Archive for March, 2009

ABB : Switzerlands Sleeping Giant

abb1Swiss power & automation specialist ABB is moving from strength to strength with the recent announcement of a €550m contract which integrates with a green power project in Ireland. Irish system operator Eirgrid, has ordered a transmission system using HVDC Light (high-voltage direct current), an ABB technology with environmental benefits that include neutral electromagnetic fields, oil-free cables, low electrical losses, and compact converter stations. The solution will allow Ireland to expand wind power generation & via the new link, will enable it to import power from the UK as needed & to export power when it generates a surplus.

“We are delighted to partner Eirgrid for this project,” said Peter Leupp, head of ABB’s Power Systems division. “ABB’s HVDC Light technology will enhance the stability of both the Irish and U.K transmission grids, and also expand capacity for the use of renewable power.”

For those not in the know, ABB Ltd, is a global leader in power and automation technologies, enabling customers to improve performance while lowering potential environmental impact. The company has operations in 87 countries globally & currently carries a workforce of approximately 110,000 employees, delivering complex power projects into logistics, energy, industry & utility sectors.

This is just the latest in a string of deals that ABB (NYSE : ABB) has managed to pull together in the face of the turmoil in global markets. Looking at ABB’s press release pages, it is apparent that the company has capitalised on its almost unique position as a global player in its field. In 2009 alone, ABB has so far announced in the region of $2.3bn in new contracts, a strong performance in these troubled times. Referring to ABBs annual report (a weighty 7.4Mb file) from 2008, revenues rose 20 percent to a record $34.9bn as the company continued to drive growth & also managed to deliver on its strong order backlog, more on that later. Earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) reached $4.6bn, with the company recording it’s second highest net income statement in its history, even after provisions taken in the fourth quarter, which saw the order book drop by 60% on 2007 Q4 earnings. Admirable stuff. Even more admirable is the fact that ABB exited 2008 with an order backlog in the region of $24bn, which is a huge cushion to take it through the troubled waters of 2009.

ABB is not however resting on its laurels, under the new management team of CEO Joe Hogan (recent head of GE’s Healthcare division), has reacted to the global shift, as ABB business is pretty much tied to GDP of the countries it operates in, Hogan has instigated a cost reduction plan that should pair costs by as much as $1.3Bn per annum. The company has recognised that its orders are down in Europe, as industrial & construction demand has dramatically slowed. Also in Asia, ABB has suffered, mainly due to the fact that the explosive growth in the region in 2007 could not be offset in 2008.

One area that I am sure ABB will be focusing on is Emerging Markets, which will need to continue expanding their power grids for years to come, while mature economies in North America and Europe will only look to smaller upgrades to legacy platforms. This can already be seen in recent wins in Mozambique, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi & South Africa. The company is also looking into how it may capitalise on the fact that countries must tackle climate change, if they are to continue to grow their GDP & satisfy growing consumer demand for greener technologies.

I feel that ABB is under recognised by the markets & looking at the ADR’s performance against the criteria above, can only come to the conclusion that it is severely undervalued at todays price of $13.50, having reached a 52 week low of $9.11. Past shrewd management of assets, coupled with a typically Swiss style of quietly acquiring smaller companies to either subsume competition or add to its technology base make ABB a winner for me. To that end, I instigated a buy on the ADR yesterday & am setting a target price of $25 by Q3 of 2009. I am also of the opinion that ABB will profit from some of the new energy projects that have been announced & which I have previously commented upon on MyStockVoice, particularly in the Brazilian Petrobras (NYSE : PBR) & the West African Total (NYSE : TOT) projects.

Chile leads the way for South American ETFs

london-metal-exchangeWhilst suffering from shrinking export markets, led by the all important 20% supply of global copper, a shrinking economy & climbing unemployment; Chile continues to buck global trends, with ratings agency, Moody’s Investors Service making it the first investment- grade country to be awarded a higher credit rating this year. The South American country’s $22 billion of savings in wealth funds has put it in a position to recover more quickly from the global credit crisis than other, similarly rated nations, Moody’s said yesterday in raising Chile’s foreign debt to A1 from A2 with a positive outlook.

