SYDNEY (REUTERS) - From pooling office space to paying bills with company stock, small and mid-sized Australian miners are finding new ways to stay afloat during one of the sector's worst downturns.
China's slowdown has helped cool a decade-long commodities boom that pushed gold, copper, iron ore and coal prices to record highs, leaving Australian miners facing a painful transition to lower margins and weak investment interest.
Only a year ago, with miners flush with cash and desperate to retain staff, six-figure salaries and executive-style perks for everyone from truck drivers to kitchen help were commonplace.
Now, with traditional funding drying up, smaller miners are devising novel ways to keep from going broke.
Unable to pay bills in cash, some are offering drill rig operators, caterers and even public relations firms company stock to keep them on the job - acts of desperation last seen at the height of the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
"When this happens, the shares are often just dumped on the market, which destroys the share price," said Mr Peter Strachan of Stock Analysis, an Australian research company focused on smaller miners.
Gold miners have been among the hardest hit and if conditions persist Australia's ranking as the world's second-biggest producer after China could be under threat.
A consultant said he was offered stock by a gold miner which only a year ago was making plenty of money.
"The miner said it was the only way to keep some cash in the bank and pay for ongoing services at the mine and the head office," added the consultant, who rebuffed the offer
TOUGH TIMES, TOUGH MEASURES
Some miners have managed to raise money via heavily discounted share offerings, which may buy time but threaten to leave them in worse shape once the money is spent.
Gold miner Crest Minerals last week launched a rights issue at half the average share price of the past 30 days to raise A$2.2 million (S$2.7 million) for exploration work.
"The equity and debt markets have essentially closed and we are advising clients to explore every other means possible for capital until this market turns," said Mr Darren Weaver, a partner with Australia's biggest corporate receiver Ferrier Hodgson.
To cut overheads in the once-booming mining city of Perth, junior miners are sharing office space, slashing executive wages and teaming up with private equity investors, one of the few sources for capital still open.
"Private equity will typically wait until they think the market is at the bottom and only then come in," said RBC Capital Markets analyst Rob Sennitt.
Until now, small miners have relied largely on equity markets to fund mines or exploration to locate new deposits, with over 400 new junior resource floats in the last five years.
But 75 per cent of Australian mining IPOs since 2008 are trading below their issue price and investors have lost on average 30 percent of their money in mining IPOs over the period, according to data from the trade group Australia Mining.
IPOs in 2010 and 2011 are trading more than 50 per cent below their listing price.
Celsius Coal obtained US$10 million (S$12.7 million) from private equity firm Blumont Group Ltd in Singapore in February via a share and convertible notes placement to further plans to mine steel making-grade coal in the Kyrgyz Republic.
"They just ask how much money you need. If they like the project: done," said Celsius managing director Alex Molyeneux.
Not everyone is so lucky.
After a heavily discounted A$65 million rights issue in February to address debt, Tanami Gold was forced to idle its only operating mine following last month's 7.6 per cent fall in the gold price.
Another outback gold miner, Saracen Minerals, has cut the fees it pays three non-executive directors by 20 per cent, suspended work on a new mine, halved its truck fleet and promised a review of the managing director's salary.
EXPLORATION AND MINING SERVICES
"Good project or bad project, it doesn't matter, there's no money out there, things just keep getting worse," said Mr Ross Smyth-Kirk, chairman of Kingsgate Consolidated, which mines gold in Thailand and Australia and is exploring in Chile.
Smyth-Kirk, who has watched his firm's shares slump to as low as $1.43 from above A$5 in the past year, is now considering a stock listing of Kingsgate's Thai subsidiary Akara Mining Ltd on the Thai stock exchange to boost liquidity.
Companies supplying services at mine sites and front offices are also feeling the pinch.
Many Perth-based mining consultants and other support services are now operating on four-day weeks, according to Strachan of Stock Analysis Graeme Hunt, chief executive of Transfield Services , said the service firm's 20 to 30 drilling rigs used for mining exploration have gone from 80 per cent utilisation to under 10 per cent.
"There are a growing number of companies that don't have any other choice but to hibernate until this storm passes," said Mr Keith Goode, director of Eagle Mining Research.
Some miners are simply offering themselves to the highest bidder.
Copper miner Discovery Metals Ltd put itself up for sale after failing to push through a capital raising.
Its largest shareholder, Chinese private equity firm Cathay Fortune, is now willing to pay A$0.35-A$0.40 a share for the company, a fraction of the A$1.70 a share offer it made in November.