The Gold Report: Low interest rates, a cornerstone of recent modern Western economic policy, have proven positive for gold over the last several years. What do you see as the three primary price drivers for gold this year?
Rob Cohen: The primary price driver is global liquidity. That is fed by balance-sheet expansion in many Western countries and foreign exchange reserves, typically the result of trade deficits built up in countries such as China.
Number two is real interest rates. The Federal Reserve could tighten rates, but we don't know where inflation will be. Negative real rates are very good for gold. Mildly positive real rates are not harmful for gold. Positive real rates above 2% can stall the gold price.
Number three is geopolitical crisis. Strife can get priced in and out of the gold price.
We also believe that gold should maintain its purchasing power to oil. Over the last 40 years one ounce of gold typically bought 15 barrels of West Texas Intermediate oil. That ratio has been knocked down to about 13:1. I would expect some reversion closer to 15:1 this year. Taking that ratio in isolation would mean that gold is underpriced by about US$200/ounce (US$200/oz).
In 2013, the gold price was knocked out of whack with respect to other hard assets, driven by the 900-tonne liquidation in the gold exchange-traded funds (ETFs). The damage was probably a US$200/oz drop in the gold price.
We suspect that the massive amount of gold liquidated by the ETFs were driven by hedge funds and speculators. The gold ETFs have over one million investors, who for the most part have hung onto their gold holdings. It was the fast money that appears to have left and, therefore, we do not expect to see a repeat of last year from the rest of the investor base.
Between 2004 and 2012, the ETFs built up 2,600 tonnes of gold. Putting that into context, that made the ETFs the fourth largest holder of gold behind U.S., Germany and the International Monetary Fund. In one year, 900 of those 2,600 tonnes were liquidated. If a central bank the size of Germany's liquidated 900 tonnes of gold in one year, it would have made a lot more headlines. ETFs are now the sixth largest holders of gold, after the abovementioned entities and Italy and France. So far in 2014, the ETFs are back into accumulation mode, which implies that the investors are once again seeking this asset class.
TGR: Wasn't some of that 900-tonne selloff offset by gold buying in China?
RC: It had to be mopped up somewhere and, in our view China is a natural buyer. If China is serious about making the renminbi a global reserve currency, part of the formula to get there is to build up gold reserves. The U.S. gold reserve is about 8,300 tonnes. As far as we know, China has approximately 1,000 tonnes, hence we believe that China will need significantly more gold as a percentage of its foreign exchange reserves.
To put this into perspective, the whole gold market in a given year is about 4,300–4,400 tonnes. Approximately 2,500 tonnes come from new mine production; the rest is aboveground stocks moving around. Central banks, no matter how aggressive, can accumulate only in the hundreds of tonnes annually. Hence it could be a multidecade project for the Chinese to accumulate the gold it needs. The ETF liquidation last year would have been manna from heaven for China, allowing it to accumulate a few more hundred tonnes.
Jewelers also stepped in and bought gold on the pullback in price. As the Chinese middle class expands, the per-capita consumption of physical gold has increased.
The year 2013 was an anomaly. The 900-tonne selloff harmed the market to a large degree. Gold was due to go down last year on the back of a strong U.S. dollar. The herd mentality took the price drop to an extreme.
This year, U.S. employment and industrial production data are showing some cracks. That is strengthening sentiment for gold, and it's funneling down into gold equities.
TGR: Ukraine, Crimea and Russia have been in the headlines. At the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference, I spoke with Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. He said the situation in the Ukraine was the most troubling geopolitical situation since 9/11. Are you managing your funds differently in light of what's happening there?
RC: Not at all. We estimate that the situation in Crimea added approximately US$50–80/oz to the gold price. The price hit $1,380/oz and has already come back down. Our view is that the crisis has now been largely priced out for the time being.
TGR: Your Dynamic Strategic Gold Class Fund, which is 57% vested in bullion, is up about 21% since January. Last year wasn't as positive. How do you pitch your gold-based funds to investors?
RC: The Strategic Gold Class Fund, founded in 2009, gives investors a mutual fund that can own up to 70% gold bullion, and hence we view this fund as being well suited for those investors looking for gold exposure, but who are less comfortable with taking on the individual equity risk.
As far as the equity portion goes, we can expand and contract that depending on our view of the gold market. If the gold equities are building strong legs, we migrate the fund into gold equities by selling bullion and converting it to equities.