This has been the result of a canny economic long game by President Michelle Bachelet, while near neighbours have splashed out on the commodities boom over the last decade, Chile has followed a prudent path of pumping  profits from state owned copper giant Codelco into soverign funds, providing the nation with a $22Bn cushion against global turmoil. That cushion is equal to roughly 13% of Chile’s GDP ($154Bn), so Chile looks as thought it should weather the storms of 2009 quite nicely.

“Nobody else compares with Chile,” Moody’s analyst Mauro Leos said in a phone interview from New York. “Like everywhere else, they’re getting hit hard. But because of the work they did ahead of time, they can go from a 5 percent surplus to a 5 percent deficit without any additional borrowing.”

Also helping is the price of copper on global markets, which is on a slow uptick, & an expectation that China’s economic recovery package will drive demand for the metal towards the end of 2009, this is reflected in current long term copper contracts on the London Metal Exchange. Central government has acted promptly, with Bachelet committed to a $19.5Bn package incorporating tax cuts & subsidies that should help stymie economic contraction. Even with copper prices at all time lows, economists think that Chile can still exit the current crisis without hitting recession.

Codelco announced its full year results earlier this month, generating a pre-tax profit of $4.968 Bn to December 2008, it is estimated that Codelco has provided an average of $7.5Bn per annum in revenues for the last 4 years. This follows Fitch rating $600M of the company’s debt as “A” back in January.

According to Fitch : “The company had USD 4.6 billion of total debt, of which USD 1.3 billion was classified as short-term. Codelco has adequate liquidity, backed by a track record of accessing debt in the local and international markets and a well-diversified debt maturity profile. Short-term debt is expected to be refinanced through a combination of the 2019 notes, bank loans from undrawn facilities and cash flow from operations.”

Chile’s banking sector is also helping stem the flow, business loans grew sharply in January, despite a deep economic slowdown amid the financial crisis, the country’s superintendent of banks said on Monday. Gustavo Arriagada told lawmakers that loans continued to grow, though at a slower pace, as Chilean banks, in counterpoint to their Western counterparts pass on a series of aggressive from the central bank to customers

“Although we have seen tighter credit conditions in the last few months and a fall in requests for credit, that is due to factors like an increase in risk and worsening of employment conditions and client income,” Arriagada said in his presentation.

This has led analysts to rethink their strategy regards South America, the single country ETF –  iShares MSCI Chile Investable Index : (NYSE : ECH) has seen some good buying activity of late, even if there is a 15% weighting towards Codelco within this product. ECH managed to add 5% over the last five days, with a huge spike in trading in yesterdays surge on the US markets. Along with Brazil / EWZ & Mexico /EWW, it looks as though Chile could be an interesting mid to long term long within the country specific ETFs.

South America : Copper cartel on the horizon ?

blackboard_copper22With global copper prices sinking from a 2008 high of $4 per lb, down to todays miserly, $1.25 per lb, it is hardly surprising that the two major copper producing countries in South America are looking at ways to buoy up their operations. Last week, Peruvian president Alan Garcia dropped some strong hints that Peru & Chile should coordinate on copper production , in order to achieve greater control of prices on international markets.

“I believe that as countries with a strong mining presence in the world we must work in a joint manner, because when brotherly countries produce and compete with the same metal, the only thing we achieve is a fall in the price of copper, and we are both losers”, said Garcia

Demand growth in China, the world’s largest user of the metal used in plumbing and wiring, slowed to an estimated 9.8 percent in 2008 from 26 percent in 2007. Freeport-McMoran amongst others has shelved projects including a $450 million expansion at its Chilean copper mine El Abra. Freeport owns 51 percent of the mine and Codelco the remainder. The decline cut net income at Chile’s state-run Codelco, the world’s top copper miner, by nearly half to $4.5 billion in 2008.

In December, Jose Pablo Arrelano, CEO of Codelco stated copper prices will be “depressed” next year and demand almost “stagnant” as the international economic crisis leads to higher stockpiles of the metal. This will undoubtedly hurt other players in the commodities market, including BHP Billiton (NYSE – BBL) & Freeport McMoran (NYSE – FCX), Freeport McMoran have made some inroads to looking at the problem, the board announced in early December ,a  Revised Operating Plan in Response to Weak Market Conditions. Which is basically a slow down in extraction & refining in both its North & South American operations.

