Looking at Gold Price Trends

The first thing I do when I sit down at my desk in the morning is check the price of gold. The second thing I do is check the price of oil.

Sure, the price for gold and oil changes all the time. Prices go up and down, for good and bad reasons. Heck, sometimes prices fluctuate and the reasoning defies logic.

Still, I watch the price points. Deep down, I’m looking to see if the prices for gold and oil are following my long-term view of what ought to happen. That is, my long-term view is that both gold and oil prices are going to rise to astonishing heights.

Scarcity rules. That’s the foundation of my investment thesis. Today, I’ll explain my thinking about gold and leave oil for another time.

Reviewing the Gold Landscape

The first thing to understand, as an old geology professor at Harvard once told me, is that “gold is where you find it.” And the second thing to understand is that no matter where you look, gold is hard to find — and getting harder.

In the past decade, gold-related exploration efforts and expenditures have increased dramatically. I’ve seen numbers adding up to tens of billions of dollars poured by mining companies into gold exploration.

But despite the best efforts of the global mining industry, world gold production has DECREASED since early in this decade. Take a look at the chart below, depicting world gold production 1850-2008.

I Love This Chart

I love this chart. I could spend all day discussing it. For example, look at the very steep rise in gold output during the 1930s. That was during the depths of the worldwide Great Depression. In both the U.S./Canada (blue area), and the rest of the world (gray area), people were digging more and more gold. The Soviets (purple area) increased their gold output too, courtesy of Joseph Stalin and his Gulag. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose. Will that sort of history repeat this time around?

Falling Gold Output, Plus Monetary Inflation

Or look at that massive run-up in gold output from South Africa (green area) in the 1950s and 1960s. That was during a time when South Africa was instituting its post-World War II system of apartheid. Labor was cheap (sorrowfully cheap), and quite a lot of international investment poured into South Africa without moral qualm. The South Africans dug deep and just plain tore into those gold-bearing reef structures of the Witwatersrand Basin.

But notice how quickly the South African gold output declined in the 1970s, as the mines got REALLY deep and the rest of the world began to institute sanctions against South Africa over its apartheid system.

And then look at the gold price run-up that followed in the late 1970s. It was a time of inflation, mainly coming from the U.S. dollar. Yet world gold mine output was dropping as well. Falling output, plus monetary inflation? The gold price skyrocketed. Another bit of useful history, right?

Recent History — the Trend Is Down

Now let’s focus on more recent history, since about 1990. There were large increases in gold output from the U.S./Canada (blue), Australia (gold) and Asia (China orange, non-China open bar). By 2000 or so — the world production peak — gold prices were down toward $300 per ounce and below.

But as the chart shows, in the past 10 years, gold output has shown a marked DECLINE in the major historic gold mining regions. The prolific gold output from the U.S./Canada, Australia and South Africa has followed downward trends. Sure, these regions still lift a lot of ore and pour a lot of melt. But the production trend is DOWN.

Why the downward trend? I suppose you could call it “Peak Gold,” but that term really doesn’t convey the explanation. Let’s highlight some of the reasons for the decline.

In North America, Australia and South Africa, people have been kicking the rocks for 100-150 years. The large deposits and the high-grade good stuff have been discovered. The ore that’s “easy” to mine has been mined. The deeper ore is more expensive to dig, lift and process.

And I have to mention that over time, the culture in so-called “developed” parts of the world has gotten greener. People and policy have turned against mining in the developed world. So mining doesn’t happen where it’s not appreciated.

The flip side is that if mining is declining in the developed world, then the future of gold mining must be growing in the developing world, right? Well, yes and no. Of course, it’s true that there are more rocks to kick and ore bodies to uncover in the underexplored regions of the world. But this leads to another problem.

Development Issues in the Developing World

The U.S./Canada, Australia and South Africa all have well-established and (more or less) workable mining laws — despite the best efforts of many current politicians and regulators to screw it all up. These historically producing areas are politically stable. Overall, there’s good mining infrastructure, with road and rail networks, power systems, refining plants, a vendor base, mining personnel and access to capital.

But that’s not the case in many areas of the developing parts of the world. Political stability? Security? Infrastructure? Transport? Power? Refining? Vendors? Personnel? Capital? Everywhere is different, of course. But overall, the entire process is much more problematic. So there’s a lot more risk. When you move away from the traditional mining jurisdictions, the whole process of exploration, development and mining is more expensive.

Thus, the new gold discoveries of the future are going to lack some (if not most, or perhaps all) of the advantages of the developed mining world. That means that the ore deposits of the future will have to offer much higher profit margins, based on size and ore grade, to compensate for the increased risks. Too bad Mother Nature (or Saint Barbara, who looks after miners) doesn’t work that way.

It also means the timeline to develop the mines of the future will likely be stretched over many years while political, legal, bureaucratic, logistical and social issues are ironed out.

Future Gold Output on a Downward Trend

The key driver for the future of worldwide gold supply will be DECLINING output overall over time. Coupled with monetary inflation, you can expect to see MUCH HIGHER GOLD PRICES.

The gold that does come up will be from more distant locales, and deeper levels, or it will be more costly to process from lower-grade ores. The whole gold mining cycle will get more expensive and more risky.

Big Miners Scrambling

Some of the big gold miners — Newmont, for example — are already in a constant, squirrel cage scramble to replace their reserves lost to annual production. Newmont simply cannot grow organically. Newmont can’t “discover” enough new gold resources on its own every year. It doesn’t even try.

Newmont has a reputation within the mining business that it’s being run by accountants, not mining engineers. So the Newmont strategy is simply to go out and “mine gold on Wall Street,” so to speak. If Newmont needs reserves, the company buys a smaller miner. Indeed, Newmont has laid off most of its formerly world-class exploration department. Its in-house geologists spend much of their time looking at other peoples’ mines.

New Deposits Are Out There

There’s a strong exploration and development incentive built into all of this for smaller firms. The current business climate for gold mining has spurred the creation of many small companies that are generating prospects. The players within the industry are smart, hungry junior exploration companies.

The owners and operators of these companies, and their ilk, are bringing new ideas to the mining districts of the world. And despite the ups and downs of the daily gold price, the best of them will have their day. We just have to pick the sharpest, best-run firms… and be patient as history unfolds.

Until we meet again,
Byron W. King

July 17, 2009

The Daily Reckoning