate growth and liquidity, and more time preparing for the economic renaissance that almost certainly seems to be the Asian giant's destiny.
By exposing Western free-market capitalism, undermining the United States economic clout, and eviscerating commodities prices, the financial crisis has offered China the perfect opportunity to advance its domestic agenda.
That agenda begins with the recently unveiled $586 billion stimulus plan - a plan primarily focused on infrastructure.
China's financial institutions have little or no exposure to the toxic subprime assets that spawned this current global crisis. So instead of having to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out its banks, China can choose develop the stage on which it will display its future economic might.
But efore its plans for a massive infrastructure overhaul can be realized, China must first load up on the raw materials crucial to its execution.
With Prices Down, China's Stocking Up
Prices for commodities like aluminum, copper, iron ore and oil are all down substantially from last year as the global financial crisis has torpedoed demand. And now that prices have gone down, China's commodities stockpiles are going up.
Imports of copper, iron ore, and oil all rose in December, as China took advantage of low commodities prices:
- Iron ore imports were up 6.2% in December, on a year-over-year basis.
- Copper imports were up 19.3%.
- And imports of crude oil climbed 11.6%.
"The authorities are thinking about the issue from a strategic point of view," a senior researcher at China's State Reserve Bureau (SRB) told Reuters. "As almost all raw material prices went sky-high in the last few years, China has not built up some of the key state reserves. Now is a much better time to stock up."
The government announced last month that it would purchase of 290,000 metric tons of aluminum from eight of the nation's largest smelters at about $1,806 a ton. And on Jan. 13, representatives from the SRB again met with domestic smelters, this time to discuss plans to build a stockpile of up to 300,000 tons of zinc - a metal used in galvanized steel.
A 300,000-ton zinc reserve could cost about $494 million (3.36 billion yuan), based on recent spot prices of $1,630-$1,640 a metric ton, as quoted on the Shanghai Nonferrous Metals Market.
Market participants speculate that the government is also mulling a 200,000-ton copper reserve, now that prices for that metal have tumbled more than 50% from a record $8,940 a metric ton last year.
"China will buy copper for its reserves," SRB Executive Director and Vice President Wang Chiwei said at a conference in Shanghai.
Prices right now are "attractive," Wang added, noting that purchases would "suit national interests."
Chinese copper demand is expected to grow moderately in 2009, despite the global downturn. Officials expect growth of just over 2% next year, but Barclays Capital (ADR: BCS) analyst Yingxi Yu told Forbes that demand growth could be closer to 3.5%.
The SRB may increase stockpiles of copper by as much as 74% in the next two years, Scotia Capital Inc. predicted in October.
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China Digs for Bargains Down Under
Of course, China's recent drive for raw materials is only half the story.
China is already home to the world's largest population; now it is on the fast track to passing Japan as the world's second-largest economy. Access to resources will continue to be a priority in Beijing for decades to come, even long after the $586 billion stimulus plan is forgotten.
That's why China isn't just using the global financial crisis as an opportunity to stock up on raw materials, it's also loading up on foreign companies and assets while it is flush with foreign reserves. And while prices are cheap.
As they struggle with sluggish demand and falling commodities prices, many distressed foreign mining companies and materials suppliers have suddenly found themselves with a generous foreign backer.
In December, China's third-largest zinc producer, Zhongjin, bought a 50.1% stake in Australian zinc miner Perilya Ltd. for $32 million.
Perilya has found "a strong and well-funded strategic partner committed to the long-term development of Perilya's assets," the Perth-based miner said in a statement. The deal included an initial cash deposit of $6.5 million.
Perilya's deal followed that of Albidon Ltd., which started producing nickel in Zambia just as nickel prices crashed. Albidon raised $5 million from China's Jinchuan Group, Asia's largest nickel producer and a shareholder that now owns 18% of the West Perth-based Albidon. But more importantly, Jinchuan will take 100% of the nickel the Zambian mine produces over the rest of its life.
State-owned companies like Zhongjin and Jinchuan have access to China's massive cache of foreign exchange reserves, which allows them to make acquisitions at a time when few other companies have the resources to facilitate a merger. And while China has focused much of its attention on undeveloped mining assets in Africa, the current financial crisis has opened the door to a wider range of takeover possibilities.
"The Chinese realize there are massive opportunities in the market," Keith Spence, president of Global Mining Corp. (OTC: GBGD), told The Financial Times. "A year ago, they were going to Africa to acquire early-stage development assets. But now they are looking for larger tonnage, longer life, later-stage assets. There is less of an emphasis on emerging markets, because now there is choice."
So far, Australia has been the country most often targeted by China for strategic investments.
Australia's Centrex Metals Ltd., Mount Gibson Iron Ltd., Gindalbie Metals, and Grange Resources Ltd. have all struck deals with Chinese companies in the past year, The Australian reported.
- Centrex Metals sold a 50% interest in two magnetite deposits to Wuhan Iron & Steel Co. Ltd., China's third-largest steelmaker for $180 million.
- Mount Gibson Iron brokered a rights issue and share placement to Chinese interests, with two major companies taking a stake of as much as 40% in the miner, while also securing discounted off-take agreements.
