Frank Holmes

Goldwatchers were reminded gold’s volatility works in both directions this week, with prices falling more than $100 an ounce in just one day. We forecasted the selloff last week, explaining a 10 percent correction would be a non-event. Once again the CME Group hiked the exchange’s margin requirements for gold investment to shake out overleveraged speculation. This is a positive for long-term investors.

One market trend that seems to be attracting more and more attention is the large performance gap between gold bullion and gold stocks. The price of gold bullion has increased roughly 28 percent in 2011, while the S&P/TSX Gold Index was down 1 percent as of Monday. This shouldn’t come as news for subscribers to these weekly alerts; we first discussed this opportunity back in June.

A report this week from BMO Capital Markets offered one reason behind the performance gap, “The rate of change in the gold price has been high over the past decade, perhaps too high for investors to gain confidence in that price as sustainable for an equity investment decision.” BMO says it was hard to imagine gold prices could sustain a $1,000 an ounce levels five years ago, but “now it’s hard to see the gold price falling to that level.”

Using the implied value of a defined group of global gold stocks, it calculated the internal rate of return to measure how gold stocks have underperformed compared to the yellow metal. Over a period of nearly 20 years, BMO’s group of global gold stocks has never been this inexpensive. Only twice—during the Tech bubble in 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008—has the internal rate of return compared so closely with the price of gold bullion.

RBC Capital Markets also sees potential in unpopular, undervalued gold equities and urged readers to take “a fresh look” at gold companies in a report this week. RBC says gold companies currently have margins that are at record highs and it believes margins could be approximately $1,200 an ounce for the next 12 to 24 months. This is substantially higher than the 10-year average of $320 an ounce. Comparatively, many current projects were economically sound at $700-$1,000 per ounce gold prices, creating $300-500 an ounce margins.

Right now, BMO calculates the total cost to produce an ounce of gold at roughly $900 an ounce, while the company can turn around and sell that ounce for upwards of $1,400. This puts margins near 40 percent, roughly twice what they were in 2007 and four times higher than in 2000.

Increased profit margins put more money in gold company coffers and this is reflected in the unprecedented amount of free cash flow (FCF), RBC says. The firm says the industry has reached an inflection point with a “substantial wave of free cash flow” coming over the next 1 to 2 years.

You can see this incredible increase in Tier 1 producers, such as Barrick, Goldcorp, Kinross and Newmont Mining. Looking at their trailing 12 months of free cash flow over 10 years, FCF never rose above $2 billion. However, following the trend in gold prices, FCF among these Tier 1 companies stair-stepped up to $4 billion.

Looking forward over the next few years, RBC estimates that if the price of gold remains at $1,850, FCF should stair-step even further, reaching nearly $12,000 by the end of December 2013. BMO estimates the global gold companies will accumulate net cash of $120 billion by 2015 if gold prices remain elevated.

Rising FCF is especially relevant to shareholders, as it allows the gold company to use that money to invest in projects that should enhance shareholder value. This could include pursuing new projects, making acquisitions, reducing debt or paying dividends. Many gold companies are opting for the latter and increasing dividends but these increases haven’t kept up with the pace of rising earnings. The average payout ratio was roughly 20 percent in 2008 but currently sits around 10 percent in 2011.

BMO says, “A dividend policy linked to the financial performance of the company offers investors additional leverage to the gold price. The provision of a meaningful and sustained dividend has the potential to broaden investor appeal and to instill fiscal responsibility for management.” I’ve often echoed similar sentiments.

BMO says gold stocks are currently trading at historically cheap levels, which the company sees as an opportunity investors can take advantage of. RBC attempts to quantify that opportunity by saying “if gold prices remain elevated and/or investors accept a higher long-term gold price, we could see 25-50 percent upside in equities.”

To be continued in How to Pick Gold Miners later this week.

Regards,

Frank Holmes,
for The Daily Reckoning

P.S. Don’t forget to sign up for A Case for Investing in Gold, a special webcast with Frank Holmes and special guest Jason Toussaint, managing director of the U.S. and Investment for the World Gold Council. Time: September 6, 2011 at 4:15pm ET. Sign up here.

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Frank Holmes

Frank Holmes is chief executive officer and chief investment officer of U.S. Global Investors Inc. The company is a registered investment adviser that manages approximately $2.08 billion in 13 no-load mutual funds and for other advisory clients. A Toronto native, he bought a controlling interest in U.S. Global Investors in 1989, after an accomplished career in Canada's capital markets. His specialized knowledge gives him expertise in resource-based industries and money management. The Global Resources Fund was also Morningstar's top performer among all domestic stock funds in the five-year period ending Dec. 31, 2006.

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