Junior Gold Exploration 3
Gold's price multiplying by over fivefold since 2001 has unleashed an onslaught of exploration all over the globe. Countless mining companies, both old and new, have sought to get their piece of one of the hottest commodities of the 21st century.
Many of these miners have gravitated towards jurisdictions known to have rich gold-mining histories. But gold's unprecedented secular bull run has been impetus for them to stretch the boundaries of where they're spinning their drills. And some have found tremendous success in the most unlikely of places.
Over the last decade or so we've seen major gold discoveries at breathtaking mountainous heights, in the remotest of regions, and in areas with brutally-harsh climates. And the miners aren't just testing locales with geographical challenges. Some are also venturing into areas known to be geopolitically hostile.
At Zeal we maintain a massive database of information on US/Canadian-listed mining companies that explore for gold. And by tracking their project locations, we're able to get a pulse of where in the world they're congregating. In our latest update as part of a research project focusing on junior explorers, we looked at nearly 700 of them. And with projects in 71 different countries, we're indeed seeing a widespread distribution of where these juniors are looking for gold.
As expected this distribution has resulted in gradual changes to gold's global production output. We're seeing smaller countries that didn't have a single commercial-scale mine a decade ago now making material contributions to supply. And these new contributors have collectively driven a decisive reversal in the overall production trend.
Interestingly global mine production was actually down over the first seven years of gold's bull market. Despite its price rocketing higher, production had fallen by 11% to 2008, to levels not seen since the mid-1990s. Finally in 2009 the latest exploration cycle had caught up with the mining industry. And this was the beginning of a trend that has delivered year-over-year production increases that should extend into 2013.
This sprawling exploration distribution has contributed to what is now a truly global gold-mining footprint. Consider that in the mid-1990s the big-three producers (South Africa, the United States, and Australia) were responsible for over half of the world's mine production. They are now responsible for less than a quarter of total output as other countries step up to feed folks' growing appetite for gold.
As an investor it can of course be quite handy to gain an understanding of global exploration trends. Where the juniors are exploring today is where many of the next-generation mines will come from. And with the help of our large junior database, we can get an idea of where this exploration is being concentrated.
When looking at junior gold exploration from a geographical perspective, I always like to start out by scrubbing up against the top producer countries. And as you can see in the map below, project concentration doesn't necessarily mesh with output.
This map highlights the world's ten largest producers. And next to each country is the percentage of juniors that own exploration projects within their borders. Also shown is a percentage breakdown of projects by continent (with Central America displayed separately). And indeed the results are quite fascinating.
What is perhaps most fascinating is the lack of activity in Asia. And it's certainly not because of Asia's geology. As you can see, four of the world's top-10 producers reside in this region. And they collectively account for a whopping 28% of total output. Provocatively though only about 4% of junior explorers own projects on this continent.
The main reason juniors tend to stay away from this part of the world is its difficult accessibility. Unfortunately most countries in Asia are run by authoritarian governmental regimes that have historically been hostile to foreign investment. In some countries, such as Uzbekistan, you won't find a single foreign mining company operating within their borders. Just ask Newmont about its past Uzbek travails!
However things are improving in some places, slowly but surely. China and Russia for example are finally starting to comprehend the importance of foreign investment in their natural-resources sectors. In 1997 China adopted new legislation that enables foreign mining companies to operate in its country. And just this year Russia eased strategic foreign-investment rules in hopes of attracting capital.
But while this push towards being more "mining friendly" is a step in the right direction, it is still quite difficult for foreign mineral-exploration companies to succeed. Those that have ventured over there have found still-overbearing legal frameworks. And the lack of success by foreigners is reflected by the lion's share of production still being conducted by state-owned and/or domestic mining companies.
Currently only about a dozen juniors are seeking their fortunes within the Chinese and Russian borders. But as mentioned this is more than we'd have seen a decade ago. If these brave explorers can conquer the mining code, their diligence could well pay off in spades.
Elsewhere in Asia we see moderate exploration activity in such countries as Indonesia (the majority of its gold production is a byproduct of large primary copper mines), the Philippines, and Kazakhstan. But for the most part these countries fall into the general continental bucket that is saturated with high levels of geopolitical risk. These countries do have plenty of untapped gold potential. So if they ever open their doors there'll be a huge rush of junior exploration.
Other regions that lack a material gold-exploration presence are Europe, Central America, and Australia. In Europe only 3% of the juniors in our pool own projects there. And this is actually quite surprising considering a strong gold-mining history that dates back to the days of the ancient Romans.
Mining in general has migrated away from Europe to other more fertile parts of the world over the last century. And as a result not only does Europe not have a top-10 producer, it doesn't even have a top 20. In fact, this continent produces so little gold that Eurasian country Turkey offers its only presence in the top 30.
Gold's bull has offered new light to this region's gold industry though. And the handful of junior explorers working nearly 30 projects in 15 different European countries hope to show that there's still great gold potential.
Central America is an interesting region when it comes to gold. By land mass it is but a speck on the map. But geologically it is plush with numerous structures of gold mineralization. Some of the larger gold miners have had great recent success in this part of the world, including Goldcorp which operates a super-profitable mine in Guatemala. Goldcorp is also party to a JV with Barrick Gold that owns the newly-commissioned Pueblo Viejo mine in the Dominican Republic (one of the world's largest gold mines, with annual production of nearly one-million ounces).
