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Mining's most influential 2020

The growing focus on ESG in the mining sector has sparked a few changes in Mining Journal’s most influential list, although there has been little change to the top 10 despite the turmoil seen in 2020.
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Mining Journal's list of the most influential people in mining is topped by China's president Xi Jinping

China's president Xi Jinping clings onto the top spot as Beijing embarks on a metals-intensive drive for a "green recovery", while US industrial miners wait to see whether Joe Biden's pledge for his own renewables revolution will trigger benefits that outweigh the potential headache of tax hikes.

The favourable precious metals environment mean gold miners feature strongly in our top 50, while perhaps the most glaring omission is that of Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques, who is set to step down in the coming months after the miner drew strong criticism for its destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites.

1. Xi Jinping, president of the People's Republic of China

China's rapid macroeconomic bounce back after the initial COVID-19 outbreak has propped up commodity markets at a time when other major economies have flatlined, while Xi's forthright calls for a "green recovery" sent analysts scrambling to adjust their forecasts for battery metals demand.

Alongside the rapid acceleration of China's infrastructure plan, Xi's push to build a "dual circulation economy", aimed at reducing reliance on overseas markets - particularly in the field of technology - has caught the eye, and suggests the Asia nation will also remain the engine room for base metals demand growth in years to come.

China's control of certain critical metal supply chains - particularly rare earths - could also prove a major headache for western manufacturers.

While some economists question how long the country can sustain its aggressive stimulus programme, the upcoming 100-year anniversary of China's Communist party in July 2021 suggests Beijing, and Xi, cannot afford to ease off now.

With nickel and lithium miners obsessing over Elon Musk's next move, Beijing's policies to increase uptake of EVs saw Chinese new energy vehicle sales hit a record in September. The move to supercharge EV roll out means China has already stolen a march on the US to secure materials, and despite the presence of a Democrat in the White House, China looks in pole position to be the world leader in low carbon mobility.

2. Joe Biden, President, United States

The incoming Biden administration will quickly bring a raft of changes to USA internal and international policy, most notably an expected easing of global trade tensions.

While the Democrat president-elect has pledged to roll back certain pro-mining Trump-era presidential orders "from day one" following his January 20 inauguration, Biden will have to orchestrate a balancing act between quelling the spread of COVID-19, reinvigorating a stagnant economy and strategically positioning the country as a self-sufficient supplier of its most critical economic inputs in the name of national security.

Biden has previously signalled support to US miners, especially for metals used to make electric vehicles, solar panels and other products essential to his climate plan. But it remains to be seen how the usual encroachment of bureaucratic red tape associated with Democrat governments affects this imperative, since the Obama administration - with Biden as vice president - enacted specific environmental regulations that smothered US mining sector growth.

Biden had publicly stated his opposition to the controversial Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum project in Alaksa's Bristol Bay area, which is navigating the final stages of permitting.

However, Biden supports bipartisan efforts to promote a North American supply chain for lithium, copper, rare earths, nickel and other strategic materials that the US imports from China and others.

The mining industry could likely take issue with one of the Biden campaign pledges to raise corporate taxes. However, the sector has positioned itself politically as critical to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and to the transition away from fossil fuels, which should go some way to help offset the potential for encroaching policy and political encumbrances.

3. Mark Bristow, president and CEO, Barrick Gold

Most influential in shaping the future direction of the precious metals space is hands down Mark Bristow.

Bristow almost single-handedly assumed the task of making the gold sector investible again for generalists through several key changes he hoped would be music to their ears.

He planted the flag for zero premium mergers through the 2018 joining of Barrick Gold with Randgold Resources, with value created through the sum of the parts. The aim here was to obtain a scale and market capitalisation that was relevant in an issuer with high liquidity.

How did this shape the market? Well, not wanting to lose touch, rival Newmont Mining rapidly concluded its own deal with Goldcorp in 2019. Sensing opportunity, Bristow came in with a stink-bid for Newmont which it only fought off with a generous one-off dividend to convince the market of the merit of concluding the Goldcorp transaction.

Bristow, however, got what he really wanted and forced Newmont into creating the Nevada Gold Mines joint venture, unlocking incredible value by bringing together the Barrick and Newmont assets in one of the world's most important gold districts, something which had been discussed for years but never executed.

To further make gold stocks accessible to generalist investors, Bristow pushed for publishing ten-year production and cost guidance, a move to change the narrative from sulphides and oxides towards free cash flow, net debt and dividends, terms generalists can more easily get their heads around and be more comfortable with. In this way, Bristow has been positioning Barrick as a company like any other, that can be measured against any other, but just happens to derive its revenues from mining.

How did this shape the market? Again, Newmont followed suit, as has Kinross Gold and other senior gold producers.

4. Mike Henry, CEO, BHP

Just about a year after taking the reins at BHP, Mike Henry is leading the world's largest miner in uncharted waters. The company must find ways to grow after several years of selling assets no longer considered integral to being a globally significant and broadly diversified miner.

Earlier this year Henry confirmed an exit from thermal coal, including a surprise decision to sell some of the company's high-value metallurgical coal assets, followed by a confirmation of the proposed sale of BHP's ageing oil and gas interests.

Insiders believe the massive Jansen potash project in Canada's Saskatchewan could provide the boost to the bottom line investors are looking for. However, a decision to complete construction has been delayed until mid-2021 despite BHP having already invested US$2.5 billion in shaft sinking with underground work at the project said to be 86% complete.

Jansen is supposed to be a slow-baked plan to add a ‘fifth pillar' to BHP's four former core pillars of iron ore, copper, coking coal and petroleum. Jansen is shaping up as a decision that could well define Henry's time as CEO.

