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John Stephenson's Predictions for Avoiding an Economic Crash

Source: Zig Lambo of The Gold Report  (9/28/12)

John  Stephenson While the markets have been on edge for the past year or so and have left most investors bewildered as to what to do next, portfolio manager and author John Stephenson thinks that the course is set for higher gold prices. In this exclusive interview with The Gold Report, Stephenson explains why he thinks we will avoid a worldwide economic crash and how the continuing QEs and foreign government bailouts will push more investors into the gold and mining share markets as gold moves above $2,000/ounce. He also talks about some of his favorite gold mining names that should be good vehicles to profit from this move.

The Gold Report: Since you last spoke with The Gold Report in January, we've had a seemingly self-feeding cycle of expectations, plans, bailouts, lack of results and back-to-the-drawing-board. Do you see any ultimate resolution to the world's economic dilemma, or will we somehow just muddle through, or have to go through an actual crash of some sort?

John Stephenson: I think we'll basically muddle through from here. We've had several important developments over the last few weeks. The Federal Reserve's Quantitative Easing 3 (QE3) $40 billion program targeting mainly mortgage securities has the potential to move the needle. There was a big rally to risk assets when that was announced but that has faded somewhat. The other huge thing is the announcement by European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi that he would defend the euro at all costs. Later he talked about a bailout plan called the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program that would involve unlimited purchases of sovereign debt for up to three years. The devil is in the details and it may not get implemented in the way the market interpreted it, but nonetheless, that was very positive.

Then the Bank of Japan turned positive with its stimulation of the economy. Lastly, China announced a ¥1 trillion stimulus program directly linked to real infrastructure. So, we think that with the ECB, the Fed, and to a lesser degree the Bank of Japan and the Chinese, we have a very promising case for a slow upward grind in the market. I think the Armageddon or crash scenario has essentially been removed from the marketplace and stocks and commodities are biased higher in this environment. Is it going to be a resumption to robust growth? No, because the West, primarily Europe and to a lesser degree the U.S., still have slow growth ahead as consumers deleverage and as the economies get back on track.

TGR So, basically, the world got ahead of itself in this big race to develop, and all it really did was mortgage its future. Now it's having to pay back the mortgage.

JS: I think that's absolutely right. People took out these big bets on real estate, mainly in countries like Spain, Ireland and the U.S. As a result, we had bubbles forming in much of the world, in sunny places where people wanted to retire like Florida, Nevada and California. The same is true in Europe, whether it be Spain, Italy, Greece, etc. So, real estate became the flavor de jour over the last decade or so and we're still dealing with the overhang and will be for some time.

"Things are looking better in the U.S. and housing prices and consumer confidence is turning up."

Things are looking better in the U.S. and housing prices and consumer confidence is turning up. I think the Fed has done a great job of getting the economy going. Is it perfect? No, far from it. We still have far too many people unemployed in the U.S. Nonetheless, it's looking a lot better than it was a couple of years ago. So, that's the good news and the silver lining. In time we can work our way out of these problems. And, that's why I'm a little more optimistic than pessimistic right now.

TGR: The other big asset class is obviously stocks. Have the markets turned into little more than a big poker game with mainly short-term maneuvering and no real long-term investment strategy, or is this about all that most investors can do in this market environment?

JS: You've keyed on a couple of important things. I would say the markets certainly appear somewhat range-bound; I don't see much more upside going forward. We've had a good run with the S&P 500, up 16% year-to-date. The Toronto Stock Exchange is up roughly 4%. The Canadians have lagged and it's harder to find good value out there. Markets are trading around 12˝ to 13 times next year's earnings, which is not that expensive, historically. But, the problem is the things that seem to be working, the dividend paying stocks, are getting to be quite a crowded trade.

