Peak Gold

Gold may be even more precious than we think. During the last several years, mining companies around the globe have discovered almost no new large-scale gold deposits. So if the world’s major gold companies can’t find any new gold deposits in the ground, they’ll have to find them in the stock market…by buying companies that already possess proven reserves.

Therefore, forward-looking investors might want to take advantage of the current weakness in the gold share market to invest in some of the small mining companies that would be attractive takeover targets.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the current market is the dearth of major discoveries so far in this cycle. This despite record amounts of money spent on exploration since this bull market began in 2001.

Older and smarter minds than mine had predicted that the soaring price of gold would produce a new wave of exploration that would, eventually, produce a new wave of major discoveries.

But so far, as Barrick Gold’s CEO, Peter Munk, recently observed, “There have been virtually no new discoveries.” Only Aurelian (ARU: TSX) has landed a legitimate “elephant” deposit bagged. Unfortunately, the carcass of that particular elephant rests entirely within the sketchy outlines of the nation of Ecuador where the locals are currently circling like a pack of hungry hyenas.

It has been our contention that what was needed to light the fuse on the junior exploration stocks would be, in no specific order:

  1. Sustained higher gold prices.
  2. Improving financials and free cash flow of the major producers.
  3. A discovery to heat the blood of the investing community.

So far, we have had (1) and we are beginning to see (2), but (3) has proved remarkably elusive.

Now, don’t misunderstand. You can have a whopper of a bull market in these stocks without the discovery — that was the case in the 1970s bull market. But a discovery that fires the imagination can jump-start things in a big way, no question about it.

Too bad nobody has found one recently.

In short, we appear to have reached the era of Peak Gold. Whereas a major discovery used to be 10 million ounces or more, the threshold for attention-getting discoveries these days has fallen to more along the lines of 1-3 million ounces…and even those are hardly falling off the trees.

Viewed from the perspective of an investor in the junior resource sector, this lack of discoveries means the fuse is lit — starting with straight-up supply and demand fundamentals — for a rocket shot tomorrow. Adding boosters to the rocket, we have a commodities bull market that shows no sign of ending anytime soon and, while the U.S. dollar will periodically rebound, it is not going to somehow reinvent itself as sound money in our lifetime.

Importantly, as you can clearly read between the lines in Chairman Munk’s words, once the majors get cashed up and get serious about replacing their reserves, they are going to have to look downstream to the juniors with discoveries…even if those discoveries are below the five-million-ounce threshold they previously required to even consider taking an ore body into production.

Of course, lowering the threshold on deposit size will require trade-offs. For example, in order to be considered for an acquisition, a smaller deposit will almost certainly have to be near surface and open-pittable. It will also have to be near good infrastructure, and located in a jurisdiction with good laws and reasonable taxation. There is, in this situation, an opportunity and a risk.

Starting with the latter, if your portfolio now includes companies going after deposits in the one- to five-million-ounce range, you need to make sure they are not in a remote location that would require a massive infrastructure investment.

As for the opportunity, while the odds and the amount of exploration spending still favor that we’ll see the discovery of at least one and maybe two monster deposits in this cycle (there are a couple of companies advancing projects with that potential), and early shareholders will make fortunes as a result, there has rarely been a better time to invest in junior exploration companies with modestly sized projects in good locations. That said, you should still be focusing only on projects with at least two million ounces, or the strong potential of same.

In other words, take the opportunity in these down markets to invest in the kinds of junior mining companies that major mining company might want to acquire… That’s where the big money will be made as the gold market gathers steam again.

David Galland, Casey Research
June 2, 2008