Monday, August 19, 2013

Variable pay in gold mining.

Are the risk-sharing proposals in current wage negotiations built on serious fault lines?

At last there is some significant movement towards flexible pay in one of South Africa’s biggest employers – the gold mining industry. As Geoff Candy reported on Mineweb this week, gold producers are looking at some form of pay at risk to counter Union demands for much more than the 5.5% pay hike employers have offered. This could add another 1% based on performance linked to factors such as the gold price, gold revenue, gold produced or cost savings.

It’s doubtful whether this will have a significant impact on reducing the gap between the employers’ offer and the up to 100% demanded by some Unions. In addition, even a superficial glance at the proposal reflects some serious flaws that could be detrimental in the long run to both labour and employers. One can only hope that these flaws do not scuttle the concept itself and delay the inevitability of some form of fortune sharing in the industry.

Fortune sharing in mining has been a desperate need for a long time. It’s a volatile industry, consuming large amounts of high risk capital that has to be ploughed into a depreciating asset, and which simply cannot sustain inflexibility and constantly rising costs.

The graphic below of Harmony Gold mine’s Contribution Account, which I have extrapolated from its latest Integrated Report is an alarming reminder of just how close to the cliff edge most mines have come. The 68% share of wealth to labour is simply over the top. When I consulted to some mines in the 90’s that share was about 50% even in marginal operations. For South Africa as a whole, labour share of GDP is less than 50%.

While some argue that mining is a labour intensive industry, it is far less so than your conventional labour intensive operations such as retail or financial services. It’s a capital hungry industry. The 23% which goes to “savings” or retained income does not have the normal effect of enhancing equity value. It is consumed in capital expenditure such as underground development, shafts, headgear and plant -- most of which have no resalable value. You cannot sell a big hole in the ground – unless someone wants a giant long drop somewhere in the Free State.

In the end, the share of wealth creation should be a fair reflection of the contribution each of the constituents have made in response to the needs of the market – which in gold and most other commodities is an unforgiving place that simply has no interest in your needs and wants, fights and squabbles. In other industries you may get away with imposing such adolescent pettiness on the market through profiteering, collusion, price fixing, bid-rigging and lack of competitiveness. There’s no place for that in mining.

Ultimately, and for any business, real tangible value is created through having served and supplied its customers. That is indeed the common purpose of all of its participants or direct stakeholders.

This is the first serious flaw in the gold producers’ proposals. You can never forge a common purpose through rewards, only through contribution. While that contribution is vague in an industry that is market led rather than customer driven, the production and supply of gold to a world that needs and wants it, is the only common purpose that all involved have. Common purpose based on rewards breaks down when the reward of one is reduced by the reward of another, where higher profits are achieved through reducing the wage bill whether through lay-offs or lower wages; or vice versa.

A well-constructed variable pay system, particularly its ultimate form of fortune sharing, should never be a knee jerk response to wage demands. Flexible pay is not about incentive, but about involvement and engagement, about common purpose and common fate.

Variable pay is about flexibility and viability of the enterprise itself. It should never be a threat to profitability and sustainability. The industry has had an example of this where, some years ago, one marginal mine constructed a bonus scheme based on cubic meters mined underground. Month after month, employees were called in to receive bonuses for their huge and exhausting efforts. At one time, they were all called in to be informed that most of them had to be retrenched. While tons milled had shot up, both the ore grade and gold price had slumped, putting the mine over the edge into bankruptcy.

Virtually all of the proposed “triggers” in the current producers’ proposals can have the same effect. The exception is profit sharing itself, but this carries the danger of rewarding some at the expense of others which breaks a fundamental rule of common fate.

The only common fate metric that exists in any business is cash value added or wealth creation itself. It captures all eventualities and is, after all, the pie that feeds all. Sensible sharing has to be based on two fundamental principles: it has to meet the legitimate expectations of all of the stakeholders and it has to ensure continued contribution. But before you can even get there, the way that pie is currently divided has to reflect some balance. From Harmony’s figures, it would seem the industry is very far from that.

But it can be done. If the employers’ are prepared to let go of their silly, over prudent cap of a 1% increase on current wages to variable pay, they may even convince the Unions to peg current wages and sacrifice say half of their gains from an increase in wealth to restoring the balance. When this balance is restored, or at least comes close to being restored, there is no need for a cap. Indeed given an improved outlook for gold mining from a firmer gold price, cheap rand, containing outside costs, and lifting production through fewer work stoppages one could easily envisage average value-added for the industry lifting by between 10% and 20%. In the current state, retrenchments have to be seen as part of restoring balance but for those left, it would in principle imply at least a 10% increase in pay, albeit at risk. I say in principle because from there one can construct the actual split in a variety of ways to accommodate merit bonuses, safety performance, and specific cost savings.

Then there are many other, perhaps even more serious flaws in the proposal, which I dealt with in a recent article, but will repeat here:

There are four absolute pre-requisites for any form of flexible pay:

· It must be simple and understandable,

· It must have a clear line of sight where employees can see the effect of actions or events on wealth creation and their pay,

· It has to be accompanied by regular and understandable information sharing.

· Pay-outs or feedback must be regular – at least quarterly if not monthly.

Conventional profit sharing schemes can seldom meet these requirements – share option schemes even less so.

While the current proposals are a very far cry from the ideal, they at least represent the beginning of a shift to a more sustainable dispensation.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Revisiting indicators.

Counting what counts, as seen by the initiator of financial indicators in broadcasting in South Africa.

The recent Moneyweb article on “What the indicators are not telling us” sent me on a nostalgic trip to my days in broadcasting.