This part of the world is still wildly underexplored due to historically-unstable geopolitics. But things are radically improving on that front, thus prompting over a dozen juniors to work projects on six of the seven mainland countries as well as the Dominican Republic (the DR is traditionally considered part of the Caribbean, but many lump it into the Central American regional bucket).
As for Australia, as the world's second-largest gold producer it's hard to believe that so few explorers in our universe are on the ground there. But this continent/country is actually a rare exception to our universe's global exploration representation.
Without question the US and Canadian stock exchanges are the world's premier destinations for resource companies seeking to raise capital to fund their operations. Coming in third though would be the Australian Stock Exchange. Australian investors have long had a strong affinity for gold stocks. And as a result domestic mining companies haven't had the need to list elsewhere to procure capital.
Now some recent policy changes have been turnoffs to the miners, thus resulting in a lot less Australian exploration going on these days. But in general investors can find ASX-listed companies that are not listed in the US or Canada active at the bit. A lot more exploration is happening than the 2% project load (which includes regional plays Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Tasmania) suggested by our data.
Africa is where we start to see more action from the junior explorers. And not surprisingly the lion's share of this action is occurring outside the borders of this continent's top producer. Though South Africa is currently ranked world #5 and is known to host the highest-grade gold ever seen, most miners won't touch this country with a ten-foot pole.
For years now South Africa has been one big geopolitical nightmare. It has experienced one crisis after another, from currency, to labor, to power, and more. And the onus is on a vile and corrupt government. There is of course an argument that geology is partially to blame for this country's staggering 83% decrease in production since 1970 (from 995mt down to around 170mt). But one corrupt regime after another is what has ultimately driven South Africa's top industry into the ground.
Thankfully Africa offers plenty of opportunities to score gold outside of its southernmost country. And the best are being found in the northwestern part of the continent. Ghana is of course a top-10 producer given its massive geologically-favorable greenstone belts. But some big discoveries and developments are also being made in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. In all about 60 juniors are exploring in 23 different countries. And I suspect this number would be a lot higher if it weren't for civil wars wreaking havoc in some of the central countries that have yet to see any modern exploration.
Moving to South America we find well over 100 junior explorers seeking to discover and/or develop the next gold mine. And over a third of them own projects in world #6 producer Peru. Lauded by the ancient Incas as the "sweat of the sun", gold is still quite abundant in and around the prolific Andes Mountains that stretch from one border to the other. And when you mix abundant gold with friendly mining laws, you can see why so many explorers flock to Peru.
Brazil and Argentina are other countries that are seeing significant activity. But perhaps the hottest South American country in terms of early-stage development is Colombia. Interestingly this country has seen gold mining for over 500 years. In fact, it was the world's largest gold producer in the 19th century as well as the largest producer in the Americas up until about World War II.
Colombia's gold prominence faded though as a result of tumultuous geopolitics. And because of this its massive gold belts had never seen modern exploration until things started shaping up in the last decade or so. From a production standpoint Colombia hasn't yet hit the radar. But the dozens of companies currently exploring there are discovering incredible deposits that should turn into large-scale low-cost mining operations.
As you can see it is North America that's the big winner when it comes to the highest concentration of junior exploration projects. Incredibly a whopping 70% of all junior explorers own a project(s) on this continent. And Canada is by far the country with the most play.
Canada possesses the rare combination of a rich gold-mining history, friendly geopolitics, and large structures of favorable geology that are underexplored. And the juniors have had great success discovering and developing both brownfield and greenfield deposits.
This work has led to an uptick in production in recent years, which has pulled this country out of a brutal decline from its late 1990s apex. And considering its large pipeline of next-generation mines, the world's seventh-largest producer should continue to see significant growth in the years to come.
The US is another country that had seen a big decline in production since the late 1990s. And like Canada, its strong combination of favorable attributes has attracted significant exploration that has served to stop the bleeding. There are currently well over 100 juniors exploring in the US. And their work has yielded a strong pipeline of projects that ought to materially boost production in the years ahead.
Not on the map above is what I consider to be the most exciting country for junior gold exploration, Mexico. Mexico has long been known as the world's premier silver haven. But even the 16th-century Spanish colonials that shipped hoards of the white metal back to their king recognized its exceptional gold potential. And modern exploration that's tapped this country's old artisanal workings has led to a plethora of gold-centric finds.
This exploration has already yielded abundant fruit, with Mexico's gold production up an astonishing 263% since 2001. This incredible growth has vaulted it to #11 in the global rankings. And the pipeline being developed by the 70+ juniors operating in this country ought to allow Mexico to crack the top 10 in the very near future.
Overall it's not too surprising that junior gold exploration has a high concentration of activity in regions that have favorable geology and geopolitics. But gold's powerful bull has afforded liberties to explorers to take some risks in parts of the world that had historically been off limits. And these risks could pay off for these juniors and their investors.
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The bottom line is gold's secular bull market has enabled junior gold exploration to be a global affair. We're seeing work on all major continents, in over 70 countries. And this has led to a broadened production spectrum.
When it comes to concentration of exploration efforts though, the mining companies still tend to favor the regions that offer the best mix of favorable geology and friendly geopolitics. And in today's day and age, the Americas offer the best options.