Profits: ERA Earnings Dry Up As Wet, Market Slashe Profits

By Glenn Dyer | More Articles by Glenn Dyer

The resources boom missed ERA Ltd in 2010, but geological fate and mother nature didn’t.

As a result, ERA shares fell to their lowest level in over two years after the Rio Tinto subsidiary scrapped its final dividend because the impact of wet weather, lower ore grades and a drop in uranium sales slashed 2010 profit by 83%.

That forced the company to suspend most operations at Ranger for at least the next 12 weeks.

As a result, nearly $300 million was wiped off ERA’s market value on Friday as the shares fell to their lowest level since October 2008 after the release of the final profit report for 2010.

The uranium producer’s shares fell 13%, or $1.53, to $10.34 and hit a low of $10.10. 

The extent of ERA’s turnaround is made starker by considering the fact that it earned a record $273 million net profit in 2009; at the end of December 2010, its profit was just $47 million.

It’s not that the plunge has come as a surprise; the downturn in uranium oxide sales (and easing world prices) had been evident for most of the year.

That’s why the shares have fallen from the year’s high of $23.89 in the first couple of days of January 2010.

Sales of uranium oxide fell from 5497 tonnes in 2009 to 5026 tonnes, while the average sale price slipped from $US50.84 a pound to $US48.16 a pound.

That dropped revenue to $US572 million in 2010 from $US768 million in 2009.

And that was also due to another factor, the impact of the stronger Australian dollar on sales revenue when it was converted to Australian currency. 

The lower production also forced ERA to buy uranium from other producers to fulfill contracts in 2010 and in 2011.

"Purchased materials and consumables costs rose substantially due to the necessity to purchase uranium oxide to meet sales commitments. In 2010, due to lower than planned production, ERA purchased a total of 925 tonnes of uranium oxide, of which 653 tonnes related to 2010 sales commitments, " the company said in Friday’s statement.

In 2009 ERA paid a first-half dividend of 14¢ and a final dividend of 25¢ for a total of 39c a share.

For 2010, all investors will receive is the 8¢ a share interim dividend paid in August.

ERA said in Friday’s statement that it would not be wise to pay a final dividend with production still uncertain.

That uncertainty is partly due to the announcement yesterday that it would suspend operations at its Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory for 12 weeks due to higher-than-average rainfall.

ERA said the move was a precautionary measure to ensure that levels in its tailings storage facility remained below the authorised operating limit. By doing that the company will prevent an embarrassing and potentially expensive spill into the surrounding environmentally sensitive area.

The company said: ”Mining operations were severely hampered in the course of the year, due to an above-average wet season which limited access to higher-grade ore and geotechnical problems experienced with the south wall of the pit.

"As a consequence of the processing suspension, ERA’s 2011 production of uranium oxide is expected to be at a similar level to 2010, however actual production will depend on the actual level of rainfall for the remainder of the wet season.

 "Water levels in the TSF are currently higher than our predictions for this time of year," the company said in a statement.

"Further, the Bureau of Meteorology has forecast that the region will experience above average rainfall for the remainder of the 2010/11 wet season.

"The decision to temporarily suspend plant processing operations will significantly reduce inflows into the TSF and therefore will provide extra capacity to manage unexpected extreme rain events in the coming months.

"Normal wet season mining operations will continue as planned while the plant downtime will be used for maintenance and improvement initiatives.

"As a result further guidance on the outlook for production this year would be given with the March quarter operations review," ERA said.

Glenn Dyer

About Glenn Dyer

Glenn Dyer has been a finance journalist and TV producer for more than 40 years. He has worked at Maxwell Newton Publications, Queensland Newspapers, AAP, The Australian Financial Review, The Nine Network and Crikey.

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