Mongolia continues to confound investors

The mining sector makes up about 20% of Mongolia’s GDP, 40% of its budget income, 85% of its investment and 90% of its exports, but the uncertainty that permeates everything from the security of mineral tenure and resource rights to the enforcement of commercial contracts has taken a big toll on foreign direct investment levels, the growth of the private sector, and the nation’s foreign debt, warns Dale Choi, the Ulaanbaatar-based founder of Independent Mongolian Metals & Mining Research. 
Foreign direct investment in the country has fallen off a cliff since August 2012 — plunging about 47% year-on-year, while foreign reserves are depleting at a burn rate of US$175 million a month, foreign debt has ratcheted up to about 54% of GDP and there has been an 18% depreciation of the Mongolian currency against the U.S. dollar, according to Choi’s statistics.
Calling the current economic crisis in Mongolia “largely self-inflicted” — unlike the financial crisis of 2008 — Choi argues that Mongolia’s leadership has to get its act together if it hopes to reverse the collapse in foreign investment and re-assure foreign companies that it is in fact open for business and that there are laws in place to protect their investments.
“The fall session of Parliament commences Oct. 3, and while well overdue legislative change is a potential positive development in the near term, without flagship transactions and resolution of key security of tenure uncertainties we do not believe the foundation for a return towards private sector growth will be provided,” he says.
The uncertainties go much further than the impasse on project financing that lead Turquoise Hill Resources (TSX: TRQ; NYSE: TRQ) in August to announce that it would delay development of the underground Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine. They include erratic progress on a draft Minerals Law, the ongoing debate about royalty rates and the extent of state ownership. Other issues that worry investors are the concept of strategic deposits, fitful moratoriums on exploration licences and more recently, the fate of 106 licenses caught up in a government corruption scandal.
The latest concerns developed in January when a series of criminal court cases involving a number of high-ranking officials in the Mineral Resource Authority of Mongolia (MRAM) brought into question the legal rights and interests for the 106 exploration licence holders. Two of those involved in the case are D. Batkhuyag, the former head of the MRAM and L. Davaatsogt, the former head of geology in the mining department.
Kincora Copper (TSXV: KCC) is one of the foreign companies that holds title to two of the 106 Mongolian licences in question. In a corporate update to investors earlier this week, the company said that it continues to monitor its Tourmaline Hills and North Fox licenses, about 250 km from the Chinese border and about 140 km from Oyu Tolgoi.
In Kincora’s case, it has spent about $1.85 million in exploration on the two licences already. “The acquisition of the licences followed full detailed due diligence, with the licences confirmed to be in good standing by the Mineral Resource Authority of Mongolia (MRAM),” the company stated.
The junior estimates that the 106 licences “cover a landmass approximately six times larger in surface area than active mining licences in Mongolia.”
“Issues like the 106 case significantly impacts both current activities and the next generation of projects,” Choi notes, adding that he believes some of the foreign groups tangled up in the investigation of the MRAM officials “have already left the country” while others may do the same “if an adequate resolution is not agreed in a timely manner.”
Like most Mongolia watchers, however, Choi agrees that progress at Oyu Tolgoi is the key catalyst required to lift confidence. “OT needs to be successful to support positive investor sentiment toward Mongolia and further significant FDI,” he writes.
He estimates development of the underground operation was originally expected to produce about a third of the country’s GDP. “Originally it was expected that by now a US$4.2-billion project financing package, the largest of its kind ever in the global mining industry, to enable continued advanced of the underground mine would have been secured,” he adds. Instead, “approximately 2,000 jobs have been lost with a similar number still at risk.”
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