Gold industry going backwards

THE gold industry is heading down the same route as the troubled platinum industry due to mistakes made over the past 15 years and will not recover for at least 10, Randgold chief executive Mark Bristow said last week.
Gold industry going backwards Gold industry going backwards Gold industry going backwards Gold industry going backwards Gold industry going backwards

Bristow - who leads one of the few gold companies whose stock has outperformed the gold price in recent years - reminded delegates how Gold Fields chief executive Nick Holland told the Melbourne Mining Club in July that the top eight gold companies ranked by production had spent 40% of their market cap in the past five years on capital projects, without achieving any increase in production.

Because major and second-tier gold producers' operating cash flow has not even covered capital expenditure over the past 10 years, they had to resort to debt and equity raising, which diluted their shareholders and left the companies $14 billion in the red.

"So they weren't just raising and spending money to run on the spot, they were actually sliding backwards," Bristow said.

The picture gets worse. Bristow added that not only had the industry not managed to increase production, it had seen costs rise by 37% over the past two years against a gold price increase of 31%. While cost inflation was a factor in this, he said the key driver was the deteriorating quality of the industry's asset base.

The reserve grade has slipped from above 2.5 grams per tonne to 1.2gpt - and it's this, not input costs, that had a major impact on gold companies' cash costs per ounce, and, more importantly, on capital expenditure, he believes.

"It's also worth noting that the industry is currently mining above its reserve grade, which implies that the reserve grade will continue to decline," Bristow said.

"The harsh fact is that because many gold companies did not invest in the future, they are being forced to use the higher gold price to access lower grades simply to stay alive at the cost of producing better margins."

He also agreed with BlackRock's view that the gold industry's decision to cut grades in 2005-06 was the key mistake that contributed to the current malaise in gold equities, but said trouble was brewing earlier than that.

"In the back end of the ‘90s and even into the 2000s, exploration expenditure dried up completely and people literally started mining their reserves," Bristow recalled.

In the early 2000s, the gold price was very low so companies mined higher and higher grades without replacing them. And with the gold price going up, the easy option was to just start mining the low grades of the ore bodies "and we never caught up".

Since the collapse of the Bretton Woods System of fixed exchange rates in the early 1970s, there has always been an excess amount of gold supply, driven by the South Africans then the discovery of the big open pits on the back of CIL technology, then the mining industry supplied the extra gold in the form of hedging, he said.

"But in 2001-02, everything stopped and suddenly things tightened and pushed the gold price up, on which he industry was able to survive, and by 2006-07 there were absolutely no discoveries," Bristow said.

Majors bragged about their plans of becoming multi-million ounce producers through M&A-driven strategies, but with no exploration plans - which is fine to clean up some lower-grade ore bodies, Bristow said, but the lack of feed and lack of opportunity to access better grades forced the major drop in grades.

"[This] is not too dissimilar to what happened to the platinum industry," he said. "In fact, my view is that the gold industry is going down the same route as we've seen in platinum industry from the early 1990s with the big jump in the platinum price; then that comfort in just mining your already defined reserves and coping with the lower grades by being helped with the higher platinum price.

"In fact, it's almost impossible to see the industry recovering in the next 10 years, as it takes 5-10 years to find a mine and then build it. The grades are going to continue to decline and if the gold price stalls it's going to be a tough time for gold miners," Bristow said.

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