And, I think the other thing that's happened is many people have been sitting on the sidelines waiting to get involved. You see that in mutual fund flows, where in spite of the very strong returns on the S&P 500, equity funds have had net outflows for almost all of the last 52 weeks that have been going mainly into fixed-income. Investors are scared and don't know what's going on. They see the pain, at least in their neighborhood or their community, with high levels of unemployment and lack of hiring. All the cheerleading out of Washington and even out of Wall Street just can't overcome that things are still tough. But, the reality is, at least by the numbers, that things are starting to improve. Ultimately, that's a good thing. And, it will be very good for equities going forward. I think we just need to see unemployment start falling before some enthusiasm returns in the space.

TGR: So, people just need to feel better about taking a little risk, and right now they're just parking their money and doing nothing?

JS: I think that's right. People run back to the safety of U.S. government debt when they start worrying about the bigger problems out there, like Europe and to a lesser degree China. They would rather just get a return of capital then a return on capital. But, once rates start going up, bond funds will start losing money and maybe they'll rethink their strategy and perhaps go into equities where there seems to be some growth. At that point in the cycle, I think you'll see a reversal, which will be good for equities and potentially good for commodities as well.

TGR: So, next month you'll be speaking at the big World Money Show in Toronto. What's going to be the theme in your discussions?

JS: The talk is titled "Booms, Busts and Bailouts." I think that's what we're experiencing globally and we're going to see these rallies as news is unveiled about another round of quantitative easing—we'll probably have QE4 and QE5 before all is over. Then we'll have little busts as some of these issues disappoint. It wasn't too long ago that Spain didn't look as if it was going to approach the two European bailout funds for help. Now it looks as if they may. So, you're going to have these mini-booms and mini-busts for the next year at least and maybe well into 2014. The banking sector in Spain is one of the current issues of concern, so we'll be talking about that. We'll also be talking about the slowing in China and the potential problems looming in Japan around the corner. There's lots to talk about and I'm expecting a great turnout. We look forward to seeing as many of you there as possible.

TGR: It seems that everybody has been banking on China to carry the rest of the world. Has that been more hope and expectation then reality?

JS: China is a developing economy and some countries, like Australia, are much more linked to China because of iron ore demand and prices that have tumbled down to $88/ton from close to $200/ton. So, it's been a tough year for many of the bigger mining companies, like BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP:NYSE; BHPLF:OTCPK) and Rio Tinto Plc (RIO:NYSE; RIO:ASX; RIO:LSE; RTPPF:OTCPK). China can only do so much, which Chinese officials have been saying for years. They've also been saying for years that they want slower growth and are concerned about a potential housing bubble on that gold coast. The Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing markets are now showing domestic inflationary worries, primarily over food, even though China's inflation is down to about 2% from around 6%. China matters now primarily as a commodities consumer. The rate of change is toward slower growth economically, which is bad for commodity prices generally. The good news is that it's trying to stimulate and there's lots of room for that. The problem is that it's going to have to do all of that in order to light a fire under commodities.

TGR: In connection with that, Australia's Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, was quoted a few days ago saying that he thinks the global boom in commodity prices is over. Is he taking the Australian perspective in the iron ore market or do you think he's right overall?

JS: I don't think he's right overall. He's probably right as far as base metals and maybe iron ore are concerned. If you talk about other metals, like gold, I think he'd be much more bullish about it. Oil has a very bullish case unfolding because the days of low oil prices are dead and gone. So, I think it's really an Australian view. But, I think it's fair to say that the best days for commodities may be behind us, although it's certainly not universal. We've seen some very strong moves also in the grains over this period of time. Of course, with the exception of wheat, it's not really a market that Australia is dominant in. So, I think he's talking up his book or talking down his book, as the case may be.

TGR: On the other hand, Merrill Lynch just came out with a projection for gold to hit $2,400/ounce (oz) by 2014, based on QE3 and what may follow. That seems to be a pretty optimistic price projection from one of the big names in the investment business, if you compare that to where the Dow would go on a 35% move—18,500. It seems as if they may be being overly optimistic. What do you think?

