Gold Gone Wild

By: John Ing | Tue, May 1, 2007
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Image courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Neither a borrower nor a lender be. And yet, if you have to choose, it is better to be a creditor. Why? America is about to discover the dangers of becoming a debtor. The U.S. debt load has climbed to $44.5 trillion or roughly three times the country's yearly GDP, exceeding levels last seen in the Great Depression and that does not include the trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The global economy in total is only $51 trillion. Easy central bank policies led by the United States have triggered a deluge of money that has washed over financial markets in recent years. This massive injection of liquidity lowered interest rates and remade America's corporate world as debt-inflated super buyouts, caused a boom that has surpassed even the dot-com era. With record debt burdens and record debt ratios, the United States has become overly dependent on outsiders to finance its standard of living. America's hunger for dollars is quite simply self-destructive.

Despite America's dependency on overseas financing, the White House has slapped tariffs on China for the first time since 1991, filing two cases against that country over pirated movies, music and books. Ironically, America's fate may be similar to the 1997 Asian Contagion Crash, when exchange rates fell, equities collapsed and land prices plummeted, causing huge losses. Today, there are parallels and warning signs like big trade deficits, big budget deficits and rising debt burdens. The trigger for the crisis? Exchange rates fell due largely to the sharp reversal of capital flows, as investors stampeded for the exits. Today, the shoe is on the other foot. It is the US dollar that has become highly vulnerable to capital outflows, hitting a 26-year low against the pound and another record low against the euro. The dollar's days as a reserve currency is over.

US Needs to Import Even More Savings

America's savings shortfall is the yang of chronic trade deficits, making the country increasingly reliant on others. The United States must attract more than $2 billion a day of capital inflows to finance its current account deficit. In December, U.S. capital inflows collapsed to $14.3 billion, which is far short of what's needed to fund the deficit. America's imports are more than seven percent larger than exports, as it continues to consume far more than it produces. Meantime, the world's largest debtor nation has a bigger problem: The savings rate has dropped to the lowest level since the Great Depression. So in order for America to continue to grow, it is left with no choice but to import surplus savings from abroad. Without this, the dollar will fall further. Debt on debt is not good.

The United States' two biggest trade deficits are with China and Japan. In the past few years, the reliance on Asian central banks' purchases of US debt has been enormous, resulting in mammoth holdings of foreign exchange in Asia and elsewhere. So this new round of protectionist pork-barrel politicking has Americans believing that the problem is with China and the need to revalue the renminbi. Wrong. This is not about an undervalued renminbi. This is about the fact that Americans continue to spend more than they produce and have an insatiable appetite for debt to finance their consumption. So it may well be that this old-fashioned protectionism will cut the lifeline connecting the market and the United States.

And Then There Is China

China has displaced the US as Japan's largest trading partner. China is the US' second largest trading partner after Canada and holds over $400 billion of US debt. China's reliance on America has lessened as it rebalances its economy to better accommodate the growth of its middle class, which has been fuelled by the massive resettlement of the rural population to the cities. China's per-capita income has doubled in less than 10 years. Today, China's middle class is bigger than the population of the United States. Against this backdrop, the U.S. administration is facing pressure from the Democrats, who have lodged complaints against China three times in the past three months serving to weaken Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's new China policy. The last thing a country with a record debt can afford is to hurt its bankers, particularly when it has no savings.

Meantime, the recent selloff in global markets should not be ignored. We believe the days of low volatility, cheap money and the massive glut of liquidity are over. An increase in global interest rates has also caused a slowdown of the "carry trade", whereby investors borrowed Japanese yen and invested the proceeds in higher-yielding US assets. The recent uptick in interest rates has made this carry trade less profitable, leading to an increased risk premium. At the same time, inflation is back, driven by supply shortages, an emerging Asian superpower, global liquidity and the slumping dollar. Further, the U.S. consumer price index with food and energy calculated back-in, is running at an annualized 7.2 percent. Tellingly that's not good for the dollar, but good for gold.

