Busting Miners Pulling Down FTSE


Since getting flirty with 7,000 on 22 May, the FTSE 100 has slipped 8% in three weeks and now seems to be eyeing 6,000.

Some of the biggest losers have been miners, with giants BHP Billiton (LSE: BLT) (NYSE: BBL.US) and Rio Tinto both losing almost 12% of their value.

In fact, BHP and Rio have had the least painful three weeks of their FTSE 100 brethren:


3-week return

Anglo American


Glencore Xstrata


Vedanta Resources


Eurasian Natural Resources Corp




BHP Billiton


Rio Tinto


While this recent sell-off has been dramatic, miners have been struggling for some time.

Falling metal prices over the past year have dented company results. Back in February, BHP reported its half-year operating cash flow had fallen 48%, while Rio said its operating cash flow had dropped 53%.

Furthermore, accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCooper recently reported that earnings for the top 40 miners in the world fell 49% last year.

With a yield of 4.1% and trading at under 6 times operating cash flow, BHP may look attractive at first glance, but the market's fear may be justified if metal prices don't recover.

And with reduced cash flow, BHP will have to be more selective about which new projects it pursues to continue growing.

With cash flow eroding rapidly, miners big and small have been rethinking new mine projects, which has had knock-on effects.

Australia, which largely dodged the economic pain brought on by the global financial crisis because of China's steady demand for raw materials, has been showing signs of stress.

Indeed, the state of Western Australia -- home to much of the mining boom -- saw unemployment rise to 5.2% in April, and some are calling for the state's first recession in 20 years.

So is this the end of the commodities super-cycle -- a near-decade run of rising metal prices as the industry tried to keep up with new demand from China's booming economy -- or is this just the market being spooked by the headlines?

There are some big investing names, such as Jim Rogers and Jeremy Grantham, that would argue that this is a short-term blip on the commodities radar because we are rapidly using up finite resources.

And while economies such as China may have slowed, they still have a long way to grow. In fact, both Mr Rogers and Mr Grantham have argued that you should scoop up resource companies on any pullback.

Whether they're right or not remains to be seen, but at least for now it looks like we're witnessing the normal fluctuations in commodity markets -- rising demand drives prices up and draws people into more exploration and production, which increases supply and causes prices to plummet again. Such is the life of a commodity producer.

That's why I prefer companies that can control the price of their goods. This control usually comes from having strong brand names, some sort of strong intellectual property, or a dominant market position.

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