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Mining Services; a crowded trade?

Mining Services; a crowded trade?

We have been prattling on about the value in mining services businesses for a long time and I am sure you are familiar with names like Forge, Decmil and Maca. What concerns me a little is that these names are now familiar not only to the few that read this blog and keep up to date on my facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/montgomeryroger but also to just about every broker with an analyst team.  There are now analysts solely dedicated to mining services and if the widely expected M&A/IPO wave hits later in the year, I wonder whether it won’t be full of mining services contractors.

Make no mistake, on the one hand there appears to be some real value in this sector.  On the other, these businesses suffer from the ‘feast or famine’ syndrome, require a mining boom to be able to generate a sufficient rate of return to cover their cost of capital (and therefore increase there intrinsic value) and finally, their operating leverage ensures that any turn down in activity will have a significant impact on EBIT, EBITDA cash flow etc…

One to keep a close eye on…

I was interviewed on CNBC about this very subject and you can watch the video here.

What do you think?  Do you own any of the mining services companies?  Can the high rates of return on equity be maintained?  What do you think Australia’s future looks like in the event the mining boom ends?

Posted by Roger Montgomery, Value.able author, Skaffold Chairman and Fund Manager, 3 April 2012.


Roger Montgomery is the Founder and Chairman of Montgomery Investment Management. Roger has over three decades of experience in funds management and related activities, including equities analysis, equity and derivatives strategy, trading and stockbroking. Prior to establishing Montgomery, Roger held positions at Ord Minnett Jardine Fleming, BT (Australia) Limited and Merrill Lynch.

This post was contributed by a representative of Montgomery Investment Management Pty Limited (AFSL No. 354564). The principal purpose of this post is to provide factual information and not provide financial product advice. Additionally, the information provided is not intended to provide any recommendation or opinion about any financial product. Any commentary and statements of opinion however may contain general advice only that is prepared without taking into account your personal objectives, financial circumstances or needs. Because of this, before acting on any of the information provided, you should always consider its appropriateness in light of your personal objectives, financial circumstances and needs and should consider seeking independent advice from a financial advisor if necessary before making any decisions. This post specifically excludes personal advice.

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  1. Australia’s future is in serious doubt when and if the mining boom ends. We need to ramp up intensive agriculture (food production), water and overseas ownership as the key issues

  2. Kent Bermingham

    Roger or fellow bloggers can you please assist.
    All appear to have a rising Intrinsic Value based on Analysts forecasts.
    The question is the ” Analyst forecast”, over the many years that you have worked with Analysts how reliable have you found them to be.
    I wonder that some of them may be too close to other benefactors and may use forecasts to bolster their own positions or am I being too cautious?
    I use Etrade forecasts , should I be using several other to check the cjhecker!


    • Steve Moriarty

      Hi Kent,

      I hold ILU – I bought them late November. I bought them because I think the fundamental supply/demand dynamic is very strong and realistic over the longer term (3 to 5 years). Their materials are critical for nuclear energy plants and high temp ceramics among other things. I think nuclear is going to play a very large role in global energy demand over the future thanks to Greenhouse etc and these types of high temp or technology metals will become more and more critical and will also take on a growing strategic importance. There is a large and growing demand for their products in the building industry as well particularly for export markets like China etc. Prices for their products have increased significantly (although recently cooled off) and usually I am wary of this, but I believe they still have rises left in them due to demand. The company appears to be very upfront with shareholders. I have not taken much notice of the analysts projects because I think they get it wrong more than they get it right but I have taken into consideration the forward values on Skaffold. I think the longer term demand is solid and while there might be some ups and downs I think it is a good investment (yes he would say that wouldn’t he!). The cash flow increases are significant and the balance sheet is very strong. I believe they could withstand a wide range of negative events.

      As an aside – Alkane (ALK) another company I hold has a MOU for 100% of their zirconium output which is due to start in 2014. This is a positive indicator I believe.

      ANZ has now moved into Asia and I believe like the others before them they will find the going tough. Same as NAB. Every time Australian banks go overseas they find out that they competitive advantage is local – thanks to the banking regulations and the general nature of the industry. Bruce Greenwald discusses this in his Competition Demystified and I think it is applicable to our banks. Having said that, they have been among the best investments over the past 10 and 20 years and given the dividend they are, I think a safe haven for a long term investment.