Typically, the fund is 30–70% bullion, skewed to the conservative side. Today, with 57% physical gold, we're in the middle. Although the market has been strong year-to-date, we're not ready to hand over all that bullion and put it into equities just yet. We have trimmed the gold position in baby steps.
Being in Canada, we also have the option to hedge or not hedge the Canadian dollar on that physical bullion. When the Canadian dollar is rising we are likely to hedge to give investors a better return. When the Canadian dollar is weakening, we want to have more of a U.S. dollar return. If you're naked on the hedge, you get the Canadian dollar exposure. In other words, if the Canadian dollar has fallen 10% year-to-date, even without a change in the gold price, you would see a 10% gain in the gold price in Canadian dollars.
TGR: Do you see a lot of value in gold equities right now?
RC: On a broad level, many equities are trading near fair value at current spot prices. Some are more expensive, but it's usually a case of paying up for quality. Some of the junior companies are lagging, but investors remain cautious and conservative. Sentiment has moved a lot this year, but there's still way more liquidity in the senior companies.
Smaller companies, even those that have performed well in the context of the total market capitalization, might not come back so easily. The market is building legs very slowly and investors are being choosy, especially on the exploration side. Companies with interesting discoveries are generally doing better than those at the grassroots level.
TGR: One ongoing saga is Goldcorp Inc.'s (G:TSX; GG:NYSE) bid to take over Osisko Mining Corp. (OSK:TSX), which Goldcorp seems likely to win. What does that transaction tell potential investors in the gold space?
RC: I'm not sure Goldcorp will win. The timing of the bid has resulted in some interesting dynamics. In January, the gold price was starting to move up and the Canadian dollar was moving down. This strengthened the Canadian dollar gold price.
A company with less leverage to the gold price was bidding for a company with more leverage. Hence, Osisko's year-to-date performance has been no better than its peer companies without a bid on them. Osisko is up 61% year-to-date. Kirkland Lake Gold Inc. (KGI:TSX) is up 59%, Lake Shore Gold Corp. (LSG:TSX) is up 65%. Osisko is trading in the middle of the pack and some investors could therefore argue that the stock may have performed better without a bid.
Part of the reason for this is that the bid itself is not an all-share bid; it's CA$2.26 cash plus 0.146 Goldcorp shares. In January, had the gold price gone down, the Goldcorp shares would have gone down, but the CA$2.26 cash would have stayed the same. The cash would have represented a put option and made the bid look more attractive in a downward-trending gold market.
The opposite happened: The gold price has increased substantially and the cash component has gone the opposite direction. Instead of acting as a put option, it becomes a cash drag. The bid no longer looks as interesting, given the improved gold price. The market price is reflecting this, and the shares are trading above Goldcorp's offer.
At the time of the bid most shareholders balked at the idea of tendering. Those who did sell probably lacked confidence that the gold price would continue to rise. The buyers would have been arbitragers.
TGR: Osisko has come out with a revised mine plan.
RC: The revised mine plan pegs a lot more value on the Osisko shares than they've been given credit for in the market. It puts pressure on Goldcorp to revise the offer.
I don't know if Goldcorp will succeed. It depends on where the shareholding now lies. We don't know how many shares have traded since the bid or to what degree. It's in the hands of the arbitragers.
TGR: Is there a Canadian theme at work here? Osisko has a scalable Canadian project. The Canadian dollar is falling.
RC: I don’t see this as a Canadian theme, but one could argue that the low-hanging fruit in politically safe countries has been plucked over in the gold sector and it's harder for companies to find world-class deposits in Nevada or Canada. Acquisitions are one way for companies to stay in countries that have very strong mining laws, where it's relatively easy to permit.
My view is that the next generation of high return projects will likely pop up in West Africa or other jurisdictions with more political risk.
TGR: What metrics did you pay most attention to in the Q4/13 results reported by the gold producers you follow?
RC: I was interested in cash flow per share and the sustainability of those cash flows. We look at the quality of the cash flows on the horizon to capture a net asset value calculation. Two companies may have the same price to cash flow, but one has a significantly longer and more robust mine life, the other has high grades that are expected to drop after a certain number of years.