JS: I tend to agree with you. Could I see $2,000/oz or even $2,100/oz gold? Absolutely. It's fairly realistic to think that might occur in the next four to six months. The argument for gold is really that it is a currency and a hedge against the debasement of fiat or paper currency. But, in reality, that's not what's happening on the ground. The Fed is doing what it can but it's not increasing the money supply. All it is doing is buying up bonds, creating deposits at the Federal Reserve that member banks can access. The commercial banks are increasing their reserves, but until they start lending, there's really no multiplier out in the market and therefore the money supply isn't growing. Can it? Yes, but it depends on the credit health of Americans getting better, which thankfully it is. So, hopefully, we'll start seeing more lending and more spending in the economy, but right now that's not the case.

TGR: We'll have to see how realistic its projections are because Merrill Lynch is talking about all the way into 2014.

JS: That's a long way. We'll be a couple of more Money Shows down the road before we see on that one. Investors should look for higher gold prices but I think $2,000/oz is probably a more realistic target, within 6 to 12 months.

TGR: Turning to the companies in the mining business, obviously the majors would get the first crack at investor money. What do you like these days in the majors?

JS: One of the most attractive majors right now is Barrick Gold Corp. (ABX:TSX; ABX:NYSE). It's dirt-cheap and has really been weak for many years. It now has a new CEO, an internal guy who's focusing much more on operations to run it like a real business with a portfolio management approach. Mines will have to compete for capital. There's going to be an emphasis on total return, with shareholder dividend payments and repaying some of the debt.

"I'm a little more optimistic than pessimistic right now."

It also has this African Barrick Gold Plc (ABG:LSE) piece. It could spin that out with the likely buyer being a Chinese gold company or an arm of the Chinese government. Barrick is now a focused company and the largest gold producer in the world with so much potential upside. Once people see that higher gold prices in the $1,800–1,900/oz range are here to stay, with many years of quantitative easing coming, then I think this will be the go-to name for generalist investors and big mutual fund complexes.

TGR: What else do you like in the majors?

JS: Kinross Gold Corp. (K:TSX; KGC:NYSE) is another great name that's finally turned the corner. It has a new CEO named Paul Rollinson and there's a management change coming on. Kinross has a big asset in Mauritania called Tasiast, which Kinross has essentially bet the farm on. The new CEO has decided to take a wait-and-see approach there, after the previous CEO bet his whole reputation on it. It's a major project but the grade is relatively low and we're finally seeing a more realistic communication with the Street. The stock has come off because of concerns over management, the project feasibility and the large capital expenditure required. With this more measured approach, Kinross' valuation is dirt-cheap.

I also highlight Newmont Mining Corp. (NEM:NYSE) as a good larger-cap name.

Among the midtier players, Eldorado Gold Corp. (ELD:TSX; EGO:NYSE) is a name that I would highlight as a good buy. It's had some hiccups in Romania where the government tried to tear up an environmental permit on its fully permitted Certej project. It does have production coming from several areas: China, Turkey, Greece and Brazil. It has disappointed investors in the last year, but is now well positioned as a lower cost producer.

The other midtier name worth talking about is Yamana Gold Inc. (YRI:TSX; AUY:NYSE; YAU:LSE). This is a company that is growing its production and producing almost 300,000 oz. It's operations in Brazil, the Chapada mine, and the Mercedes mine in Mexico have done better than forecast. Yamana is one of the names that probably has the best growth in the midtiers. We like it because it's been consistently meeting or outperforming expectations.

"The argument for gold is really that it is a currency and a hedge against the debasement of fiat or paper currency."

Claude Resources Inc. (CRJ:TSX; CGR:NYSE.MKT) is a name that was causing some worry for its shareholders for a while but it looks as though it is managed to be fairly cash-flow positive on its Seabee mine in Saskatchewan. It doesn't really get any credit for its prospective properties—the Madsen project in Red Lake and the Amisk in northern Saskatchewan. Its balance sheet has improved and I think this is one that new money can go into and get a little bit of upside in.

TGR: Claude goes back into the early 1980s, as I recall.

JS: It's a survivor. It's been in these near-death situations several times and has been able to ride them out. Management is great and I think this is a name that many small-cap investors could look to.

TGR: Do you think it's going to take $2,000/oz gold before people start getting really excited about the smaller explorers, or are we in an age of a hundred survivors and a whole bunch of little derelicts floating around?