Sub-Prime Crisis Gets Worse

The final body blow was the implosion of the sub-prime market in the United States. Junk mortgages were repackaged through collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and then sold to investors. Sub-prime mortgages accounted for eight percent of all outstanding mortgages and fully 23 percent of last year's volume. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, more than 2.1 million U.S. families with home loans missed at least one payment last year. This year it will be worse. About 14 percent of the $1.2 trillion in outstanding sub-prime mortgages is now in default. Sub-prime loans were aimed at those with poor credit records, and today many borrowers are finding they can no longer afford their payments, thus making it even harder for those with tarnished credit to refinance. The tightening of credit follows the uptick in rates and the accompanying glut of houses on the market has triggered a fall in home prices. Home equity is a key foundation of consumer spending, which makes up 70 percent of U.S. GDP. With 70 percent of Americans owning their own homes, the absence of the home equity "wealth effect" will lead to a further slowing of the U.S. economy.

Junk loans, The Bedrock of Fault-ridden Derivatives

The big problem is that Wall Street securitized these sub-prime mortgages by "slicing and dicing" and repackaged the loans, which were then sold back to investors such as hedge funds and private equity groups looking for better returns. Of course, to boost the volume in fees, lending restrictions were relaxed further and an abundance of capital chased this sector. As a result, these junk loans became the fault-ridden bedrock of a synchronized global binge of cheap loans, derivatives, and leveraged credit. Lenders to highly indebted companies are making the same mistakes, of too high debt, too loose standards and falling risk premiums that undermined the sub-prime debt market.

In a form of deja vu there was another time when there was another period of declining property values, cycle of foreclosures, reduced consumption demand, rising unemployment and more delinquencies.. That was in the Dirty Thirties when balloon mortgages came due and householders could not refinance. Then the banks were taught a lesson and mortgages became instead vanilla self-liquidating forms of debt. Today, sub-prime bonds are the underlying layer of trillions of obligations that were created by Wall Street. Mortgages are set to be renegotiated again. Hence the debt market is set for a rude awakening. So the ripple effect from the sub-prime crisis has now cast doubt on whether holding U.S. dollar obligations is such a good thing, particularly as the US economy absorbs declines in house and auto sales.

Furthermore, the sub-prime crisis threatens to spread to higher quality debt, triggering a wave of defaults that could sink the U.S. economy and the greenback. Central banks appear to be willing to accumulate euros to dollars and gold to anything but dollars. It appears dollars are not such a good holding anymore. Is a new reserve currency in the making?

A China-Centric World

And what if there were a trade war? China has more than $1 trillion of foreign reserves, Japan $909 billion. The United States has no savings and foreign exchange reserves of only $41 billion, fewer than Indonesia's $46 billion. With numbers like that, more and more of America's funding partners are getting the message. According to the International Monetary Fund, U.S. dollar holdings fell to 64.7 percent in the 2006 fourth quarter from 72.6 percent in mid-2001. Amazingly the euro, launched in 1999, is increasingly a replacement for greenback holdings, with its share at 25.8 percent. Is the euro the new reserve currency? The world's biggest debtor nation simply cannot afford to launch a trade war with the world's most important creditor. The gyrations in the currency markets threaten to become a full-blown dollar crisis.

New Worries

So while the Shanghai stock market gyrations may have caused palpitations, it also focused investors on the real problem and that is America's indebtedness and its dependence upon precarious financial markets. Don't worry about the Chinese because they have a savings rate of more than 30 percent, with savings in excess of $2 trillion. Worry about America's consumption binge with too little savings and too much debt. Worry about the dollar's diminished role as a reserve money. Worry that there are more euros in circulation than dollars. Worry that the international debt market has even more eurobonds than dollar bonds. Worry that Wall Street's stock market capitalization has now been eclipsed by Europe and China. Worry if you're not holding gold because gold is the very hedge against the printing presses.

The Fight For The Next Reserve Currency

In recent years, hundred of billions of dollars have flooded into China's financial system through trade and foreign investment. After all, China is the world's fastest growing economy, causing a global financial shift of unprecedented proportions. Beijing has plans to diversify its foreign exchange reserves because they have too many dollars already, including now risky mortgage-backed securities. However, there simply is not enough oil, euros or yen to satisfy Beijing's appetite. So China is looking elsewhere because within four years its official reserves are expected to top $2 trillion.

We expect the Chinese to acquire more producing assets instead of paper. China will also create the world's largest investment company from some of those reserves. With about $200 billion at hand, China will not only diversify its holdings but use those holdings to strengthen its economy. Today, three Chinese banks rank in the top 10 global banks by market value. Japan, too, is establishing a special investment fund, following China and Singapore's lead. By investing in assets to diversify and get better returns, China will leave US investments and the dollar behind and help create the next new reserve currency.