For development companies we look at internal rates of returns (IRR) on the projects and their economic robustness. Single-digit or low double-digit IRRs don't interest us much. We like to home in on projects with higher IRRs. We own perhaps six development companies that we like a lot. Otherwise we stick with producers, about 24 names in the entire fund.
TGR: Are there silver companies among the gold?
RC: A couple. We own some Fresnillo Plc (FRES:LSE). Tahoe Resources Inc. (THO:TSX; TAHO:NYSE) is a significant holding. We also have a bit of Fortuna Silver Mines Inc. (FSM:NYSE; FVI:TSX; FVI:BVL; F4S:FSE).
Silver is a double-edge sword. It will outperform gold in a strong market, but in a weak market it could underperform gold.
TGR: What do you think of Tahoe's Escobal mine?
RC: The Escobal mine is fantastic. The knock on that stock is the fact that the mine is in Guatemala. Before Tahoe built Escobal, the company came through a lot of challenges from environmental groups. But Tahoe got it built.
There are more than 360 million ounces of silver in this one project. A polymetallic silver mine is unusual. Escobal has zinc and lead. You don't often find rock in the ground that's worth more than $350/tonne. It's really hard to come up with a higher quality investment.
TGR: Fortuna didn't meet the Street's expectations for earnings per share, but it's having a good year. Is there more upside left there?
RC: We think that there's upside left. Fortuna is well managed and it has a high-grade discovery in Mexico that will show up in near-term production. Some people will consider Fortuna politically safer. They might prefer Mexico and Peru over Guatemala, but that varies from individual to individual.
TGR: This quarter, small-cap precious metals equities have been the sector's best performers. Are these types of companies the sweet spot right now?
RC: Yes, these names have done well in the risking gold price environment. As an example, Probe Mines Limited (PRB:TSX.V) has one of the better discoveries we've seen in Canada for a while. Its infill drilling results are coming in better than expected; that helped Probe go up 58% year-to-date. That story continues to unfold. I wouldn't call it a slam-dunk just yet, but it is certainly worthy to be one of the 24 names we hold in the portfolio.
TGR: Can you share other development names you hold?
RC: Papillon Resources Inc. (PIR:ASX) is working in Mali. Orbis Gold Ltd. (OBS:ASX) has a new high-grade discovery in Burkina Faso. That is also where Roxgold Inc. (ROG:TSX.V) is working on a high-grade underground project.
All three have robust economics and are finding more gold through extensional drilling or satellite deposits, which will enhance the economics. These projects should all have fairly fast payback periods, robust rates of return on capital employed and strong cash flows. All would be potential takeover targets for a big company looking for the best quality projects. Just as importantly, even if they are not taken over, these companies won't have problems raising the capital needed to build their projects.
TGR: Is it more likely that Roxgold will develop Yaramoko or that it will get taken out by someone bigger, like SEMAFO Inc. (SMF:TSX; SMF:OMX), which is next door?
RC: SEMAFO would be a logical buyer, given the proximity to its Mana mine. I would give a takeover 50-50 odds.
The three development companies I mentioned are also poised to develop their projects themselves. They can garner some really high rates of return and the projects aren't overly complex.
The producers may wait until the mines are in production and have demonstrated that they work before paying up. However, there's more meat on the bone for them to buy in early. The producers might give up some of that in the meantime while the companies continue to derisk their projects.
TGR: There's been political tension in Mali, where Papillon is working. How much of a risk is that?
RC: Papillon is in the southwestern part of Mali right up against the border, more than 1,000 kilometers away from the unrest in northern Mail. We are relatively comfortable with the risk, given the distance.
TGR: What can you tell us about Orbis?
RC: Orbis is a new story. Its market cap is about AU$77 million. Its Natougou project is in Burkina Faso. It's high-grade, 3.5 grams per tonne (3.5 g/t), and open pittable.
Orbis can run high grade for the first few years and get a very quick payback. The 3.5 g/t grade covers up the economics because of the high strip ratio. On the other hand, given that it is a flat-line deposit, there could be other opportunities.
TGR: What companies that might appeal to more conservative investors are in your fund?
RC: We scour the world beyond North American listings. We'll look at stocks listed in London and Australia. That's how Papillon and Orbis came into our fund.
Randgold Resources Ltd. (GOLD:NASDAQ; RRS:LSE) is a key investment for us. It has a $7 billion market cap and has consistently delivered.
