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Global copper miner distills new year now to two words: cut debt

‘That contribution for the group is to pay down debt and get the balance sheet into a stronger position,’ Tristan Pascall
Image: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Even as copper pierces seven-year highs, First Quantum Minerals is pushing into the new year with plans that hinge on one unsexy goal: cutting debt.

The top-10 copper producer is emerging from a rocky seven years that included disputes with the government in Zambia, where it has two mines, rising debt that peaked at close to $9 billion this year, and strains from building a $6.7 billion project in Panama. Now the plan is to get its Central American mine, Cobre Panama, running full out to benefit the whole company.

“That contribution for the group is to pay down debt and get the balance sheet into a stronger position,” Tristan Pascall, First Quantum’s director of strategy, said in a phone interview. That will enable the miner to “go onto new growth projects, return money to shareholders through dividends, and then be in a strong position to contribute to the new economy.”

The Vancouver-based miner, Pascall said, continues processes that could see it sell minority stakes either in its Zambian operations, Cobre Panama or the Ravensthorpe nickel mine in Australia. The goals are to “accelerate debt repayment and possibly to look at diversifying out of Zambia a little bit more.”

Pascall said First Quantum’s board is considering how it would change the current dividend policy, which offers a “nominal” payout — now at half a Canadian cent. That will happen as debt levels come down, probably within two years, depending on copper prices, he said.

The industrial metal has gained 28% this year on strong demand from China since March, pandemic-related supply issues and long-term prospects for copper’s use amid the auto industry’s shift toward electrification. Pascall sees prices staying at these relatively strong levels “for some time.” If that persists, he said the company can probably reduce total debt by $2 billion by the end of 2022.

Pascall acknowledges First Quantum is being enticed to build out production capacity quicker given copper’s prospects.

“Our DNA is on developing projects and we’re always looking in that area,” said Pascall, 45, who has been at the company for 13 years and whose father is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Philip Pascall.

The strategic director points to expansion plans at Kansanshi in Zambia and Cobre Panama as some of the first steps to continue growing the company. But, like everything else, that too depends on deleveraging.

“The priority of the business is to repay debt,” he said. “That’s important.”

© 2020 Bloomberg

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