1998 JACKLING LECTURE Constrained prospects of mining’s future

Gentry, Donald W.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 10
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1999
Introduction The mining industry is perhaps best characterized by the numerous and abnormally high risks associated with the business of mining and by its most basic assets - ore deposits, people and technology. At the most fundamental level, it is the quality and effective utilization of these basic assets that determine a mining company's ability to compete efficiently in the international market place. The gold industry has received much attention in recent years and especially in recent months, for good reason. This commodity serves as an excellent platform for the subsequent discussion of these three basic assets and their role in mining's future. Facets of the gold industry The fate of this noble metal in recent times illustrates some of the various risks associated with the mining industry and the importance of high-quality assets, whether they be ore deposits, people or technologies. The following comments pertaining to the gold industry help place proper focus on subsequent discussions. All monetary amounts given are in US dollars. Throughout 1997, falling gold prices broke record after record: first hitting three-year lows, then a 12-year low in July and finally an 18-year low at year's end. From Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 1997, the price of gold fell by more than $2.57/g ($80/oz), or some 22%. The decline in gold-mining profitability and stock prices was even more dramatic. At the beginning of 1997, the 20 largest gold producers in North America had a market capitalization of approximately $44.5 billion. At year's end, this market cap had fallen to $26.2 billion, a reduction of 41%. The total market cap of all the world's gold companies fell from $71 billion to $46 billion, a 35% drop (Serwer, 1998). Analyses suggest that, at a spot gold price of $9.65/g ($300/oz), only one, or possibly two, North American gold-producing companies can make money when break-even or "total costs of production" are considered. While strong hedge positions mitigate this situation in the short term, clearly, this is an industry in desperate straits. For example, write-downs for North American producers in 1997 were approximately $2.5 billion. Speculative short positions in 1997 were near historical record highs and generally exceeded long positions by factors of 9:1 or 10:1. Much of this is driven by some US commercial banks, hedge fund managers and commodity speculators who can significantly move gold prices sharply over short periods of time by selling gold they do not own in the expectation they can buy it back at a lower price before they have to deliver. These signifcant short positions are likely to continue as long as central banks are willing to sell or loan gold to financial institutions that in turn make the gold available to speculators who hope to capitalize on price fluctuations. The Far East accounts for approximately 26% of the annual demand for gold. Including India, the region accounts for 43% of total demand. More than 85% of the physical demand for gold is for investment jewelry in Asia and the Middle East. This demand is extraordinarily price sensitive. The fairly recent turmoil in Asian markets and economies, combined with currency devaluations throughout the region, have made gold more expensive (30% to 50% in local currencies) for those peoples most likely to treat gold as a safe investment haven. Higher interest rates also have reduced the amount of money they have to spend on consumer goods such as jewelry. All of these recent Asian events are deflationary in nature. Deflation, if coincident with rising unemployment, could result in significant dishoarding of gold. There is one key fact to remember when analyzing
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