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Shorts pile into cash-strapped Lonmin as platinum flounders

Lonmin is the 7th-most-shorted on the FTSE All-Share Index.

The last time there was so much short-selling on Lonmin Plc, the platinum miner was weeks away from a life-saving rights issue.

At 14% of the total outstanding shares, Lonmin is the seventh-most-shorted stock on the 645-member FTSE All-Share Index, according to data compiled by Markit. That figure has doubled since May 11, as the stock dropped 43%.

Lonmin is the most cash-strapped of the world’s three largest platinum miners and its higher costs make the company heavily exposed to moves in the price of the metal, which has dropped by almost half in the past six years. While Lonmin has cut workers, production and costs in South Africa, it hasn’t been enough to offset the effects of cheaper platinum, and social unrest around the company’s operations has compounded the struggle.

“It’s an easy short,” said Peter Mallin-Jones, a London-based analyst at Peel Hunt LLP with a sell rating on the stock. “They’re in this horrible position where they’re waiting for the price to rescue them.”

Short sellers borrow shares in order to sell them and buy them back at a lower price, profiting from the difference as long as the stock declines.

Lonmin’s big challenge is that it relies on deep, labor-intensive shafts near Marikana, a settlement surrounded by shanties west of Pretoria, the capital. By comparison, Anglo American Platinum Ltd. and Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. have the benefit of some lower-cost, mechanized mines.

Platinum climbed 0.3% to $920.29 an ounce at 7:12 a.m. in London, adding to this year’s 1.9% gain. The metal has tumbled 45% in the past six years.

Lonmin had access to $447 million in cash reserves and debt facilities as of March 31 and Chief Executive Officer Ben Magara says the company is positioned to break even at current platinum prices. A third-party-funded project to extract platinum residues from waste material is expected to add low-cost output and the company has also bought access to neighboring mines to lower underground development expenses.

The company raised $407 million in a rights issue in 2015, the third in six years, which reduced its debt burden and bought time to weather lower platinum prices. However, production problems at its biggest shaft this year squeezed cash flow and the company has drawn $154 million from its debt facilities, which expire in May 2020. 

Analysts at Investec Plc, BMO Capital Markets Ltd., and Peel Hunt have said Lonmin may have to tap shareholders before then, making the stock ripe for bets that it will fall.

“The only way to stop the short selling is to come out with a plan that effectively says, ‘at these prices we won’t need an emergency rights issue,’” Mallin-Jones said. “But that will require some hard decisions over cutting a significant portion of production and jobs.”

© 2017 Bloomberg

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