JS: We could see a little culling of the herd because financing has dried up for them. Capital is a huge problem and many of these guys are reluctant to sell production forward to someone like Franco-Nevada Corp. (FNV:TSX; FNV:NYSE) because they feel that they'd be selling away their future.

I think investors are still skeptical about the strength of the gold market. Although the actions of the Fed, the ECB and the Bank of Japan, acting in concert, are providing a good tailwind for the sector, many gold companies have had high costs and have disappointed investors for some time, so they've lost a bit of institutional following.

My suggestion to investors is to concentrate first on some of the bigger players that are also cheap relative to historical multiples. They've started to get a bit of a lift finally in the last month or so. Then, once you make a little money on those larger-cap names, you can look to the juniors that have survived and gone through some of these hiccups. Chances are those survivors are going to be around for a while longer.

TGR: So, what's your takeaway position on how investors should approach the current market?

JS: I think you'll certainly get lots of upside if Merrill Lynch and people like First Asset are correct, that gold will go higher. There's plenty of time to start picking away at some of these smaller names. Many of them are going to be news-flow driven. Valuations are certainly cheap. You just want to be careful to pick a few of the winners that will be survivors and are going to be able to hang through the tough times.

TGR: How has your First Asset portfolio performed since we last talked?

JS: We've done well with a lot of them. We have Barrick Gold Corp. and Yamana Gold and they have been terrific. IAMGOLD Corp. (IMG:TSX; IAG:NYSE) is another one we like a lot that's been good for us and is still extremely cheap. One of the smaller names we've done well with in the past is Osisko Mining Corp. (OSK:TSX). Detour Gold Corp. (DGC:TSX) is looking good as well, as more of a development play at this point. We're starting to warm up to the bigger-cap names that I mentioned, such as Barrick. We've previously has good success with Goldcorp Inc. (G:TSX; GG:NYSE) although I'm a little worried about some of the grade issues at Red Lake. This is one to keep on your radar screens, but it's not necessarily anything you need to buy today.

TGR: Well, there are a few good names to consider and things are looking reasonably optimistic from here. Thanks for checking in with us, John, and let's keep our fingers crossed until next time.

JS: I look forward to it.

John Stephenson is a senior vice president and portfolio manager with First Asset Investment Management Inc., where he is responsible for a wide range of equity mandates with a particular focus on energy and resource investing. He has been recognized by Brendan Wood International (BWI) as one of Canada's 50 best portfolio managers for the past three years. He is the author of The Little Book of Commodity Investing (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), which has been translated into five languages, and Shell Shocked: How Canadians Can Invest After the Collapse (John Wiley & Sons, 2009), and writes a free bi-weekly investment newsletter, Money Focus, which reaches a global audience of more than 125,000.

Stephenson is regularly quoted by Bloomberg News, Reuters, The Associated Press,
The Wall Street Journal and The Globe and Mail and is a frequent guest on Bloomberg TV, CNBC, CNN, Fox Business and Canada's Business News Network (BNN), Sun TV and the CBC. He is frequently the keynote speaker at investment conferences throughout North America. Stephenson holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Waterloo, an MBA from INSEAD, as well as the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and Financial Risk Manager (FRM) designations. He lives in Toronto.

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DISCLOSURE:
1) Zig Lambo of The Gold Report conducted this interview. He personally and/or his family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of The Gold Report: Franco-Nevada Corp., Detour Gold Corp. and Goldcorp Inc. Streetwise Reports does not accept stock in exchange for services. Interviews are edited for clarity.
3) John Stephenson: I personally and/or my family own long shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: Barrick Gold Corp., Kinross Gold Corp. and Yamana Gold Inc. I personally and/or my family am paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. I was not paid by Streetwise Reports for participating in this interview.
4) First Asset Investment Management Inc. owns long Barrick Gold Corp., Kinross Gold Corp., Yamana Gold Inc., Osisko Mining Corp., IAMGOLD Corp. and Detour Gold Corp.

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