The gold price has fallen steadily from a high of just under $1800 an ounce last October to the current spot price of $1231 this morning.
How low can the gold price go from here?
In the simplest terms, prices fall when producers supply more to the market than buyers want at a given price. The price drops to the point where buyers are willing to absorb the excess supply. Typically, producers read the market signal and begin to cut back on the amount they put on the market. When cutbacks are large enough, the price stabilizes.
For most things, adjustment happens quickly. For gold …not so much.
Gold is mined in remote, inhospitable places by hardy workers who operate expensive and highly specialized machinery that needs considerable maintenance. Once a mine shuts down, chances are it won’t reopen. It’s hard to reassemble the needed mining crews…and it’s expensive to bring the plant and equipment back up to snuff. So mining companies try to avoid shutdown at all costs.
Part their planning tends to make over/undersupply worse rather than better.
As the gold price rises, mines continue to process the same amount of ore, but switch to lower-grade areas. This means they produce less gold, increasing the supply squeeze. Conversely, when prices being to fall–the situation we’re in now–mines routinely shift to processing higher-grade deposits. The idea is to keep their revenue steady–and therefore the mining crew together and the mine profitable. But putting more gold on the market tends to depress prices further.
waiting for the weak to falter
Experienced mining firms also know how any market downturn will play out, even if no one voluntarily withdraws supply from the market. At some point, the gold price will drop below the cash outlays of the highest-cost mines. When red ink causes enough of these to cease production, supply will shrink, restoring equilibrium.
…the gold price bottom question boils down to what cash costs for gold miners are and at what price do high-cost gold mines begin to die.
the Thompson-Reuters report
On April 4th, Thompson Reuters issued its 2013 Gold Survey.
TR says current average cash costs for the gold mining industry are $738 an ounce.
Average cash costs in 2009 were well under $500 an ounce, suggesting that that price level is highly defensible. The addition of high-cost South African supply (averaging over $1,000 an ounce) and cost increases in Australia (much of it currency-induced, I think) are responsible for most of the rise since.
Relative to nine months ago, gold looks cheap. But supply probably isn’t going to be withdrawn from the market until the gold price falls below $1,000. And rock-bottom (sorry) is probably $600 or so.
That’s a long way down.
To my mind, no one other than dyed-in-the-wool gold bugs will be interested in gold today.