more on gold

just to clear the air

I was interviewing a prominent tycoon in Hong Kong  in the mid-1980s when the topic turned to gold.  He told me that he had long since sold all the gold bars he had once used to store his wealth.  He was now holding currency and currency derivatives instead.  I soon found that this was the norm among the rich and powerful in what had once been the center of gold bug-dom.

This was akin to travelling to southern California and seeing budding cultural trends in the US.  That’s when I began to realize that gold that had lost its function universal function as a store of wealth.  Yes, gold retains this function in third world countries like India, where people don’t trust or can’t afford banks, but–in my view–nowhere else.

As fun as it might be to elaborate on this theme, I want to write more about the mechanics/quirks of the gold market–mostly about production–than about popular delusions.

about supply

–Inventories, held either as gold bars or in jewelry, dwarf production.  As decision of holders in the three biggest markets–India, China and central banks– to liquidate can have a significant effect on price.

–Gold mines typically have pockets of ore that are very rich in gold and others that are relatively thin.  Industry practice is to aim for maximum sustainable mine life.  This means mining larger amounts of relatively poor ore are when prices are high and shifting the mix toward richer ore  when prices are low.  One practical consequence of this practice is that actual production cost figures from the past few years of high prices are going to overstate the cost of production in today’s lower price world. Another is that production amounts tend at least initially to expand when prices fall.

–When mines get in financial trouble they begin to “high grade,” meaning they produce exclusively from their richest ore deposits and they cut the amount they usually spend on maintenance and on developing newer areas to mine.  This is ultimately destructive of a mine’s long-term prospects, but it ups near-term cash flow–and it can go on for an extended period.

–When I began studying gold mining companies in the late 1970s – early 1980s, gold miners were very financially conservative because they understood clearly that their industry was subject to violent ups and downs in price.  Their number one rule was to have no debt and a large cash reserve.  That’s no longer the case.  Heavy borrowing urged by CFOs with academic finance training but little industry experience has meant that mines need to generate enough cash to service debt as well as pay operating costs.  This intensifies the need to generate maximum cash flow, even at the expense of diminishing long-term mine viability.

–Bankruptcies may help the orebodies.  But because they remove the burden of debt service, they make the near-term supply situation worse, not better.

my conclusions

The gold price can go lower, and stay depressed for a longer period, than I think most people expect.

gold mining stocks?

gold mining stocks

I spent part of the day yesterday looking at gold mining stocks.

the potential attraction?  …over two years of dreadful performance.

Since mid-2011, the gold price is down by about a third.  Over the same time span, many gold stocks have lost between half and three-quarters of their value.  And that’s during a period when the S&P is up by about 50%.

Sentiment about gold has also taken a decidedly negative turn.  Hedge fund managers are no longer bloviating (how about that word?) about the superiority of the yellow metal over “fiat money.”  Boiler rooms are no longer filling the airwaves their odd sales pitch that “Gold has tripled over the past five years.  (Therefore you should) buy some now!!”

In addition, I think that 2014 will be a year of consolidation for the S&P.  So a 3% dividend yield plus the chance of, say, a 15% gain looks to me to be substantially more attractive than it might have been a year or two ago.

my verdict

I’m not so interested, for two reasons:

1.  I think the gold price is still too high.  In the past, the gold price hasn’t bottomed until it reaches a level where at least some existing mines become uneconomical.  This means that the cash a company must spend (not including non-cash costs like depreciation) to produce an ounce of gold is greater than the selling price.  As best I can tell (a long time ago, I would have considered myself an expert, but I’m certainly not one now), that’s below $1,000 an ounce.  The price may never get there, but, as an investor, I’m looking for situations with more upside than downside.  I don’t see that here.

2.  I don’t think companies have completely stabilized themselves yet.  The industry took on a lot of debt to fund what have turned out to be ill-advised capacity expansions at the top of the market.  That’s par for the course.

As far as I can see, these projects have by and large been at least temporarily mothballed.  However, there’s still the debt to deal with.  It isn’t so much that there are borrowings on the balance sheet that bothers me.  It’s that financially leveraged firms have to continue to mine in order to repay their lenders.  So supply isn’t taken off the market as quickly as it might otherwise be.  A number of companies had stock offerings last year.  Good for them, but this just prolongs the adjustment period.

All in all, I don’t find the risk/reward to be favorable enough right now.  Maybe in six months.