China is an emerging super-power and beneficiary of globalization. In a less US-centric world, Beijing is about to show its hand. China has become the biggest consumer of copper, steel and iron ore, and is the second largest user of oil and energy. China is also the world's largest creditor. By establishing the largest investment fund in the world to make investments in everything from euros to gold, China is about to use its financial might to finance its bold economic blueprint.

We expect China to diversify further into other asset classes such as gold, which is a prime beneficiary because the country holds only less than two percent of its foreign reserves in the metal. We believe that China has just begun to acquire hard assets due partly because its growth dictates the need for oil, copper, wheat and zinc. And the world is also short of hard assets. In our last report, Rich Country, Poor Country, we noted that the liquidity glut caused by accommodative global monetary policies would flow over into hard assets and other asset classes such as metals, where there has been underinvestment and few discoveries - like gold. Gold is the ultimate reserve currency. Historically gold has served as the world's only true currency, retaining its store of wealth against paper and fiat currencies.

$1,000 Gold Is A Certainty

Gold is the ultimate safe haven against inflation and falling stock markets, and it is a hedge against a weaker U.S. dollar. Indeed, gold is a good index of currency fears. Given our expectation of continued favourable supply-demand fundamentals, we expect gold to retest the January 1980 high at $850 an ounce this year, with a new target at $1,000 an ounce. While $1000 may appear overly optimistic, it is important to remember that gold rose nearly 3,000 percent from 1971 to 1980 and is only up 166 percent from its low in 1999.

Gold-mining shares have not kept up with bullion due in part to the fundamental reason that gold-producing companies by and large have not been able to replace their production or even reserves. The senior gold players are stuck on a treadmill. The market fears that gold companies are simply harvesting their mines and thus have not accorded the group a growth multiple. In addition, costs have risen from $200 an ounce to more than $300 an ounce. But that is still leaves most companies able to make money. So what is the problem? The boom in exchange traded funds (ETFs) is part of the problem because they represent competition. There are now 600 tonnes - or $13.3 billion - of gold socked away in ETFs. There is no doubt that their buying tightened the physical market, yet we do not believe that ETFs are much competition.

Gold stocks' lagging performance will change because of the increase in the price of gold. Gold companies, at long last, have been churning out cash and many of them are trading at 20 times price/earnings versus the 30 or 40 multiples of the past. As such, many companies have acquired others in the quest for growth since it is still cheaper to buy ounces on Bay Street than explore for gold in the ground. While ounces have grown, per-share growth has been lacking. We believe higher gold prices will change that and the higher price level plus leverage will attract investors.

While the seniors remain attractive from a pricing point of view, the lack of growth makes the mid-tier group of companies such as Agnico-Eagle, Kinross and Meridian appealing given their rising gold production profiles. At this time, we also like the more junior precious metal producers since those companies possess the most attractive risk/reward profiles. As a package, we like Continental, Etruscan, Excellon, St. Andrew Goldfields, Philex, Unigold and McEwen's USgold.

Three Days, Three Mines in Mexico....

Mexico is one of the world's leading silver producers producing more than 100 million ounces annually. In three days, I visited three Mexican silver companies located in three of the most productive metal districts.

Previously recommended, Excellon Resources (EXN) was first visited. The company has a solid management team, strong balance sheet and an experienced Board of Directors. Excellon owns 100 percent of the Platosa silver deposit located in northeastern Durango state. Excellon has a huge unexplored land package of 129 square km (36,000 acres) that lies in the middle of the beltway of Mexico's carbon replacement deposit (crd) system which hosts Mexico's largest silver mine, Santa Eulalia. Excellon has the highest grade in Mexico and is profitable. Excellon has more than $13 million in cash and the company will beginning piling up the cash in the next quarter and will be most importantly, debt free. This year, Excellon will produce 2.5 million ounces up from 1.7 million ounces but next year with normalized shipments, Excellon should producer 3.3 million ounces. Excellon has begun permitting and preparation for building a 300 tonne per day mill which will allow it to double its production in the fourth quarter of 2008. Of more excitement is that Excellon has boosted its exploration budget following an airborne survey which has highlighted at least two "mag highs". The company intends to drill these "mag highs" this summer.

