TORONTO (Reuters) - A four-year mining-industry downturn has left big gold producers hungry to buy reserves they haven't had the money to find themselves, and impoverished small miners eager to cash out, setting up the ingredients for mergers and acquisitions revival in 2015.
Mining veterans say that scenario is likely to come into play at the industry's largest annual event, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention in Toronto, March 1-4, where more than 20,000 participants are expected.
Many small explorers and developers, cash-strapped after years of austerity, may be looking to attract buyers at the convention.
Big gold miners, meanwhile, have been hit by weak commodity prices that have forced them to slash exploration budgets, slowing new discoveries, and contributing to a drop in in-the-ground reserves at the world's five biggest bullion producers.
Their reserves, cumulatively, fell 11 percent to 317 million ounces in 2014, company data show. If reserves continue shrinking, production will eventually follow.
"The big mining companies still know they have to buy projects ... If you don't buy new assets you just watch your business decline," said John Gravelle, global mining leader at consultancy PwC.
With several deals sealed in recent weeks, there are hopes more will come, reversing a three-year slowdown. Tahoe Resources Inc (THO.TO) is buying Rio Alto Mining RIO.TO for C$1.4 billion ($1.12 billion) and Goldcorp Inc (G.TO) is purchasing Probe Mines Ltd (PRB.V) for C$526 million.
In 2014, the value of global mining M&A fell 19 percent from 2013, to $79 billion, Thomson Reuters data show.
"This is going to be a year where there will be a lot of activity in the mining M&A space," said Paul Stein, a mining lawyer at Cassels Brock & Blackwell.
"When you're in an environment where it's difficult to raise capital, your options are somewhat limited. So it almost forces the hand in some cases."
Worldwide budgets for nonferrous metals exploration dropped 25 percent to $11.4 billion in 2014, SNL Metals & Mining research shows. But even when spending was flush, there were few big discoveries.
"The lack of (exploration) success means more M&A," said Sean Boyd, chief executive at Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd (AEM.TO), a mid-sized gold miner that has made three acquisitions in the past two years.
Companies including Goldcorp, Kinross Gold Corp (K.TO) and Iamgold Corp (IMG.TO) could be buyers, say mining analysts, who point to Detour Gold Corp (DGC.TO), Torex Gold Resources Inc (TXG.TO), Roxgold Inc ROG.V, Kaminak Gold Corp KAM.V, and Romarco Minerals Inc (R.TO) as potential targets.
Smaller miners struggling to find financing for development-stage assets could also tie up to pool cash and lower costs, said Haywood Securities research analyst Kerry Smith.
Overall, deals are seen most likely for miners of the hardest-hit commodities: gold, copper, iron ore and coal.
Of the approximately 2,000 miners listed on Toronto's small-cap TSX Venture Exchange, nearly one-quarter ended the last financial year with less than C$50,000 in cash and short-term investments.
"The number of distressed situations we'll see continue to grow ... people are offloading assets because they just can't take the pain," said John Wilkin, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at Blake Cassels & Graydon.
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway