Metal price Comparison
Looking at the returns of base metals, copper price was $0.80/lb in 1999 and now its around $US3.50/lb. Copper producers have never had it so good. Now consider the situation in the Australian gold mining sector. Despite a 70% increase in the gold price from $390 to $665 an ounce in the last 3 years in US terms, the 22% rise in the $AUD over the same period meant that the gold price in Australian dollar terms increased by just 40% from $555 to $775 an ounce.
Japanese gold producers have done far better given that the 7% depreciation in the yen over the same period means gold prices over the same period increased by 82%.
The fortunes of the gold industry
Currently the bulk of Australia's gold producers are facing difficult operating conditions, whether its staff or material shortages, rapid increases in mining costs or poor grade reconciliation. While their base metals peers have been raking in the profits, several gold miners have gone into administration, including BMA Gold, Croesus Mining and Gleneagle Gold. Others such as Batavia Mining and A1 Minerals have been forced to delay their projects rather than undermine the viability of their projects.
Consider that Barrick Gold's cash production costs rose 38% between 2005 to 2006 for its Australian and Papua New Guinean operations, whilst Newmont's costs rose 18% in Australia and NZ over a later 1 year period. More broadly, global gold cash costs have nearly doubled since 2001. Some producers have faired better than others, eg. Barrick has hedged much of its exposure to the Australian dollar at lower rates.
Whilst the global economy becomes de-leveraged by falling asset prices and rising inflation, the gold sector is likely to benefit on both fronts because:
1. The value of gold to the total size of the global economy still has gold under-priced. Gold as we have already indicated has not risen like other commodities
2. Divestiture of other assets leads people into the safety of bonds, but gold for high returns. But gold is a very small market so expect volatility and significant price advances .
The paradox is that gold miners will benefit from the next leg of the gold boom for several reasons:
1. Gold was the laggard in the 2nd stage of the commodities cycle - but not this time - it will rise greatly whilst other metals fall off.
2. Gold (and other metals) will benefit from a weaker $AUD
Gold investment strategy
There is no question that gold miners offer superior exposure to rising gold prices than gold metal (coins or exchange traded funds), but you need to be selective. Consider the following:
1. Location: Seek gold miners located in non-resource based economies, or economies in which mining represents a small portion of the global economy (China, USA), as these countries will not experience stronger currencies as gold prices increase. There are a number of miners in Africa (Resolute Gold, Sub-Sahara Resources), Thailand (Kingsgate Cons), as well as explorers. Eg. Azumah Res, Castle Minerals in Africa.
2. Gold resources: Look for gold stocks that have a large inventory of gold resources because they offer a longer mine life. We are looking for a life of 15+ years. We are more impressed by miners that have large gold inventories because they are more likely to be taken over.
3. Low cost production: Look for miners with lower cash production costs, whether because they have higher grades than normal, significant credits for associated metals, or very favourable ore characteristics, eg. Large, tabular, shallow ore bodies suitable to cheap bulk extraction.
4. Low capital costs: Look for miners with low capital costs, whether because it’s a simple gravity separation process only, a cheap heap leach operation, or they have conscripted a third party plant for toll treatment.
5. No hedging: We don’t want to see gold price hedging, or if they have hedging, it should be for a small proportion of production or will be paid out soon. We should reflect favourably on producers that hedged their currency at lower rates, but any fresh currency hedging now would be a negative factor. We want maximum exposure to the gold price increase.
6. Scalability: We should look favourably upon gold producers who have the capacity to scale up production from existing plant through minor modifications or resource upside.
7. Discounts: We would prefer stocks trading at a discount to market parities. Particularly projects which have low gold grades, so they have the greatest upside from higher prices.
8. Options: We are particularly interested in stocks that have low-priced options because they offer low-cost entry into promising stocks.
A lot of Australian companies are looking outside Australia to find larger ore bodies, as well as to reduce mine costs. Sino Gold's open pit mining costs are one-third the Australian costs, while the salary of a skilled mining operator is about one-fifth of the equivalent Australian labour. This shift in exploration overseas and lost prospectivity has taken its toll on Australian gold production, since it has fallen to its lowest level in 15 years, whilst China had overtaken Australia as the world's third-largest producer. But the other reason gold exploration has floundered is because gold prices have lagged, so more money has gone into uranium, iron ore and base metals. The number of new IPOs for these metals has way surpassed new gold floats. But the major miners still like Australia and see it as part of a global portfolio with lower political risks helping to offset the higher costs.
- Andrew Sheldon www.sheldonthinks.com