Mag Silver Corp (MAG) was visited and its crown jewel is the Juanicipio deposit where Mag is 54 percent owner with joint venture partner Penoles, Mexico's largest mining company. MAG is surrounded by Penoles and appears to be the "meat in the sandwich". Penoles operates a 7500 tonne per day facility nearby, and we saw three Penole rigs on the border of Juanicipio along strike. Mag has over eight projects in Mexico but this Jaunacipo project is being fast tracked with $3.3 million spent so far by the joint venture. The Mag/Penoles joint venture has four rigs turning and is conducting a 28,000 metre program this year. Mag recently completed an airborne survey and appears ready to fast track development. While there is no doubt of the need to infill results, our visit suggests that based on the land holding, Mag's share could easily exceed 250 million ounces of silver. Mag is well on the way to drill the 30 odd holes to support this and we are most impressed with the consistency of the the grades and results to date. While still early we believe that the potential success and the fact that is sandwiched between Penoles' land, a takeover by that Penoles is possible. With only 42 million shares outstanding, the shares are an attractive buy here.

Genco (GGC)is a small silver producer, having acquired La Guitarra in 2003 from Luismin. Genco's mine is in the Temascaltepec Mining District and enjoys a huge land spread about 15 km long and 4 km wide. The mine was being harvested and Genco management has upgraded the facility, improved buying methods and begun overdue development in order to feed a hungry mill. Genco produces a silver concentrate that is sent to the Luismin mill. The Company has added Greg Liller who came from Gammon Lake. Genco has spent more than $5.6 million on development work to replace a depleted reserve base. The company is contemplating a heap leach operation next year and an extensive underground development program. However, needed is additional capital in order to support its ambitious plans. Genco produced a modest 370,000 ounces last year and should produce about a million ounces this year. Nonetheless, we believe that the shares are an attractive buy below $4 a share.

Companies

Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd.
Agnico-Eagle successfully acquired Cumberland Resources which owns the Meadowbank project located in Nunavut. The project is already under construction and has proven and probable reserves of 21.3 million tonnes, grading 4.2 grams per tonne of gold or 2.9 million ounces. Production is intended in early 2010 at an average rate of 400,000 ounces in the first four years. The acquisition continues Agnico-Eagle's growth trend and if the stars remain aligned, Agnico-Eagle has enough projects underway to produce 1.2 million ounces by 2010 with five new gold mines in production. And because of its healthy balance sheet and a cash hoard of almost $480 million, the company does not have to issue equity for any of the projects or in fact for the acquisition of Cumberland shares. The Cumberland acquisition is just another accretive acquisition and complements Agnico-Eagle operations. We continue to recommend Agnico-Eagle shares for its excellent growth prospects.

Eldorado Gold Corp
Eldorado had disappointing results because of delays in the ramp-up of production at Kisladag in Turkey and its newly opened Tanjianshan mine in China. Eldorado therefore cutback its production estimate to 310,000 ounces this year down 20,000 ounces from 330,000 ounces. But that is history and we expect the addition of reserves from Efemcukuru project, also in Turkey, in the current quarter will add to Eldorado's reserve base. We continue to recommend Eldorado for its healthy production growth profile and the likelihood that one of these days Eldorado will be a tasty tidbit for one of the majors. Buy.

Goldcorp Inc.
Goldcorp reported $0.11 per share for the first quarter but below the consensus due to a 100,000 ounce shortfall of production. Goldcorp has morphed into one of the largest mining companies. Goldcorp should produce 2.5 million ounces this year. However, we believe that Goldcorp's earlier acquisitions are maturing and the chickens may be coming home to roost. Kevin MacArthur has set about pruning some of Goldcorp's underperforming assets and attempted to lower the risk profile at huge low-grade bulk tonnage Penasquito mine by selling future production to Silver Wheaton.

But there is still much more work to do. For example, there is still a need for the consolidation of their varied interests that they share with Kinross Gold (Musselwhite, Porcupine, and La Coipa). In addition Red Lake, the big cash cow may be slipping in contribution over the next couple of years despite spending over $26 million on exploration (the Red Lake shaft won't be completed until late this year). Goldcorp shares have been underperforming because the company has likely reached a size that management and growth in ounces are in conflict. Execution risk is going to be particularly important and thus Goldcorp has more downside than upside at this time. Consequently, we recommend that profits be taken here.