At that time, until about late 70’s, public broadcasting was a very minor player in economic news. The only dedicated business news broadcasts were 5-minute bulletins at 9.10 pm on the two non-commercial channels. They were to become the springboard for a separate economics news desk feeding news bulletins and talk shows on multiple outlets on Radio and Television and producing two Television shows, of which “Diagonal Street” was one.

I use the term “initiator” perhaps too modestly on the one hand and too conceitedly on the other. Regarding the former, it was more of a pioneering effort in a stubbornly resisting environment, and the latter: the quick growth of the economics department was largely due to a very dedicated team of professionals with whom I had the privilege to work in those formative years.

The indicators were first introduced in short news bulletins, where air time was jealously protected. In convincing the controllers of the validity of regular economic slots, we could not rely solely on examples elsewhere, and intense lobbying and discussions with leaders from various sectors, bankers, economists, brokers, the Treasury and the Reserve Bank clearly isolated the most important to a broad South African audience and how they in turn should interpret them in their daily decision making.

This is not purely a reflection on my past, but rather examining an important issue raised by the Moneyweb article which questioned their relevance today; what should be included and why. At the same time it may help you in applying the information in your own decisions. Our research and given the constraints of air time and target audience led to a number of pre-requisites and disciplines which arguably are still applicable today.

· They have to be brief and concise;

· they should be restricted to a few only and

· they have to be relevant to the country as a whole and not only to a specific sector or interest group.

Instead of the classic distinctions between leading, lagging and coincident indicators, it is more useful to think of them broadly as those that influence economic trends, and those that merely confirm or reflect those trends. It is perhaps a misnomer to call the daily and weekly prices and indices “indicators” because they clearly have to be maintained for a while to influence economic direction. It is also far more important to know what causes movements than to try and extrapolate their future impact. If you know and understand that then you have more than a casual grip on your economic circumstance.

Most economists will rely on monthly or quarterly figures to determine trends, and I’ll deal with those separately in a future article.

Our hunger for immediate information that influences future trends makes an absolute case for daily indicators. Context, reliable commentary, and authoritative interpretations should help even the less aware in assessing their trends and impact. An important rationale for daily indicators in the public media is to enhance a sense of awareness around their importance, and hopefully create a desire for further understanding. At the same time they should offer the informed a quick and concise alert system of developing events.

So what should we include and why?

Interest Rates.

A serious omission in the daily broadcasts today (and surprisingly elsewhere) is the debt markets. Foreign capital movements are our Achilles heel and these will be reflected in the daily movements on both the short term money markets and long term capital markets where debt is actively traded and new paper auctioned. We included both in our original bouquet: the money markets through the B.A. rate, and the capital market through RSA long term bonds. I cannot explain why these have disappeared, but any observer of these rates will have an early detection of the capital flows and trends.

Current movement in all the rates can be found on this page maintained by the Reserve Bank. SABOR on the money markets and the 10 year and longer daily average bond yields are probably the more telling. Despite all of the instruments at its disposal, the Reserve Bank cannot maintain a repo rate that does not reflect the pressures from these markets.

Exchange Rates.

An absolute must! At least we seem to be past the hackneyed and misguided “good for growth” argument for a cheap currency. Most people today have a good understanding of the implications of movements in exchange rates, and when they make news, we have enough professional and amateur commentators to trot out yesterday’s prepared scripts. All I would add is a repetition of what I wrote some time ago “a consistently strong currency reflects economic health and a weak currency the opposite”. But it could be argued that focus on the Dollar, British Pound and the Euro is a bit skewed. Most viewers will not see much beyond the dollar and perhaps a case should be made for the Reserve Bank’s nominal effective exchange rate.

Gold price.

Keep it! If it is assessed purely on gold mining’s contribution to GDP then it has lost considerable weight compared with when it was first included. But the gold price reflects more than export earnings, mining income and mine employment. It is still, albeit informally, an alternative currency to many which explains its place in international business slots.

Also, mining has a far greater multiplier effect on other industries than most other sectors. The viability of mines has a concentrated impact on specific communities, which may be a good reason for also keeping the platinum price as an indicator, where its export income now exceeds that of gold. But I have my doubts. And if we are focussed on export earnings then adding a R/kg price may be more useful for both gold and platinum.


Our original argument for its inclusion was based on the logic that share price movements were a reflection of both local and foreign sentiment. This is clearly no longer absolute, given a record breaking All Share index recently, at a time when for the most part the mood was gloomy. The explanation for this is the lack of attractiveness of other investments, continued growth in profits despite lower income growth, and executive rewards linked to share values. But equities still have a dominant impact on public investments such as pension funds, endowment policies and unit trusts, which are more broadly held today than 20 years ago. For a compact bouquet of daily indicators, however, I doubt whether I would want to argue for more than the ALSI.

Oil price.

A significant number of people are often surprised when petrol price adjustments are announced. This casts some doubt on the usefulness of this indicator. The confusion of course, is caused by the Rand conversion. It’s an important price to the economy, but perhaps it could be made more meaningful if it was reflected in Rand terms.

That would be my top five for a daily fare. In time past, I would have championed more, but with the plethora of economic news in various media today, a case can be made for clearing the clutter and focussing only on a handful for routine reflection and your own personal attention. Of course no indicator is insignificant but instead of routinely cluttering these crucial five, it would be better to have fuller treatment, contextualisation and explanation of their movements. An understanding of these indicators, what influences them, and how they impact on the economy, will go a very long way to enhancing economic literacy. I’m left wondering how many of our top leaders in parliament, labour and perhaps even elsewhere have even this very basic awareness.

Of course, you may have more suggestions, and sharing them with us in your comments will enrich this article.

The marvel of an economy is that it is a living, breathing organism where each cell impacts on others and the body as a whole. But what we too often ignore is that at its heart and soul are people; their hopes, fears, aspirations and expectations and the way they behave.

Now, if only we could find a daily indicator that would reflect that!