Crisis could delay Iluka's demerger

ILUKA Resources says it still plans to proceed with the demerger of its Mining Area C royalty this year, but admits the timing remains uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Chairman Greg Martin, who assured shareholders attending the Iluka's virtual annual general meeting that he had shaved and gotten out of his pyjamas, said the company's initial plan was to provide an update on the timing of the demerger.

However, Martin said the travel restrictions and social distancing measures due to coronavirus meant the timing was still unclear.

"You will appreciate that the practicalities of executing a demerger - including matters such as shareholder engagement, arranging and holding an extraordinary general meeting and the like - are somewhat difficult and unpredictable in the current climate," he said.

"I can assure shareholders this morning that preparations are continuing and the board will proceed with the demerger when it is practicable to do so.

"We will update the market in this regard as and when appropriate."

 Martin reiterated it was still the company's intention to undertake the demerger this year.

Iluka said its response to the pandemic was becoming more "business as usual" in Australia, with managing director Tom O'Leary confirming the company had maintained operational continuity.

"The company's supply chains too remain fully operational at this time and we are moving product as planned," he said.

Still, Iluka withdrew its 2020 guidance due to the uncertainty around potential impacts.

"We have demonstrated in the past the flexibility to adjust our operational settings in line with market conditions as required," O'Leary said.

"The executive is working through a number of potential scenarios in this regard and we will update the market in the event of any changes."

The March quarter is traditionally a seasonally low period for zircon sales, which this year has been exacerbated by factory shutdowns in China.

"The pace at which factory utilisation and capacity rates in China normalise will be an important influence on our zircon sales for the remainder of the year," O'Leary said.

"It is perhaps also worth noting that a number of our zircon customers are themselves supplying to customers located in Europe, including Italy and Spain, where the pandemic has hit especially hard. As in 2019, we will work with our customers to adjust product offerings as necessary to meet their requirements and market conditions more broadly."

O'Leary said Iluka had the balance sheet strength to endure a global downturn with no debt and undrawn facilities of A$519 million.

However, the pandemic will result in delays to some of the project's in the company's pipeline.

"Whereas we had scheduled for the first half of 2020 key mining trials at Balranald in New South Wales and Sembehun in Sierra Leone, both, by necessity, have been delayed until at least later in 2020," O'Leary said.

"The completion of preliminary feasibility studies for our Wimmera and Atacama projects have also been delayed to 2021.

"Some activities can still be progressed despite the pandemic; and work on these projects this year will focus on addressing their respective technical challenges. Each of these delays is obviously frustrating, particularly given our project pipeline has a number of very important opportunities."

In Western Australia, the commissioning of phase one of the Eneabba mineral sands recovery project is proceeding with first sales expected in the third quarter.

"It will establish our re-entry into the market for monazite - a mineral containing rare earths - and mark an important diversification for the company," O'Leary said.

All resolutions were overwhelmingly closed and Martin closed the meeting by saying he hoped next year's AGM would revert to a traditional gathering.

Shares in Iluka were up nearly 1% to $7.19. The stock reached a 2020 peak of $10.03 in late February.