market scenarios awaiting rate prospects

The gold remained little moved in February, closing below $2,000 an ounce on February 13 and 14 before rising and holding above this level for the rest of the month. It ultimately settled at $2,044 an ounce on February 29, up 0.23% on the month. I wrote itand Imaru Casanova, Portfolio Manager, Gold and precious metals by VanEck, in a long analysis that analyzes the main trends on the gold market.

Gold on pause awaiting rate prospects

“Readings of the US core and headline consumer price index (CPI) for the month of January – explains the expert – were higher than consensus forecastspostponing the likelihood of a rate cut by the US Federal Reserve (Fed). later in the year and putting pressure on gold mid-month. Afterwards, gold found support to set an average closing price of $2,029 per ounce this year, not bad, whereas, over the same period, the US dollar (as measured by the DXY1 index) rose by 2.8% and investment demand in physical gold (as measured by holdings of gold-backed ETFs) fell by 3.7% . While physical gold was seemingly underappreciated last month, gold stocks performed disappointingly. The NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index (GDMNTR)2 and the MVIS Global Juniors Gold Miners Index (MVGDXJTR)3 fell 6.10% and 6.84% respectively in February, further widening the already significant valuation gap versus to the metal. However, the first days of March brought some relief to gold equity investors, with gold mining stocks clearly outperforming physical gold, while gold has reached new all-time highs.”

“It could be the beginning of a regression trend to the average which sees gold mining stocks once again show their leverage relative to the gold price and outperform physical gold when gold prices are rising. For reference, GDMNTR would need to more than double from current levels to reach its August 2011 peak, so there still appears to be a fair amount of potential for escape just based on historical performance.”

Gold miners are really giving it their all

Last month – writes Casanova – “we participated in the BMO Global Metals, Mining and Critical Minerals Conference. We met with executives from more than 40 gold and precious metals companies. This conference offers an excellent opportunity to take the pulse of the sector, identify trends and themes, receive updates from individual companies and potentially discover new investment ideas”. Here are some of our key findings:

  • Location, location, location – It is no secret that mining companies face many risks related to the regions in which they operate. However, it is important (and necessary if you want to invest in the sector) to distinguish between broader jurisdictional risk and risks specific to mining operations. We encountered companies with projects in regions/jurisdictions considered geopolitically risky – including countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Guyana, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea and Ethiopia – but with managements that appear to enjoy operational stability in these locations. Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea appear to be considered pockets of stability in the complex West African region. West Africa, a challenging jurisdiction due to the geopolitical landscape, continues to be one of the best regions to discover and develop gold resources from an exploration, permitting, labor and capital efficiency perspective. Although companies seem more cautious about the changes and developments taking place in countries such as Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, the overall outlook regarding mine management and investments appears to be optimistic.
  • Set expectations – Companies are well aware of the importance of achieving their announced goals. We communicated the urgent need to develop detailed methodologies that enable companies to do this successfully, given the complexity and numerous variables involved in forecasting production, operating and capital costs for operations and projects. Companies with advanced and conservative guidance-setting processes should benefit from the significantly higher valuation multiples that come from meeting or exceeding expectations.
  • Refocus on cost control – Following a wave of inflation that has significantly increased operating and capital costs over the past two years (mostly outside the control of mining companies), there is a renewed focus on the implementation of cost control and reduction initiatives. We also reportedly hear that Australian jobs inflation is easing after 2 years. It appears that inflationary pressures have eased and that, combined with companies' efforts to reduce costs, average industry costs are expected to remain around current levels.
  • Free cash flow abounds – Although rising production costs have put pressure on margins, at current gold prices companies are generating a lot of cash. For example, one of our mid-tier holdings, with a market capitalization of $1.5 billion, holds over $640 million in cash and zero debt. The company pays a dividend and is looking to make acquisitions to put cash to work. However, with operating cash flow of more than $400 million per year, the company looks set to continue building its financial reserves. This bodes well for dividend-seeking investors, as companies are committed to establishing sustainable base dividends with the possibility of bonus or special dividends should free cash flow expand.
  • Acquisitions come with challenges – At both the asset and company levels, integrating new projects and operations brings risks and challenges. Acquiring companies must provide updated strategies, restructuring plans, operational and financial forecasts. This increases the risks for these companies and creates uncertainty in the markets. Companies must be able to manage these risks in their pursuit of growth and value creation. In the long run, acquisitions will pay off for stronger management teams. However, in the short term, these acquisitions can create downward pressure on their shares.

The scenarios

“The gold mining industry is without a doubt a very demanding activity”concludes the expert who also underlines the awareness of gold mining companies to “concentrate their efforts on reducing the risk of their activities, on reducing costs, improving shareholder returns and aiming for disciplined growth with the participation, support and benefit of host countries and communities, in a manner responsible and ethical from an environmental point of view”.