17 May 2008

Peak Gold

According to MineWeb, Peter Munk, the somewhat unpopular chairman and acting CEO of Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold producer, stated at the company's recent AGM that there have been "virtually no new discoveries."

While we might disagree around the edges of that statement, Chairman Munk is technically correct in that the level of discoveries being made is a small fraction of that needed to replace the depleting reserves of the gold producers.

In short, we appear to have reached the era of Peak Gold. Whereas a major discovery used to be 10 million ounces or more, the threshold for attention-getting discoveries these days has fallen to more along the lines of 1 to 3 million ounces... and even those are hardly falling off the trees.

Viewed from the perspective of an investor in the junior resource sector, this lack of discoveries means the fuse is lit - starting with straight-up supply and demand fundamentals - for a rocket shot tomorrow. Adding boosters to the rocket, we have a commodities bull market that shows no sign of ending anytime soon and, while the U.S. dollar will periodically rebound, it is not going to somehow reinvent itself as sound money in our lifetime.

Importantly, as you can clearly read between the lines in Chairman Munk's words, once the majors get cashed up and serious about replacing their reserves, they are going to have to look downstream to the juniors with discoveries... even if those discoveries are below the 5-million-ounce threshold they previously required to even consider taking an ore body into production.

A Risk and an Opportunity

Of course, lowering the threshold on deposit size will require trade-offs. For example, in order to be considered for an acquisition, a smaller deposit will almost certainly have to be near surface and open-pittable. It will also have to be near good infrastructure, and located in a jurisdiction with good laws and reasonable taxation. There is, in this situation, an opportunity and a risk.

Starting with the latter, if your portfolio now includes companies going after deposits in the one- to five-million-ounce range, you need to make sure they are not in a remote location, or will require going underground or building a mill to process sulfides. (Under 1 million ounces? Fuggedaboudit!)

As for the opportunity, while the odds and the amount of exploration spending still favor that we'll see the discovery of at least one and maybe two monster deposits in this cycle (there are a couple of companies advancing projects with that potential), and early shareholders will make fortunes as a result, there has rarely been a better time to invest in junior exploration companies with modestly sized projects in good locations. That said, you should still be focusing only on projects with at least 2 million ounces, or the strong potential of same.

In other words, take the opportunity in these down markets to focus on getting positioned ahead of the majors... that's where the big money will be made as things gather steam again going forward.

David Galland is managing director of Casey Research, publishers of the International Speculator, now in its 28th year. The current edition includes "Courting the Majors," a feature on what attributes the major mining companies are looking for in a junior explorer. All new subscribers are invited to give the International Speculator a three-month trial with an unquestioning 100% money-back guarantee. Learn more and sign up now to receive the current edition.

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