It’s well known that the gold majors are suffering from elevated all-in costs after years of reckless expansion into high risk countries and exploration overkill. Over the past six months, silver, gold, copper and platinum prices are down 35% and 23%, 14% and 12% respectively. Over the same period, oil prices are up 8%. Mining cost inflation is as big a problem as weak demand and resource nationalism.
Typically When Commodity Prices Fall, Mining Costs Fall
Since demand for commodities is tied to global growth, when prices fall, the cost of mining typically falls. However, in the past several years this has not been the case. In addition to oil prices, (as a proxy for diesel costs), labor, materials and power costs, (per unit of production) have increased or stayed the same. Margins are under severe pressure.
Hard to Meaningfully Improve a High-Cost Mine
In many cases, mines in the fourth-quartile of the cost curve were designed with much higher commodity price expectations. Commodity prices soared twice in the past five years, in 2008 and 2011. For example, gold prices touched $1,920 per ounce in September 2011, compared to $1,275 per ounce today.
As the majors retrench, less new gold supply will support and eventually lead to an increase in prices. The beneficiaries of higher prices will be high-quality, mid-tier and junior companies with low-cost operations and simple, clean business models. Make no mistake, hundreds of gold companies will fail in the coming years, but the strongest will thrive.
Producers in Safe Jurisdictions Will Be Especially Sought After
There have been many recent articles about the growing challenges of, “resource nationalism.” In addition to causing significant challenges on multiple fronts, acts of resource nationalism cost companies a great deal of money. The majors have learned this the hard way. Barrick Gold Corporation (USA) (NYSE:ABX) has reportedly spent several billion dollars on a $9 billion gold/silver mine in Chile that’s now on indefinite hold. There’s a real possibility that the Pascua-Lama project will never make it into production.
Likewise, Newmont Mining Corp (NYSE:NEM)’s $5 billion gold/copper project in Peru is being aggressively opposed by thousands of locals who fear the mine will damage the water balance in the region. This, even after Newmont Mining Corp (NYSE:NEM) has taken significant, proactive steps to alleviate any possible threat to the water supply. Dealing with resource nationalism is a rapidly growing cost of doing business.
While Not Immune From Cost Pressures, U.S. Mining Projects Are Superior
Key costs that are killing projects in places like Africa and central Asia are simply not meaningful factors in the U.S. For example, resource nationalism is not a threat in Nevada. The U.S. has well established, low-cost and reliable infrastructure, wage rates are relatively stable, and tax and royalty regimes are benign. These factors make the U.S. a low-risk jurisdiction to operate in. Therefore, the cost of project capital is lower.