December 15, 2014

This post is a modified excerpt from a commentary posted at TSI a few weeks ago.

At its recent low the HUI was trading at the same price at which it traded way back in 2003-2004, when the gold price was $350-$400/oz. On the surface, this suggests that at their recent lows the senior gold-mining stocks that dominate the HUI were absurdly under-valued relative to gold, given that gold was trading at around $1150/oz at the time. Just how extreme was the under-valuation?

According to the article posted HERE, the HUI’s under-valuation was so extreme it was completely irrational. For example, the article contains the following statements:

While gold stocks indeed should’ve been sold with gold weaker, the magnitude of selling they suffered was far beyond anything justifiable fundamentally. This ultimately culminated in the latest gold-stock capitulation where the HUI plunged to 11.3-year lows! Think about that a second. Gold stocks were just trading at prices not seen since July 2003. Pretty much the entire secular gold-stock bull had been fully erased.

And: “… [the] entire not-widely-followed gold-stock bull was based on the massive fundamental boost to gold-mining profits that gold’s own secular bull created. So if the recent gold-stock price levels were righteous, gold too should have been pounded back down towards its mid-2003 levels. Where was gold trading back then? Merely right around $350!

And: “Do gold stocks deserve to trade today as if gold was at just $350? Heck no! Last week when gold stocks’ latest capitulation low was carved, the gold price was up near $1150. That was 3.3x higher than the last time the gold stocks traded at recent levels! It makes no fundamental sense whatsoever for gold stocks to trade as if gold was at $350 when it was actually $1150. Their core fundamentals are now vastly better.

The analysis encapsulated in the above excerpts is superficial and misleading, for two main reasons. First, production costs are vastly higher now than they were in 2003-2004. Second, although the stock prices of the senior gold miners are, on average, not much higher now than they were when gold was trading at $350-$400/oz, their market capitalisations are hundreds of percent higher thanks to massive inflation of share quantities. Consequently, a good argument can be made that the “core fundamentals” are now worse than they were when the gold price was $350-$400.

I’ll now consider the specific case of Goldcorp (GG) to back-up my point. During the quarter ended 30th September 2003, GG managed to achieve a net profit of $0.13/share, a net operating margin of 44% and a return on invested capital (ROIC) of 22%. These results were achieved at an average realised sale price of $364/oz. During the quarter ended 30th September 2014 GG’s average realised sale price was $1266/oz, but the company reported a net LOSS of $0.05/share and was too embarrassed to highlight the ROIC. Note that there were no large asset writedowns in the latest quarter. GG was simply not profitable at $1266/oz in Q3-2014 after being very profitable at $364/oz way back in Q3-2003. And by the way, from Q3-2003 to Q3-2014 GG’s share count rose from 183M to 814M, so although its share price is up by ‘only’ about 50%, its market cap is up by about 580% over the period in question.

I selected GG for my quick-and-dirty case study because it has been one of the best-managed of the senior gold producers and has had less company-specific problems than some of its brethren. Had I chosen either Barrick Gold (ABX) or Kinross Gold (KGC) my point could have been made even more clearly, because the amount of wealth destroyed by these companies via ill-conceived acquisitions and project developments is mindboggling.

It’s important that fundamentals-oriented speculators who buy gold-mining stocks have their eyes wide open and understand the reality of the current situation. There are some good reasons to anticipate large gains in gold-stock prices over the coming 2 years involving a rising gold price, declining production costs and improving sentiment, but at the current gold price and with their current cost structures most gold producers are NOT particularly cheap by traditional valuation standards.

Therefore, don’t be hoodwinked by superficial comparisons into believing that gold stocks are now priced for a hundreds-of-dollars-per-ounce lower gold price and, as a consequence, that massive gains lie ahead for gold stocks even if the gold price flat-lines or continues to trend downward.

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