    • I take all projections of future EPS and other metrics with a pinch of salt, especially if no reasoning is given. The only stock on which I feel qualified to comment is TGA, but I’ll not do so now because the annual report for YE 30/03/2012 should be published on 22 May, and I intend to re-analyse my future years’ metrics soon thereafter.

      The forecasts made by Macquarie recently are, I believe, too pessimistic, but to give Macquarie credit, the review provided a basis for the pessimism. I suspect Macquarie has not allowed for TGA’s management to come up with new lines to replace some of the losing-their-gloss traditional lines (electronic devices, particularly – i.e., PCs, laptops, flat screens). The relatively new line of furniture items is doing well, and a recent shop visit informed me that relatively new lines are now under trial – mainly outdoor furniture and nursery items (cots, car seats and the like).

    • My experience is that the comsec ones can be a tad on the optimistic side at the start of the year at least anyway and as the year goes on and more information comes out they tend to get a bit closer to reality.

      Another thing to look out is that sometimes their implied payout ratios are far from reality. I have once seen Oroton have a forcast payout ratio around 50% or maybe even less (i think using these inputs you ended up getting a valuation for Oroton of around $20 a share and the current price was around $8 or $9). The years preceeding this however, had a pay out ratio around 80%+ and i could even find a quote from the CEO saying this is unlikely to change.

      I think they can be a good ball park guide, especially in between profit announcements and forecasts but they do need a bit of grain of salt to be taken with them and you will still need to use an element of independent thought and make revisions.

      • As a matter of routine I use the same metrics as Comsec has, except I access them via Westpac – both organisations and other parties source the metrics from Morning Star. However, these metrics can be wrong, and/or misleading. For example, up until only weeks ago, the revenue for TGA was understated for YE 30/03/2011.

        Further, what may be correct can be misleading. TGA borrowed circa $30 million for a few months to acquire NMCL, and hence it had a 39.7% debt/equity ratio as at 31/12/2011. Although this has long since been corrected via a capital raising, if you look at the Morning Star metrics you will see the debt/equity ratio as 39.7%, not the circa 8% that has been the case for many months. This might make you to perceive the risk as high, and hence occasion a higher RRR, and hence a lower IV.

        Similarly, the EPS for YE 30/03/2007 is shown as 11.5 cents (based on 25,000,000 shares before the float, whereas the company floated in December 2006 and added an additional 112,850,000 shares. If you divided the profit by the post-float share number, you get 5.05 cents, and hence in my opinion TGA did not suffer a profitability reversal in YE 30/03/2008 as some reviews, and Skaffold, suggest. Again, the perceived wobbliness in earnings a few years ago may detract from the value of the IV via a higher RRR.

        I have just looked at the Morning Star metrics. EPS for the five years ending 30/03/2011, and they are given as: 11.5, 8.3, 9.4, 14.9 and 16.7. The 11.5 cents is a basic EPS based on misleading share numbers, as mentioned earlier. The 16.7 cents for 30/03/2011 is a diluted EPS, but the annual report gives the diluted EPS as 16.86 cents, and the year before as 15.06. I am unsure why Morning Star has slightly lower EPS numbers. Skaffold’s metrics are similar to the Morning Star metrics, but they are rounded to one less decimal place.

        Now you know why I regard published metrics with a jaundiced eye. I am paring back the number of stock I hold to give myself the incentive to do the independent research.

  3. I am negative about mining, and it has little to do with China – rather, it has to do with Australian politicians and their fellow travellers, the trade unions, who collectively either see mining as the goose whose golden eggs should be pillaged, or as the embodiment of all that is evil if they are on the Green side of the political spectrum.

