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Miners Must Mind Their Margins

-- Posted Monday, 30 December 2013 | | Disqus

Source: Kevin Michael Grace of The Gold Report  


Mining success is not measured in ounces and dollars but instead by healthy margins, argues Robert Cohen, lead portfolio manager with Dynamic Funds. In this interview with The Gold Report, Cohen declares that investors should seek out projects that will earn profits of 20–35%, regardless of size.


The Gold Report: Since you last spoke to The Gold Report in March, the price of gold has collapsed. What happened?


Rob Cohen: Gold has collapsed when compared to the U.S. dollar, but not when compared to other hard assets. For instance, since gold was allowed to float in 1971, its average price ratio per ounce to the price of a barrel of oil has been 15:1. Right now, it's about 13:1, so it's not that far from the mean. We remain a little puzzled by what has happened. Going back to 2008, there's been a strong correlation between the expanding balance sheet of the Federal Reserve and the rising price of gold, but that link has been cut, at least for now.


We have also had some positive economic data out of the U.S.


TGR: Is this positive data really all that positive?


RC: We do question the fundamentals underneath the data. Unemployment numbers are beating expectations, but the U.S. doesn't count "discouraged workers" as unemployed. So the true number is not 7% but really about 11.3%. The trade deficit has narrowed, but this is due to increases in domestic oil and gas production and not from increasing exports.


TGR: Do you think that $1,300/ounce ($1,300/oz) is gold's new ceiling?


RC: Not necessarily. There are a lot of signs that the U.S. dollar could crack. It faces serious stresses from trade deficits with China and Europe and countries—like China—that manipulate their currencies in order to put U.S. exporters at such a disadvantage. This cannot go on indefinitely. If the U.S. dollar loses purchasing power for whatever reason, this will be manifested in a higher gold price.


TGR: To what extent is the price of gold affected by Indian purchases? The government of India has moved against gold buying to protect the rupee. Is this a battle it can win?


RC: I don't think so. Don't forget, Indians were buying gold quite happily at much higher prices than today. India is a country where the fiat currency is not that dependable as a store of value. Restricting gold means smuggling, and the current illegal premium is estimated to be the old import tax plus $200/oz. And now the Indian government isn't getting that tax.


The world has mined about 2,500 tons/year of gold for the past decade or so. With the falloff in the demand from India, whatever it may be, China and other countries have stepped in and picked up the slack. There is no evidence of huge amounts of gold floating around with nowhere to go.


TGR: Is Asia becoming the dominant continent for ownership of gold bullion?


RC: The desire is there, but the amount of gold available is so restricted, there's a perennial demand for more. China has more than $3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves, and if it wanted to back that with gold, it would need to buy hundreds of tons a year. This year is perhaps unique because 800 tons were released when investors flooded out of exchange-traded funds. China would have had the capacity to absorb that, but it is a Communist country, and it doesn't announce its gold purchases to the world.


TGR: In this depressed market, how do companies stand out from the pack and prove their worth to investors? Are healthy margins essential in this respect?


RC: I look at this industry as having a relatively constant profit margin in the 20–30% range. In other words, when gold prices go up, the cost structure will go up. Expenses such as oil, chemicals, tires, Caterpillar equipment, etc., are not as much in the control of companies as investors might think. Market prices are determined by the purchasing power of a dollar, and when dollars lose purchasing power, absolute price levels move up.


TGR: Have precious metals miners cut costs substantially?


RC: In Q3/13 many companies met or beat expectations and patted themselves on the back for getting their costs down. But many of these costs fell because of the dollar's increased purchasing power. Let's say a company produces gold for $1,000/oz. Many people think that's an absolute that will withstand time, but that's not quite true. If the price of gold fell to $1,000/oz, that would not wipe out profits. Eventually, costs would come down to say $800/oz, and companies would still have an approximate 20% margin. And if gold goes up to $1,300/oz and beyond, costs such as energy prices will have an equivalent rise.