- Angang Steel Co. Ltd., also known as AnSteel, China's second-largest steelmaker, paid $162.1 million to boost its stake in Gindalbie Metals from 12.6% to 36.28%.
- And Grange Resources is currently set to merge with Australian Bulk Minerals, which is majority-owned by a Chinese steelmaker.
Peter Vaughan, a partner at Blake Dawson, a Melbourne-based law firm, told The Australian that major Chinese steel mills kicked off a "wave of investment" in Australia from early 2000 - when China's global economic clout began first started to build. Vaughan said this trend will continue deep into the current year as depressed asset valuations stack the deck in China's favor.
"China is now in a much stronger bargaining position than they have been in the last few years," Vaughan said. "Conditions have previously been in the producer's favor, but demand drops and the tables turn. The Australian resources sector is now a lot cheaper to place an investment in."
Denis Gately, head of the resources and energy industry group at Minter Ellison, one of the largest law firms in the Asia-Pacific region, agreed that Chinese enterprises are among the few that have the wherewithal to acquire prized foreign assets.
"They have recognized they are the only people in that position and will likely wait until prices fall further south," Gately said. "The Chinese have an enormous amount of clout as the only potential buyers."
In addition to building stakes in smaller miners, Chinese companies will be using that clout to build upon stakes in larger mining giants, which every bit as desperate for cash as their smaller counterparts.
Aluminum Corp. of China (ADR: ACH), or Chinalco, for instance has authorized a special team of analysts to watch for an opportunity to increase its stake in Rio Tinto PLC (ADR: RTP) to the maximum 14.99% allowed by the Australian government.
"We have a special team monitoring Rio Tinto's performance and market movements in real time and will evaluate the best timing to do the stake increase," Youqing Lu, the vice president of Chinalco, told dealReporter. Chinalco teamed with Alco last year to acquire a 12% stake in the mining company.
Chinalco is one of ten Chinese companies considering further overseas mergers and acquisitions, Xinhua, China's official news agency reported.
"The crisis presents a rare opportunity for our domestic companies to initiate cooperation with foreign enterprises," Xiao Yaqing, Chinalco general manager told Xinhua. "When the time is ripe, overseas acquisitions, strategic investments and joint development could all be considered."
Canada to Profit From 'China's New Deal'
There is no question that, given its proximity to the Chinese mainland, Australia will continue to play a vital role in quenching China's thirst for commodities. But on the other side of the globe, junior mining companies and exploration firms in Canada are hoping to attract prized Chinese investors.
In fact, the Canada China Business Council (CCBC), Canada's most influential organization in terms of influencing Canada-China trade relations, recently released a report detailing ways Canadian businesses can profit from China's recent infrastructure initiatives.
The report, entitled "China's New Deal: Will Canada Benefit From China's RMB 14 Trillion Stimulus Package," was released earlier this month. The study details China's stimulus-spending plan, and outlines areas in which Canadian companies can support Chinese development by providing resources and technology.
"As one of the world's leading resource exporters, Canada will definitely benefit indirectly from the Chinese stimulus plan," the Jan. 9 report said. "As well as energy, other resources such as wood, steel, nickel, copper and aluminum will be in demand. There also will be collateral benefit for Canadian transportation companies and the ports authorities."
It hasn't taken Canadian companies long to heed the report's message, or its wisdom.
Earlier this week, for instance, China's Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group took a 13% stake in Canada Zinc Metals Corp.
Prior to that, China Mining Resources Group Ltd. announced that it would increase its stake in Canada's Quadra Mining Ltd. from the current 4.02% to a maximum of 19.9%.
D'Arianne Resources Inc. (PINK: DARUF), a Canadian exploration company, could be next to announce a deal with Chinese partners, as it recently reported strong results from its Lac a Paul phosphorous-titanium property.
"As of today, the very encouraging results coming from this first serious exploration campaign on the Lac a Paul project combined with the interest showed by foreign companies during our visit in China, undeniably confirm the potential of our phosphorous project," D'Arianne Resources said in a statement.
Finally, Canada has the largest-and highest-quality uranium reserves in the world, making it the ideal partner in China's quest to develop clean reliable energy.
Delta Uranium Inc. (PINK: DLTUF), engaged in the acquisition, evaluation and exploration of uranium in Ontario and Newfoundland, could also be high on Beijing's target list.
More than 40 developing countries have recently approached United Nations officials to express interest in starting nuclear power programs. And China alone is planning to build 30 new plants in the next 15 years - a venture that will consume an estimated $50 billion in capital. All told, the country may require as many as 200 plants by 2050.
As with Australia, depressed commodities prices have opened the door to investment in major mining corporations, as well as in juniors in the Canadian market. That means the Saskatoon-based Cameco Corp. (CCJ), the world's largest uranium producer, could also be in line for a large capital infusion.
"If I'm China Inc., and I have $10 billion, would I buy 60% of Xstrata (PINK: XSRAF), or a lot of reserves out in the middle of nowhere?" Kalaa Mpinga, chief executive of Mwana Africa PLC, a London-listed junior, told The Financial Times. "If I had all these billions, I would do this: Buy 15% of Anglo-American PLC (ADR: AAUK) and get a seat on the board."
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