JOHANNESBURG, May 16 (Reuters) - South Africa is the Saudi Arabia of platinum with steroids thrown in.
But Pretoria could never manipulate the platinum price the way the Middle Eastern kingdom can influence oil’s and talk of a platinum cartel, perhaps along the lines of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), is a pipe-dream.
The world’s top platinum producers, South Africa and Russia, agreed to attempt to cope with excess supplies of the metal through a memorandum of understanding signed in March during the BRICS emerging market powers meeting in Durban.
South Africa’s mines minister Susan Shabangu spoke of “balancing” rather than “controlling the market” while still expressing concern about oversupply and prices. Confusingly, Russian officials said influencing prices was not the aim.
If not, then what would be the ultimate aim of cooperation between the platinum powerhouses, especially if one of the parties’ stated goals is to “balance” the market?
This has sparked speculation about how supplies could be reined in to lift prices for the white metal used to build emissions-capping catalytic converters in automobiles.
Talk has ranged from an OPEC-type model to something far more modest, along the lines of marketing cooperation, but getting anything off the ground is unlikely as the crude and platinum industries are like oil and water.
For starters, crude production in Saudi Arabia is firmly in the hands of the state through the national oil company Aramco.
Over the past few years, it has been almost alone in OPEC in actually curbing production intentionally as other members have refrained from doing so because of concerns over lost revenue.
South Africa may sit on 80 percent of the world’s known platinum reserves but unlike in Saudi Arabia, there is no state company pulling its coveted resource out of the ground.
So any calls for production cuts would have to get a buy-in from several companies especially the top three producers of the precious metal: Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum and Lonmin.
They in fact would like to cut some output to boost moribund prices which mean many shafts are currently unprofitable. Spot platinum on Thursday fetched $1,469.74 an ounce, down 34 percent from a record high of $2,240 hit in March 2008.
But their hands are tied on a number of fronts.
The first is political. The government may be concerned about supply and prices but it also does not want production cuts because jobs would be lost with them.
Amplats, seeking to restore profits after falling into loss last year, had to back down from an initial target of 14,000 job cuts in the face of stiff resistance from unions, the government and the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
It will now aim to cut 6,000 jobs and even that scaled-back proposal has triggered a threat from the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) to bring production to a halt on Thursday night in protest.
Platinum’s labour-intensive nature and South African regulations also mean that unlike crude, its “taps” cannot be turned off and on at will.
For example, closing a shaft for even a few months would mean laying off thousands of workers. And South African legislation requires employers to give 2 months’ notice and engage in talks before it can take such action.
So the government’s sensitivity about job losses - not least because a key union ally has lost tens of thousands of members to AMCU this past year - and its labour policies make targeted platinum production cuts all but impossible.
Unfortunately for the government and the industry, violent labour unrest has been the biggest threat to supplies over the past 15 months and the only real trend that has supported prices amid subdued demand from key markets such as Europe.
Last year that cost the producers and the state billions of dollars in lost revenue and led to credit downgrades for Africa’s largest economy.
South Africa lost at least 750,000 ounces of platinum output last year to strikes, shaft closures and government-ordered safety stoppages, metals refiner Johnson Matthey said in a report on Monday.
During last year’s periodic outbreaks of violent, wildcat strikes, the platinum price would get a lift though it was often only temporary.
The government can also hardly afford to take excess platinum off the market by buying it from the producers and then storing it. In fact, such an exercise would just put more of a drain on state coffers if it succeeded in driving the price up.
What the industry can do is get together on the small aspects they can change, like a marketing drive to boost demand for platinum jewellery.
“Bearing in mind the issues around the competitive environment, when it comes to jewellery, for example, there has been good cooperation in terms of promoting platinum jewels - and that is one of the examples of what can be done,” Lonmin’s acting CEO Simon Scott said.
But OPEC, it’s not. In the short term, markets and labour mayhem will be the main drivers of the metal’s price.