A strange thing occurred at 2:00 PM Eastern Time on Thursday. While the price of the SPDR Gold Shares ETF (GLD) continued its free-fall, curiously the price of the Gold Miners ETF (GDX) jumped on high volume, adding 2.5% for the day.
My first reaction was that the abnormal divergence between the spot cost of the metal from the price of miners’ shares must be due to some kind of quarter-end portfolio rebalancing. Upon further review of the day’s news, I think the miners’ revival may be the result of another impetus, which may continue to contribute support to miner stocks.
As the market opened, it appeared that gold was due for a “dead cat bounce” from drastic losses earlier in the week, and the Miners rebounded with the metal. However, by 1:00 PM, GLD had given back the gains and the miners were pulling back as would be expected. Near 2:00 PM a story was circulating on the newswire that the World Gold Council had issued new guidelines for analyzing gold mining companies. The WGC distributed “a Guidance Note on ‘all-in sustaining costs’ and ‘all-in costs’ metrics, which gold mining companies can use to report their costs as part of their overall reporting disclosure. The World Gold Council has worked closely with its member companies to develop these non-GAAP measures which are intended to provide further transparency into the costs associated with producing gold.”
In order to understand the significance of this news, we should revisit the Mark Twain assessment of the industry: a gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it. Too many investors have been burned by gold miners’ claims, and distrust keeps many others away from legitimate mine operators.
In order to prevent deceptive representation of a miner’s potential for profitability, the US Geological Survey, SEC and Canadian authorities have created strict reporting requirements. Categorization of a mine’s resources must meet certain requirements, and a more complete explanation of this may be reviewed in our SA article, Beware The Trap Door Under Miner’s Silver Reserves. Despite all the attempts at clarification, most investors have little faculty for understanding exactly what miners mean when they tout, “our production costs are below $400.” It is frustrating and difficult to understand why a miner cannot earn more profits with the spot price three or four times the production cost.
The problem is that the “operating cost” or “production cost” only factors in a small portion of the miners’ expenses, excluding things like corporate G&A, amortization, reclamation, some exploration and capital expenses, etc. A better measure is the WGC’s “sustaining cost,” which is the actual cost to sustain the operation, including all the above and other costs. The sustaining cost for most miners exceeds $1000 per ounce, including all the costs incurred by the company.
We think this news proved positive for miners’ stocks for the following reasons:
- The guidelines define an acceptable alternate to GAAP accounting that is consistent in the industry.
- They more realistically allow the comparison between the spot price and the company costs, and its relationship to profits.
- They bring to the investing public the realization that the spot price of gold cannot fall to triple digits without drastically affecting supply.
- They enable legitimately efficient companies to differentiate themselves from miners that promote their prospects with partial information.
The definition of “all-in costs” and “sustaining costs” can be found in the WGC guidance memo.
Although the “sustaining costs” have not been published for most miners, we added a calculation from the Alamos Gold investor presentation in the following table we sent to clients recently:
It is clear why Alamos Gold chose to highlight this metric in its presentation. In addition to low sustaining costs, we prefer mining companies to have some dividend yield, a moderate debt level and low political risk. As a comparison, the table also includes the current YAHOO analyst consensus number (lower is better).
Alamos Gold is the clear winner in the cost category, and the debt free balance sheet offers strong support for growing dividends even if the spot price drops. The dividend is lowest among these ten, but the company recently announced a share buyback program. In the recent earnings report, the company explained its intent to continue exploration and development of its properties, and these are initiatives that can readily be cut back if the gold drop becomes worse.
Yamana Gold is also attractive in this comparison with very low costs. Debt is also moderate, but some important properties are in politically-unpredictable Argentina. AUY has sold off more severely than most, so it may benefit from a bounce.
We also think that Newmont Mining and Goldcorp, Inc. should be on the watch list for bottom fishers.
We had considered $1246 per ounce as the support level for gold, although that appears too optimistic. That is the level in September 2010 when the price of gold exploded up, creating a gap-like phenomenon that had to be backfilled. It also is a point where some miners must evaluate how to sustain their operations, possibly to shut-in mines or slow production. This eventually will support the price of gold, although the immediate bearishness requires caution. However, if investors understand that the price of gold cannot continue indefinitely below its production price, miners like Alamos, Yamana and Goldcorp may justify a long-term investment. With the new reporting options from the World Gold Council, these stocks will be able to differentiate themselves from the crowd going forward.