In Chile & Peru, copper extraction looks like a loss leader at the moment, in aggregate across all units, costs in 2009 are predicted to range from between $0.85 – $1.45 per pound. BHP have similarly looked at cutbacks regards copper extraction, the world’s biggest mining company, has delayed plans for an energy plant in Chile that it planned to build to supply two of its existing copper mines.

As discussed in an earlier post, Aussie-Canuck operator Equinox opened the largest copper mine in Africa last year, at Lumwana in Zambia, which when it comes fully online in early 2009, will be churning out 172,000 tonnes of high yield concentrate per year, which can only bring about additional competition for Codelco, BHP & Freeport, especially as Equinox has hedged production at $2.00 for the first three years of operation at Lumwana & have an estimated existing extraction cost of $0.80.

Chile may be able to weather the storm as Otto at Inka Cola puts forth in this article, the country has one of the highest per capita reserves in South America, totalling $26.49Bn, he further argues that Chile has an additional  $23Bn “tucked away in overseas accounts to call on.” Which is a considerable cushion to see out 2009, as Codelco & Arrelano await  global copper demand to turn positive in 2010.

Peru on the other hand does not look as if it will fare so well, although looking at Otto’s chart, they have a reasonable level of foreign reserves, the Andean nation is beset by rising unempolyment & a lack of foreign investment. Peru’s largest miner Southern Copper (NYSE – PCU) posted  a $125 million net loss in the fourth quarter, compared with a $311 million profit in the year-ago period, due to demand destruction. It is estimated that more than 9,000 miners have been laid off in Peru, whilst new projects have been suspended, including Southern Copper‘s plan to invest $1 billion in the Tia Maria mine. These cutbacks have already helped slow Peru’s growth rate to a projected 5% in January.

The question is, will Garcia’s plan, if it comes to fruition be timely enough ? We have seen how long it has taken OPEC production cuts to start to have an effect on the market price of crude. Of more concern for Garcia will be the new productive mines being opened in Zambia by Equinox at Lumwana & also the the Chinese backed Chambishi mine, which is operated by China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation (CNMC). The expected copper ore output is one million tons per annum, with a projected service life of 25 years. China has also embarked on an acquisition spree of late, which had also brought it interests in Australian miners such as Rio Tinto. Garcia will also have to play a careful game, as China is estimated to have committed to investing over $6 billion in Peru’s mining sector over the next five years. Politics come into play of course & the Chinese are expert in this field, my gut is that production cuts will come, although China will no doubt be exempt from any surging price changes in the near future.

My feel is that the copper mining stocks will remain low for a good time to come, much has been made of the Chinese stimulus bill, however, there is no guarantee that this will come to fruition any time soon, as & when it does kick in, China will be adequately supplied by its current investments in South America & Africa, as discussed in this piece. I am however, a little more bullish on the mining sector in general & have just initiated a position in the S&P Metals & Mining Index (ETF –  XME ,) which looks as though it may be building momentum for a bullish 2009.

Venezuela : Chavez returning to dirty tricks ?

hugo-chavez-venezuela1For the last 4 years, soaring worldwide oil prices and 9% growth rates have underpinned President Chavez’s generous social programs & his (none too successful) campaign to build an international anti-American alliance. The oil windfall saw the socialist government of Venezuela threaten to divert oil exports from the US to competitors in China and India, even though the Asian markets would be costlier to serve. Currently 60% of Venezuela’s production goes to the States.

As if Venezuela were not doing well enough, the government then imposed crippling tax increases & royalties on the IOCs (International Oil Companies) working there. Snapping up majority shares in oil-producing joint ventures & effectively forcing the multinationals to either take smaller roles or leave Venezuela. Now with oil revenues failing due to lack of demand on global markets, Chavez looks as though he is turning his attention to agriculture.

Chavez is hugely popular with Venezuela’s poor due to his heavy spending on social services, however,  continued investment in social programmes is not sustainable with the crash in oil prices. Oil accounts for 94 percent of Venezuela’s exports and about half of the national budget. Chavez decided on Wednesday (04/03/09) to take over at least one rice plant owned by Cargill Inc, the largest U.S. agricultural company, extending his grip on food producers as the government seeks to slow inflation.