    On the demand side, one should read into the word “China” the phenomenon of massive global urbanisation, population growth and material utilisation. Sixty years ago the average adult African lived in a rural setting, few could drive a motorised vehicle, less than 1% owned a motor vehicle, and they owned less than ten kilograms of metal, rubber and plastic per head. Today that population is three times the size, and it probably owns on average a hundred times as much of the three materials mentioned. The same can be said for many other populations, and to a degree, for the whole world. Whether items made of these materials end up in China or the Congo does not make much difference to the demand side of the equation. We can rely on the demand being there for decades, but alternative sources are going to compete with Australia to supply that demand, particularly where their governments and trade unions are less hostile.

    I have in recent years lessened my exposure to both mining and mining services. Some mining services (MND, FWD and CDD) were very kind to me, and I skipped out with a profit, whereas BOL, NOD, VMG and EGN have been disasters, and I still hold them, hoping for an up-tick to allow me to exit at less of a loss.

    By the time one has excluded Retail, Manufacturing, Mining and Mining Services, there are not many sectors left, and then if you put in a few filters like high ROE, low debt and good growth, one ends up with a mere handful of candidate stocks worth considering. It reminds me of Mark Twain’s advice on picking a good month to invest – “December is the toughest month of the year. Others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, October, August, and February.”

      • Let’s also beware making investing decisions only on 29 February. It doesn’t come often enough to suit today’s roller coaster world.

        On mining services I offer the following as a thought: before you go punting on mining services companies right now, ask yourself this question. Do I understand the terms of a typical mining services contract? Have I sighted a contract between say XYZ Mining Services Ltd and BHP BIlliton? Or Fortescue? Or Rio? Do I understand that as CEO of XYZ , if BHP changes its mind midstream about its strategy , I may be forced to choose between an embarrassing backdown announcement to my shareholders, and expensive litigation – either damages for breach of contract or specific performance, against a company many times richer than mine?

        It’s true that past history is not a guarantee of future performance, but I say that neither is a file full of signed contracts for future business. Be careful, be very very careful. (I’ve had success with companies like IDL, FGE, MIN, and MCE in the past, but I choose not to hold any of them just now. I claim no special gift of prophesy, just a finely tuned instinct for… I’m not sure what.)

    • Steve Moriarty


      I did buy BHP at about $24 and sold them last July.

      BHP Billiton is 76% foreign owned. Royalties are paid because they essentially get the inputs for nothing – it is like giving a manufacturer all the parts for free or at taxpayers expense and then they put them together and sell them for private profit. BHP would have a case to sustain if they did “add value” in order to maximise the private profit for both and them and their shareholders as well as contribute (or repay) the Australian taxpayers who have over the past 100 years provided them with a substantial amount of subsidies. Let’s be honest – digging up dirt is not that hard. BHP spent many years in the past protected by many federal governments when times were tougher than they currently are.

      I see recently that Marius Kloppers was voted as one of the world’s top CEOs. Amazing when you consider that BHP and others did not see the China boom coming – otherwise they would have been ready with adequate supply instead of falling way behind leading now to the boom in investment. Kloppers and others have “The Halo Effect” – they can do no wrong and we often attribute their success to them personally rather than say, thanking the Chinese for liberating their economy – an external driver that Kloppers had nothing to do with. More luck than skill.

      Considering the untimely bid for Rio, the failed Canadian potash bid and the fact that China and emerging markets are responsible for BHP Billiton’s recent run of success (and add that BHP, RIO and Vale control 70% of the iron ore market) it is difficult I think to argue that it has all been the genius of BHP and RIO (considering that Albanese nearly “lost” RIO to the Chinese and was only saved by the government). And he is still there!

      From Value-able page 58 “When it comes to assessing management, who is rowing the boat is not always as important as the boat you get into. You should know that your returns are more a function of the type of boat you get into, rather than the oarsmen”.

      A future slowdown in China is the reason I am moving away from mining and associated services companies. The reason for my slow and orderly exit is that I suspect no amount of Kloppers or Albanese talent will see their share prices rise in the face of a China slowdown. Like Solomon Lew and Gerry Harvey now, they will then front the government seeking assistance.

      For the Olympic Dam project, BHP will receive a fuel subsidy of over $2 billion. Government revenues over the life of the project will be approximately $10 billion and half will be returned in the form of subsidies.

