* Bullion hovers near 4-1/2 year low
* Low metal price to spur mergers and acquisitions
* Deep cost cuts now could hit gold output in medium-term
By Silvia Antonioli and Nicole Mordant
LONDON/VANCOUVER Nov 6 (Reuters) - Struggling gold producers plan increasingly drastic measures such as scrapping dividends, cutting jobs, halting projects and shutting mines to survive the latest price plunge, but not all of them will make it.
Gold tumbled to a more than four-year low of $1,137.40 an ounce this week, rekindling memories of last year’s 28 percent drop to $1,196. That fall put an abrupt end to years of over-spending on expansion projects and forced producers to cut costs.
Gold prices recovered early in 2014, but the slide in the past three months to new lows will force companies to step up their efforts to cope.
According to Citi analysts, about three quarters of gold mining companies burn cash at spot prices just below $1,200 on an all-in cost basis, which includes head office, interest, permitting and exploration costs.
Buenaventura, Medusa and Iamgold are among the highest-cost producers with all-in costs well above $1,300, a Citi note to investors said.
“Everyone has started now to appreciate that the music has stopped and there are only so many chairs,” Mark Bristow, chief executive of gold miner Randgold, said in an interview. He said he was frustrated that not much high-cost production had been shut down so far.
“It is questionable whether, without injection of liquidity, the leading companies in our industry can manage their businesses going forward. Everyone is trying to survive in hope that the gold price will go up.”
Unlike prices for most other commodities, the gold price does not hinge mostly on demand and supply fundamentals.
Instead, it is tied more to global economic factors such as interest rates and inflation and is more subject to investor sentiment, which make its moves more difficult to predict.
And gold equities are historically even more volatile than the metal. After outperforming the bullion price for most of this year, gold mining shares have given up all gains to sink much deeper than gold itself.
“It is difficult days for the sector ... if lower prices persist for a lot longer, then a lot of the operations will have to be suspended,” said Angelos Damaskos, a portfolio manager at Junior Gold fund.
To make ends meet at a lower price, producers have already cut exploration and corporate costs in the past year, and many have relied on high-grading, which means focussing on areas with higher quality metal to reduce unit costs.
A fall in oil prices and a weakening of currencies such as the South African rand against the dollar also have offered some breathing space, with companies’ costs priced in rand and sales in dollars.
But reforms now must become more radical.
“I don’t really see on the operating side, the unit cost side, much more room for meaningful impact,” said Phil Russo, mining equity analyst at Raymond James. “The ability to meaningfully change all-in costs will have to come from the capital side. Whether they might under-capitalize operations or defer capital is really the theme of the day. Dividends will surely be under review.”
Kinross Gold has scrapped its dividend in the past year, and this week it said weak prices may derail the planned expansion of its Tasiast mine in Mauritania.
AngloGold Ashanti is looking to sell assets to shore up its finances after shareholders forced it to abort a plan to spin off part of its mines and raise capital in September.
Barrick Gold is also looking to divest assets to help repay its high level of debt.
South Africa’s Harmony Gold suggested on Wednesday it might have to cut jobs as it contends with depressed prices.
“We are seeing this clear separation between the gold companies. Those that use a conservative price assumption like Randgold, that are low-cost and have little debt or very profitable operations, can service that debt even at these prices,” said Neil Gregson, portfolio manager at JP Morgan Asset Management.
“Others that are either high cost or that took on a lot of debt in the bull market like Barrick will now have to sell assets.”
Things could get even uglier.
If gold prices persist around $1,100, companies could see their credit lines withdrawn or reduced. Those with heavy debt may be forced to hedge revenue or raise distressed equity, and companies such as AuRico, Detour, Iamgold, Lake Shore and Pan American may be forced to scrap dividends, according to RBC.
At $1,000 many could be forced to accept discounted takeover offers or other dilutive measures for equity holders, according to the bank.
“There may be some consolidation in the space - some guys getting together and trying to pool assets to turn around and run a more efficient business model,” said Joseph Fazzini, an analyst at Dundee Securities in Toronto. “I think that is the best way that these guys can make sense of the industry at this point in time.”
But the medicine for a quick recovery could kill the patient in the long run. Emergency cuts in both exploration and operating capital could result in a steep output decline later on and threaten the existence of a mining firm.
“The bigger problem is that if they cannot afford to reinvest and explore, there will be a sharp drop in production a year or two from now,” said Meryl Pick, an equity analyst at South African fund Old Mutual.
“If current prices persist we may see more shafts going onto care and maintenance.” (Reporting by Susan Taylor in Toronto and Clara Denina in London; Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg and Jan Harvey in London; editing by Jane Baird)