“We’re going to continue to tighten the screws,” Chavez said during a cabinet meeting that was broadcast on Venezuelan state television. “Begin the process of expropriating Cargill. This is a flagrant violation.”

Chavez, has also threatened to seize all plants run by Empresas Polar SA, Venezuela’s biggest privately owned company, in his push to increase state control of the economy. Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in Latin America, and food prices rose 43.7 percent in January from a year earlier. Over the last four years, following Chavez’s re-election as president, Venezuela has increasingly moved to a government-run economy, announcing takeovers in the electricity, cement, telecommunications and now food production industries.

In the 1990s, Venezuela offered discounted taxes and royalties to entice IOCs such as BP, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil & Total to develop the Orinoco basin deposits. The Orinoco Belt holds over 1.2 trillion barrels of extra-heavy oil which is refined locally. Previous estimates claim that the Orinoco Belt may contain more than 250 bn barrels of recoverable synthetic crude, making Venezuela potentially the biggest source of oil in the world, topping Saudi Arabia. Following more than $16 bn of direct investment, four international “strategic alliances” began producing synthetic crude in 2001. Production now totals about 600,000 barrels a day, roughly one-quarter of Venezuela’s total output.

In May 2007, Chavez announced the nationalisation of oil assets in the Orinoco belt, prompting Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips to pull out of the country and seek international arbitration. Total remained & is still attempting to work under tough government constraints, which saw its stake in the Sincor project reduced from 47% to 30%. Massive revenues generated by high oil prices have managed to mask years of economic mismanagement. Currently, inflation stands at 35%, capital is fleeing the country & unemployment is rampant. Continued rhetoric about revolution, socialism and expropriation has caused foreign investment, which is vital to the oil industry, to dry up. Venezuela’s private sector recorded zero growth in 2008, according to the central bank.

Back to today & a reliance on his populist support seems to have forced, Chavez to maintain his 2007 pledge that the government would secure supplies of basic food staples, as the country experienced widespread shortages of milk, beans and rice. Chavez issued a raft of  decrees last year, increasing government control over food storage and distribution and allowing the state to jail company owners for hoarding. This week, he set new production quotas for food makers to boost supply of price- controlled foods. The Cargill seizure follows troops being deployed in rice plants across the country, in a blaze of publicity, claiming that private owned companies are hoarding rice stocks in order to manipulate prices.

“Cargill is committed to the production of food in Venezuela that complies with all laws and regulations,” Mark Klein, a spokesman for the Minnetonka, Minnesota-based company, said by email late yesterday. “Cargill expects the opportunity to clarify the situation with the government and is respectful of the Venezuelan government decision.”

Chavez hasn’t specified whether the Cargill expropriation order would apply to all of the company’s plants in Venezuela. According to Cargill’s Web site, it has operated in Venezuela since 1986, and runs 13 plants that produce foods including rice, pasta, flour and juice.

Meanwhile, Venezuela is courting Asian countries for FDI for future growth in the oil indusry, recently China & Venezuela announced a $12B pact for a JV in the Orinoco belt, part of China’s ongoing spree of buying into national projects. Vietnam via its state owned oil company PetroVietnam has also entered into a JV with Petrolos de Venezuela, where the expecation is to extract 200,000 barrels per day for export to Vietnamese refineries, as previously discussed. This follows inconclusive talks with neighbour Brazil regarding an accord with Petrobras, whcih would have seen the Brailian giant investing 40% into the construction of a $4Bn / 200,000 barrel a day refining operation.

With this latest bout of  “nationalisation”, Venezuela is surely set to lose more friends in the West & also on its doorstep. Chavez has been pouring billions into local economies to shore up Latin American support for his Bolivista government, but now the revenues have dried up, he is seen as a political blusterer.  It is clear that Asian nations starved of natural resources will make deals at favourable rates right now whilst oil prices are in a slump, however, it will be interesting to see which rabbit Chavez will pull out of the hat when oil goes back over $70 a barrel.