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First CMMI Lecture: Cost Reducing Innovations in the Mining and Metal Processing Industries


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It is a commonplace of our industry that prices of most minerals have been historically weak during the 1980s. The International Monetary Fund’s index of prices of metals fell 25 per cent between 1980 and 1982, rose slightly in 1983, and has since fallen further. In December last year it was 37 per cent below its 1980 average. The few temporary exceptions to the mineral industry’s malaise highlight the excess capacity, which largely explains the weakness of prices. The industry has painfully come to recognise that more satisfactory prices will not be restored until supply capability and demand move back into better balance. Mine capacity was installed in the expectation of much faster growth of demand than has occurred. For a variety of reasons mine and plant closures have been insufficient to restore equilibrium to the market-place. The industry may, therefore, have to resign itself to continued weak prices for some years more, at least by the yardstick of the 1970s. Growth rates of demand have slackened off in line with economic activity, and in response to continuing substitution and technological improvements. To the extent that the recent weakness of oil prices stimulates the industrial countries’ activity, demand for non-fuel minerals may grow faster than most forecasters now predict. It is, however, much too early to say how long the weaker oil prices will persist, and even more difficult to estimate their probable effects. In typical post-war business cycles the usual response to recession was to batten down the hatches, and ride out the storm. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, demand resumed its previous trend path, and prices recovered. The market, in effect, bailed mines out of trouble; the more efficient could make attractive pre-tax profits whilst even the poor to mediocre could earn a satisfactory living. Prices rose at least as fast as general inflation, and in the early 1970s much faster. In retrospect those price rises of the early 1970s were historically abnormal but they did not appear so in the prevailing inflationary climate of the time. When the market failed in the early 1980s many of the hardest hit companies looked for scapegoats.