      Mining service companies (I hold FGE and SXE) are indirect beneficiaries as well. But when the the place is going gangbusters we tend to believe that governments (who represent our neighbours, friends and families) are a hindrance and we desire to privatise the gains and socialize the losses (or costs like fuel subsidies).

      If you consider some of the sovereign risks of investing in Indonesia (recent changes demanding 50% ownership; Zimbabwe 50%, and the line up of African tinpot Dictators just waiting to get their own personal hands on the mineral wealth), you can see in that context that Australia is a safe haven – democracy, a skilled workforce, moderate taxation and no civil unrest then we start to look appealing. After all we have about $300 to $400 billion in investment coming in so government must not have frightened them away yet.

      When as you rightly argue that the demand will be there for a long time, then it seems only fair that some of the benefits are shared.

      Given that it is Easter, I am fairy sure there are enough “eggs” to go around.


  4. Hi Roger,
    Firstly i would like to thank you and your team for Skaffold it has helped me identify A1 companies for my portfolio.My only concern as a trader who is still learning is that i purchased a parcel of FGE the other day thinking it was a safe investment. The following day you mentioned that Mining Services companies may come under pressure from over heating .Since then the price of FGE has had a substantial drop.Would it be possible for SKaffold to warn us of possible sectors that may be over heating or guide us to sectors of the market that are safer to invest in before you comment on a public blog that is free to everyone. Thank John.

    • Hi John,

      You should not concern yourself with short term price movement but rather the long term direction of intrinsic value. We own FGE and at this moment expect to for some time. The decline in price has an impact on our portfolio’s value in the short term (although it does not represent a large proportion) but a severe decline can represent an opportunity too. I am not at all sure the sector is overheating. If prices were all well above their intrinsic values. the case is better made. I am just musing about the number of brokers who are very bullish that is all. Perhaps they will be right and we will all do very well. Its not common for value investor’s like us to have so many professional investors agree with us. Usually we are swimming against the current.

      • Michael Leslie


        When a stock like FGE falls quickly, how do we know until after the event, that it is a short term price movement? Is it because of the long term intrinsic value as indicated in Skaffold?

        By the way, Skaffold is bloody good!

        Hope you are enjoying a decent break.

      • Firstly if it was something that would have a meaningful impact on the business than the company should have announced something to the market.

        Also, during your research on the company you discovered that this company is a company worth investing in. Ask yourself, why was that and is it still correct? Has something changed? If not than a sudden price drop is not something to particularly focus on, it is just an example of how share market noise can leave an investor second guessing oneself.

        I have no insights on forge, mining or any other company in that sector. It’s outside my circle of competence but the overall strategy doesn’t change and the above are the questions I would be asking.

  5. Hi Roger
    Following is simply an hypothesis for which I have no empirical data, but may be a different slant on some of the mining services businesses.
    Although I agree with you that mining services providers suffer from “feast or famine” syndrome, their business/profitability cycle may be slightly lagging their customers ( i.e. the big miners) business cycle. While the BHP’s and RIO’s of this world are directly exposed to short term movements in commodity prices, the mining services suppliers hopefully have medium to long term contracts (and hence recurring revenue) with their customers. Although they will eventually suffer as contracts are not renewed, reviewed or delayed, they will suffer later. This bears in mind that most of the power in the relationship ultimately resides with the big miner.

    So if commodity prices fall, those services companies with locked in revenue will keep trucking along for a while yet. Those companies that are relying mainly on new contracts for greenfields operations that are not yet approved will feel the impact of any sustained fall in commodity prices quite quickly.

    I own MIN which has long term contracts locked in for its material handling business segment. However, I am a bit nervous about their foray into direct mining of iron ore. This is a different activity to their area of competence in materials handling/crushing etc. requiring specialist skills. This will bear close watching. One thing is for sure, any future “bad news” for a contractor exposed to the mining sector results in a substantial drop in share price. Any views on MIN?

    • I like that thinking. DO you think investors will agree? I am no good at timing and while I believe we should all stick to quality and value, I am no good at guessing if this is the band’s last song for the night. For now the band is still playing.