Buying a business is a possibility, and Henry has flagged merger and acquisition activity as back on BHP's agenda. He is said to favour more copper and nickel, and potentially potash to fill the gaps left by the fossil fuel departures.

Henry had also signalled a preference for bigger projects, in contrast with rival Rio Tinto's recent pivot in favour of smaller, scalable growth projects.

The departure of Rio Tinto's CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques provides Henry with an opportunity to thrive as the face of mining's future.

5. Robert Friedland, founder, Ivanhoe Mines

Hands down the best promoter in the industry, the depth of Friedland's charisma can be measures in atmospheres…most tellingly the expectant hush that descends over a conference auditorium before he approaches the lectern.

Friedland's legendary abilities as a presenter are perhaps just as well, given the content of his Ivanhoe Mines slides has changed only marginally in recent years.

Despite plugging the same line - that the world needs vast quantities of copper and that Ivanhoe's giant Kamoa-Kakula project is the answer to all our prayers - Friedland's story is compellingly relevant in a post-COVID world where adoption of clean-focused technology such as electric cars is expected to see copper demand sky-rocket, sending prices spiralling.

While this writer is confident RF has found somewhere bearable to stick out the pandemic, the financier is no doubt looking forward to wowing industry audiences again at some point in 2021. Mining Journal will be vying for a front row seat.

6. Mark Cutifani, CEO, Anglo American

The first half of 2020 proved a challenging time for Anglo American, with the diversified miner among the worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While rising commodity prices will have provided welcome respite in recent months, pandemic-related concerns in South America and Latin America combined with ongoing diamond market weakness have left Cutifani plenty to ponder.

The Anglo now looks somewhat different to the company that enjoyed a golden period during 2018-2019, but given Cutifani's previous form in turning the company around, he looks a good bet to repeat the trick in 2021.

A keen advocate for sustainable mining, Cutifani has the opportunity to silence any who doubt his credentials as a green-focused miner with the spin-off or sale of Anglo's thermal coal assets.

The successful development of the Quellaveco copper mine in Peru will be crucial to Anglo's success in the coming years, given the huge capex involved and almost universal acknowledgement that copper demand is set to spiral in the years to come.

It will also be interesting to see Cutifani copes with greater scrutiny from the UK media as Anglo accelerates work on the Woodsmith polyhalite mine in the north of England.

7. Andrew Forrest, non-executive chairman, Fortescue Metals Group

With high iron ore prices spelling a boom time for the industry, Forrest has attracted the limelight for different reasons in 2020. First there was the foray into Chinese medical supplies, then came the announcement Fortescue Metals Group was to spend billions to become a "renewables and resources" company.

While some in the industry consider the plan an unnecessarily risky pivot away from the huge cash cow that is iron ore, there is little doubt it has got people's attention.

Forrest's initial aim is to develop 235 gigawatts of electricity from renewable sources which, in theory, would make Fortescue one of the biggest electricity producers in the world.

Fortescue shares have fallen since the plan was revealed despite an upward shift in iron ore prices, indicating the doubters outweigh the believers. However, few would bet against the Perth-born billionaire pulling it off.

8. Rick Rule, president and CEO, Sprott US Holdings

Alongside Robert Friedland, Rule is perhaps the industry's best-known promoter. Despite the restrictions of the pandemic, Rule has continued to grow his profile by being an ever-present speaker at online conferences across the year, spreading the gospel of precious metals investing as the global economy stares into the abyss.

The COVID-19 outbreak has catapulted Rule into an audience with which his interaction had previously been limited: the millennial investor. For an industry often criticised for its failure to engage with a younger audience, Rule has embraced social media and found a way to connect.

He currently boasts just shy of 21,000 followers on LinkedIn and 15,000 followers on Twitter, while his employer Sprott has seen its assets under management swell by 76% to US$16.3 billion over the first nine months of 2020.

With many analysts expecting the run on gold to continue into 2021 and beyond, expect to hear a lot more from Rule in the months to come.

Rule's focus is not confined to precious metals; he told Mining Journal back in April his employer was using gains from precious metals markets to grow the company's industrial materials business, in preparation for a macroeconomic rally in two to three years' time. Given the performance of gold over the summer, we can assume the California-based investor is well placed to capitalise as and when the recovery arrives.

9. Jerome Powell, chair, US Federal Reserve

As head of the Fed, Powell effectively controls US monetary policy, thereby directly influencing the profitability of miners across the globe.

Not known for his strong economic views when he took office early 2018, Powell has been responsible for unprecedented monetary stimulus since the outbreak of the pandemic, with Bloomberg referring to him in November as "Wall Street's Head of State".

The Fed is committed to "using all of our tools to support the recovery for as long as it takes until the job is well and truly done," Powell said on November 17.

Such a commitment will come as music to the ears of gold miners, when coupled with the Fed's desire to keep interest rates near zero until at least 2023. On Powell's watch gold rose above US$2,000/oz in August for the first time in history.

10. Nicolai Tangen, CEO, Norges Bank Investment Management

Tangen is the man ultimately responsible for managing Norway's oil fund, the largest pension fund in Europe.

Styled as the "global leader in responsible investing", Norges Bank Investment Management (NYIM) has set a trend for considering governance and sustainability as issues that could have a long-term impact on a fund's performance.

The presence of ESG on nearly every mining conference agenda in recent years is due in no small part to the actions of the Norwegians.

Any decision signed off by Tangen to ditch a particular miner reverberates through the investment community and has far reaching implications for the make up of portfolios and attitudes towards ESG.