High River Gold Mines Ltd.
High River reported its result for the year, of $0.13 per share versus a loss a year earlier. Gold production was almost 130,000 ounces at a cash cost of $133 an ounce. The results were slightly disappointing but reflected the slower ramp-up of High River's two new gold mines in Russia and West Africa. However, High River is expected to complete the two new mines in Russia and Africa in the next quarter or so and so we believe that the problems are behind High River. More important, recent results at Bissa (exciting gold project in Burkina Faso) and expected good news from Prognoz, a high grade silver project in Russia will further boost shares. Looking ahead, we can expect High River to split up its Russian assets which consists mainly of two producing underground gold mines operated by its Russian subsidiary (Zun-Holba and Irokinda) and the huge and high-grade Prognoz deposit. The 100 percent owned Berezitovy project in Russia will be completed in the next quarter and produce 100,000 ounces. High River's West African assets could be spun out to shareholders.

Consequently, we recommend High River shares for its long awaited increase in production this year to almost 240,000 ounces of gold and a projected cash cost of $324 per ounces. The 100 percent Bissa project with 1,000 square kilometers of exploration permits and 12 major target areas in Burkina Faso could contain more than 2 million ounces of gold. Meanwhile, the Prognoz silver project may prove to be one of the largest and highest grade developed silver projects in the world. We believe High River is undervalued and unrecognized. Buy.

IAMGOLD Corp.
IAMGOLD results were also disappointing due in part to poor performances at Sadiola and Rosebel. With production of 1 million ounces from eight different mines, IAMGOLD needs to consolidate and prune its assets from the acquisition of Cambior. We did not like the deal, because we believe that the action was taken to suit the major shareholders of IAMGOLD and Cambior and not its shareholders. Cambior does not add much to IAMGOLD's growth profile and Doyon is a depleted asset. While IAMGOLD will produce 1 million ounces with the acquisition of Cambior, the company has also increased its share dilution. As such, we prefer Kinross to IAMGOLD.

Kinross Gold Corp.
Kinross has been on a tear due to the benefits of the Bema acquisition. Kinross should produce 1.8 million ounces this year up from 1.5 million ounces last year due to the contribution of Bema's operating mines. Meanwhile the Paracutu expansion in Brazil is on track and will be an important contributor. The new Buckhorn acquisition also will make a contribution this year. Bema's high grade Kupol project in Magadan will be a significant contributor. Execution will remain a problem but 40 percent of the work has been completed at Kupol. Overall, we like the upgrading in assets at Kinross and with 1.8 million ounces of unhedged production, the company is a tasty tidbit and a remedy for the those heavily hedged producers. Buy.

Newmont Mining Corp
Newmont shares have been in funk, because of the problem plaguing all the big cap mining companies- the lack of growth. Newmont is on a treadmill to replace its 5.87 million ounces of annual production. Newmont's people have been quoted as saying they hope, "to add 10 million ounces of gold a year just to replenish its depleting reserves". However, that task is overly ambitious given the fact the company only spent $175 million last year on exploration. In addition, mining costs are rising and production declines at the Yanacocha mine in Peru hurt results in the quarter as did a slow Phoenix start-up and power shortages in Ghana Newmont must generate growth on a per share basis. Consequently, we expect that company to be a predator in coming quarters. How to make money? Look for Newmont's prey.


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Analyst Disclosure
Company Name Trading Symbol *Exchange Disclosure code
Barrick Gold ABX T 1
Kinross K T 1
Continental Minerals KMK V 1,5
Crystallex KRY T 1
Excellon EXN V 1
High River Gold HRG T 1,5
Philex PGI V 1
St. Andrew Goldfields SAS T 1,5
Unigold UGD V 1
Disclosure Key: 1=The Analyst, Associate or member of their household owns the securities of the subject issuer. 2=Maison Placements Canada Inc. and/or affiliated companies beneficially own more than 1% of any class of common equity of the issuers. 3=<Employee name> who is an officer or director of Maison Placements Canada Inc. or it's affiliated companies serves as a director or advisory Board Member of the issuer. 4=In the previous 12 months a Maison Analyst received compensation from the subject company. 5=Maison Placements Canada Inc. has managed co-managed or participated in an offering of securities by the issuer in the past 12 months. 6=Maison Placements Canada Inc. has received compensation for investment banking and related services from the issuer in the past 12 months. 7=Maison is making a market in an equity or equity related security of the subject issuer. 8=The analyst has recently paid a visit to review the material operations of the issuer. 9=The analyst has received payment or reimbursement from the issuer regarding a recent visit. T-Toronto; V-TSX Venture; NQ-NASDAQ; NY-New York Stock Exchange

 


 

John Ing

Author: John Ing

John R. Ing
Maison Placements Canada
130 Adelaide St. West - Suite 906
Toronto, Ont. M5H 3P5
(416) 947-6040

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