  6. Does it really matter if more and more people are talking about the mining services sector? As a holder of FGE im curious. I personally wouldn’t have thought it would have mattered too much as we seek quality companies, not just hot stocks but I’m all ears!

    • When the trade is crowded the possibility of a spike above intrinsic value means you need to be alert to take advantage of Mr Market when is is too optimistic. Stay tuned is the message thats all.

  7. Interesting post Roger. I did back out of my MLD position recently (last week). I also reduced my FGE holdings last week, but that was more of a reweighting following some good gains and I still hold them.

    I like Norfolk in this space because they have a high percentage of recurring revenue and are diversified across numerous sectors (ie not just resources). I’ll be very interested to see what they have to say when they release their annual results next months. I have not been reducing my NFK holdings.

    • Hi Thomas,

      We prefer a demonstrated track record but have also invested in new floats. I haven’t looked at any of these in detail but Hawkley, Cue Energy and might be worth investigating further . PSA’s year ended 31 December 2011 lower Net loss reflects significant decrease in lower depreciation, decrease in lease operating expenses and the absence of income tax.

  8. dear roger
    this is a true story in 2002 i bought a small engineering company called monadelphous for 1.25, it was during the it boom . the shares dropped to 0.99 the tech stocks were making big money i got fed up and when mnd reached 1.30 i sold out
    I sold 10,000 shares from then they went up to 16.00 .Then in 2005 they had a share split of 4 for 1 which currently i would have 40,000 plus 7years of dividends.
    During gfc i bought fge shares rangeing from 0.70 to 1.00
    Since i bought fge i thought i had the next mnd and i still hold that view but i have i sold two thirds of my holdings because if they reach half of mnd price i will be more then happy if they drop back in price i still cant complain. THe mining boom wont last forever and commodities prices will drop eventually but companies that are not in debt and have blue chip customers will surive.

  9. I am sure some people who are much smarter than myself in economics and macro issues will be able to provide a more knowledgeable and correct analysis but i thought i would post my thoughts on Australia at the end of the mining boom.

    Without being an expert, i am a bit worried as to what Australia will look like when the mining boom ends. I think we have taken, in a typical australian way, the “she’ll be right mate” approach. Strip away mining and resources at the moment and there isn’t much else. If i read things correctly, even a lot of our agricultural land has been sold off to foreign interests.

    I do believe that Australia does not encourage creativity and innovation enough. Most of the Aussie technology innovators had to go overseas to get the necessary start up capital. Apart from Cochlear and ARB, i struggle to think of many other “aussie” products that have been successfully globally (although perhaps Skaffold could do this Roger, i am sure your ambitions go beyond these shores).

    My observations are that we will let others take the lead and we will follow some time down the track.

    I fear that one day we will wake up, china, india etc will not have much greater need for resources and all of a sudden we will just be looking at eachother and say “what now?”

  10. Hi Roger,

    A very interesting and timely article.The wider ramifications of the mining industry is that it is not infinite.When the mining boom is over what will Australians be doing?Why aren’t we value adding to these resources. In my view we are too pro the mining industry and we should be re branding the “Australian made” motto.

      • i recall reading an interesting article on US manufacturing. basically in order to compete and keep costs down the use prisoners to do a majority of there manufacturing amazing stuff really. maybe Australia needs to build a few more prisons and get England to send us some stock so to speak.

  11. Andrew Rowan

    Where is the best place to find charts on commodities such as Iron Ore.

    A Google search results in a lot of rubbish.

  12. Just on the topic of crowded trades, I think gold falls into this category. Last year was a great time to be in gold producers. But last year when someone called up and asked an expert about a gold company they would say “Be careful with gold, it just sits there, producing no income. Better to be in real businesses creating real value.” Now when the common reply is “Well we all know gold is going much much higher – US debt, Europe fears, and all that money printing means gold can only go one way.”
    I own gold, and I expect gold to go much higher in the future, but I do not think it will do so this year. And listening to how the consensus view on gold has changed recently reaffirms my view.

    Roger, have you noticed any increase in the number of brokers encouraging gold stocks as good investments?