TGR: Is there a right way and a wrong way to cut costs?


RC: Absolutely. We have companies saying, "OK, we've cut our exploration budget in half," but they haven't truly cut that budget until they've truly cut the amount of meters drilled. If a company cuts the number of meters drilled in half, exploration costs should probably be one-quarter. The market should be better attuned to whether management is truly cutting, say by cutting employees and creating efficiencies, as opposed to taking credit for reduced costs on the downside.


We can expect the oil/gold ratio to stay at probably at least 13:1. So if gold goes up, oil will likely go up correspondingly—as will mining companies' energy bills. This cannot be controlled. Investors should learn to focus on profit margins, rather than absolute dollar margins. They should think of companies producing at 20% margins regardless of the gold price.


TGR: Given how low equities have fallen, do you anticipate a wave of takeovers?


RC: We've already had quite a few this year. However, most of the acquisitions are head scratchers as far as I'm concerned—companies buying cheap but not necessarily profitable ounces.


I would rather have seen companies buying projects with robust economics, even at today's gold prices.


TGR: What would you consider an astute buy?


RC: The companies out there owning projects with 25–35% rates of return, as opposed to some of the acquisitions we've seen, which have rates of return in the 10% range.


TGR: Many of the top 10 holdings in the Dynamic Strategic Gold Class Fund are in Africa. What do you like about Africa, and how are your holdings affected by considerations of country risk?


RC: Africa is one of the less explored gold regions, so there is certainly a lot more low-hanging fruit to pick. Generally, you find projects there that have 25–35% rates of return, which helps compensate for political risks.


Having said that, we've seen lots of problems with companies getting permits right here in the U.S. and Canada. There aren't any slam dunks anywhere anymore.


TGR: How bad is Mexico's new taxation regime for mining?


RC: I think we can weather it. Certainly, introducing this at a time when the industry is struggling is not great timing and does eat into company profits. This is another example of why it would be good for the industry to foster a margin-driven attitude. Governments see a company producing gold for $800/oz, and then, when gold surges to $1,800/oz, they assume falsely that the company has a $1,000/oz profit margin. Governments need to be taught that these measures cut more heavily into margins than they think.


TGR: Does resurgent resource nationalism globally make companies operating in Canada more attractive to investors?


RC: It depends on what commodity you're looking at. Canada is a big producer of iron ore and nickel and, to a lesser degree, gold and copper. I always look first at the quality of projects. Yes, we have a couple of new copper projects being built, but for the most part, I think our status will not necessarily rise. Operating mines will probably become more attractive when investors are ready to get exposure to those commodities.


TGR: Rob, thank you for your time and your insights.


A mineral process engineer by training with 20 years experience in the industry, Robert Cohen is lead portfolio manager for Dynamic Precious Metals Fund and Dynamic Strategic Gold Class. Named a TopGun portfolio manager by Brendan Wood International in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Cohen has been lead portfolio manager for the Dynamic Precious Metals Fund since 2000 and the Dynamic Strategic Gold Class since its inception, with top-performing mandates also in distribution in Europe and the United States. Cohen completed his Bachelor of Applied Sciences in mining and mineral process engineering at the University of British Columbia in 1992. He received his Master in Business Administration in 1998 and his CFA designation in 2003.


1) Kevin Michael Grace conducted this interview for The Gold Report and provides services to The Gold Report as an independent contractor.
2) Streetwise Reports does not accept stock in exchange for its services or as sponsorship payment.
3) Robert Cohen: 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. 
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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 and may make purchases and/or sales of those securities in the open market or otherwise.


Streetwise - The Gold Report is Copyright © 2013 by Streetwise Reports LLC. All rights are reserved. Streetwise Reports LLC hereby grants an unrestricted license to use or disseminate this copyrighted material (i) only in whole (and always including this disclaimer), but (ii) never in part.


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-- Posted Monday, 30 December 2013 | Digg This Article | Source:

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