We also own Goldcorp and Franco-Nevada Corp. (FNV:TSX; FNV:NYSE), which are both quality North American names.
TGR: Franco-Nevada just announced a 10% increase in its dividend. What did you make of that news?
RC: It's positive news. I'd like to see more companies, especially royalty companies, raise their dividends if they can. It might bring a broader range of investors into the stock.
Generally speaking, gold companies pay low dividends. If we can maintain a solid gold price for a couple of years, companies that can afford it should pay stronger dividends. I'd like to see them all pay dividends north of 2%.
At this time, many of the miners recirculate their cash flows to build other projects, some of which have lackluster returns.
TGR: Randgold announced earlier this year that it is debt-free, but that it will plow a lot of money into exploration. What did you make of that?
RC: Randgold has $50–60M budgeted for exploration in countries like Côte d'Ivoire. It is also looking at land near Papillon's project in Mali. The company has strict criteria for its exploration portfolio and has historically generated value through exploration, so I am not opposed to them spending money on additional exploration.
By next year, Randgold will be into the cash flow harvest mode. It will have money for both exploration and a dividend enhancement. I would expect Randgold to have one of the leading dividend yields in a couple of years.
TGR: Could you blue-sky gold for us?
RC: Gold is still sporting a few of the bruises it got last year, although they are healing. Without any change in world affairs, we believe that the gold price could rise US$100–200/oz.
There is fairly positive economic data coming out of the Western countries and overall strength in the broader stock market. Any significant catalyst that will erode fiat money purchasing power, such as falling industrial production, more unemployment or broader trade deficits, could take gold much higher.
Gold moves when you least expect it. Investors should always have some gold in their portfolios for insurance. That's the main purpose of owning gold.
Profitability is the important thing for gold miners. Profitability is not only dictated by a gold price, it's also dictated by cost levels. As long as the gold price behaves well with respect to cost inputs such as energy, oil, steel, chemicals and labor, there's a profit margin to be eked out. For more than 40 years, the gold price has been well behaved with respect to all of those input costs. Last year was an anomaly. I think we are now seeing the profit margin being restored.
Capital markets are also being more generous. Companies that have quality projects will have no problem accessing capital markets, be it equity or debt.
TGR: Robert, thank you for your time and your insights.
A mining and mineral process engineer by training, Robert Cohen is vice president and portfolio manager for GCIC. His experience in the mining industry is extensive and includes work as an engineer and a corporate development adviser for an international gold mining firm. Cohen completed his Bachelor of Applied Sciences in mining and mineral process engineering at the University of British Columbia in 1992. In 1998, he received his Master of Business Administration and, in 2003, he received his CFA designation.
Want to read more Gold Report interviews like this? Sign up for our free e-newsletter, and you'll learn when new articles have been published. To see recent interviews with industry analysts and commentators, visit our Streetwise Interviews page.
1) Brian Sylvester conducted this interview for Streetwise Reports LLC, publisher of The Gold Report, The Energy Report, The Life Sciences Report and The Mining Report, and provides services to Streetwise Reports as an independent contractor. He owns, or his family owns, shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: Dynamic Strategic Gold Class Fund.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of Streetwise Reports: Tahoe Resources Inc., Fortuna Silver Mines Inc., Probe Mines Limited and Roxgold Inc. Goldcorp Inc. and Franco-Nevada Corp. are not affiliated with Streetwise Reports. Streetwise Reports does not accept stock in exchange for its services.
3) Robert Cohen: I own, or my family owns, shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: Roxgold Inc. I personally am, or my family is, paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. My company has a financial relationship with the following companies mentioned in this interview: is invested in all of the companies mentioned. I was not paid by Streetwise Reports for participating in this interview. Comments and opinions expressed are my own comments and opinions. I had the opportunity to review the interview for accuracy as of the date of the interview and am responsible for the content of the interview.
4) Interviews are edited for clarity. Streetwise Reports does not make editorial comments or change experts' statements without their consent.
6) From time to time, Streetwise Reports LLC and its directors, officers, employees or members of their families, as well as persons interviewed for articles and interviews on the site, may have a long or short position in securities mentioned. Directors, officers, employees or members of their families are prohibited from making purchases and/or sales of those securities in the open market or otherwise during the up-to-four-week interval from the time of the interview until after it publishes.