  13. Hi Roger,

    I have actually been thinking along similar lines in regards to mining services. I think in the mid cap more established area like FGE, DCG and so on, the trade is quite crowded. They are certainly priced as if things will pan out entirely as expected. But of all the cheap companies out there at the moment, a lot of them are in mining services, specifically the smaller mining services companies. While the likes of FGE, MND, WOR, DCG are all priced as if the promised investment dollars will all come through, the smaller companies (such as DSB as you pointed out recently) seemed to be viewed more pessimistically.

    From 2009 a rising tide seemed to lift all boats and it was difficult to lose money being in mining services. But here on in I think selecting the right mining services stocks according to value, management, particular commodity exposure, etc becomes all the more important. In my view there will be a number of companies who make the transition from small to mid cap companies and therefore there are opportunities out there. I think buying the mid cap players now carries more risk than selectively buying the smaller companies that show promise and are trading far cheaper.

    I have a view that the larger players amongst commodity producers as well as the larger mining services companies are not going to perform as well as most expect, while in general commodity prices/related investment will remain elevated. I will expand on this view in future, as it would be great to hear your take.

    An interesting comment I noticed from a SWL presentation was this:

    “Customers are actively soliciting highly regarded mid sized contractors to participate in the very large project segment so as to restore competition to a market dominated by a few very large contractors.””

    I wonder if the same is happening/will happen in the resource sector?

    • There certainly still appears to be value so we aren’t suggesting the opposite. The question that comes to mind is whether analysts, in their optimism, are simply..well..too optimistic? The report I have on my desk today from one broking firm reflects this. Its entitled; “Mining Services, You ain’t seen nothing yet”

      Your conclusions however are correct. Stick to quality and value.

  14. Roger as a holder of ASL, DCG & MND I won’t be at all disappointed if more “advisors” get people to pile into mining service companies. I agree the space is crowded but this is simply a reflection of the level of work available from the mining sector. Just like in the home building game smaller players come and go with each boom and bust cycle. The established names (which are only a dozen or so) will still perform over the medium term but will not have the current growth levels so the speculators may leave opening the field up for value investors. The key will be exposure to the right sector, oil and gas versus iron ore (imho) or ongoing revenue streams not connected to new capital development. I wonder if ROA and debt levels may be a better indicator of business resilience for this group than ROE?

  15. Peter Kruckow

    Hi Roger
    A nice timely post, for me anyway. I sold my holding of FGE last week, taking a nice profit, and was my first sale since starting this journey. After missing the boat and getting caught with MCE I took a bit more notice of things going on with my other stocks and with Fge I’ve noticed that even though their order book is growing their forcast ROE still continues to fall and their forcast IV is very flat at best. Others might say I shouldn’t have but I’m happy with the decision and I made money on it which is the name of the game.Thanks Skaffold!By the way the video link isn’t working at the minute so I couldn’t watch it.

    (edit out: Please note my new email address)

  16. I own FGE, gee this really has me wondering, what will be the first signs of the lower resource price affecting the company? Will I be able to decipher this news as bad when it gets released?

    I find it easy to value a company year to year based on the reports and figures, but the experts may sell it down before I even know what’s going on.

    I guess all I’m saying is… keep posting your thoughts, and thanks for your past thoughts.

      • I’ve sold all my mining services stock; having taken profits from the robust gains so far this year.
        Demand is down for Fe and Coal and I don’t think there will be clear signs re China until the leadership transition is complete. I’m told that generally when there is a transition growth slows as people wait and see – and don’t make decisons or take risks – during this period.

        The steel mills are losing money (even with alll the infrastrucutre growth) so pricing of commodities will be critical both for the buyers and sellers. I don’t know if the boom is over but my Chinese colleagues say there will be growth outside the main cities with smaller populations – like our large cities! Where the mining service companies have long term contracts with tier one miners they will probably be OK but there will be a pressure on costs through the chain as margins are squeezed. Watch mining service companies who sell into China as the Chinese are now buying more locally manufactured mining equipment and consumables.

        When the mining boom ends…Let’s hope it doesn’t for everyone’s sake!

      • I also have sold out of my mining services companies. I’d rather miss out on a little icing than lose some of the cake and I think that some of the forecasts are optimistic.

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