Selection is critical, as is a sensible time frame...
RECENTLY SPEAKING at Casey Research's Downturn Millionaires webinar, investor, analyst and chairman of Sprott US holdings Rick Rule has long said timing investment cycles is only part of growing your money.
Here he talks with Casey Research's Jeff Clark about how he advises dealing with the current volatility in gold and silver prices, as well as the equities.
Jeff Clark: First, Rick, what's your basic explanation as to why gold crashed a few weeks ago?
Rick Rule: I think there are two parts to the answer, maybe three. First, the gold market was technically weak. The second thing is that there were a lot of institutional players long gold on leverage, using capital that was borrowed rather than their own, so when the price crashed they had to unwind very rapidly.
The fact that there was a very large futures player who attempted to come out of the market all at once during a period in time when the market was extremely illiquid is, of course, also very suspect. I know that most Internet articles are focused on the one large 400-tonne sale at a very odd point in time, and I would certainly agree with the suspicion that if I were a holder of that size and I was looking to sell or had to sell, I probably wouldn't have chosen to do it all at once or in a very illiquid time in the market.
I think that one of the things you have to look at in the gold market is that we are changing the nature of ownership, from institutional momentum holders who are leveraged, which is a long way of saying "weak hands," to physical individual buyers on a global basis, which is a different way of saying "strong hands." So one of the things that happened in the gold smackdown is that gold did what many things do in bear markets: it went from weak hands to strong hands.
Jeff: I saw a BNN video where you said the capitulation process isn't over. What makes you say that?
Rick: I don't know if I have an opinion regarding the capitulation process in gold and silver, but I certainly think that the lows are yet to come for the junior mining equities. My experience in 35 years in junior equity markets is that bull markets end in an upside blowout, and bear markets end in a downside puke. I think we were partway through that a couple weeks ago, but I think it got interrupted. I haven't seen the sort of cataclysmic capitulation selling that usually marks a bear market bottom. It doesn't mean that just because it has always happened that way that it will happen this way again, but I haven't seen the capitulation selling. What I have seen, for example, is mutual funds being forced to sell to meet redemptions – but I haven't seen the no-bid market that usually marks the cataclysmic bear market bottom.
Jeff: And the point is that you expect that.
Rick: I do.
Jeff: That was a record selloff a few weeks back.
Rick: It didn't have the duration that one would have expected. These things are usually two or three week long sell-fests. I forget what month it was in the year 2000, but there was an absolutely comical selloff. People who were on margin didn't find it funny at all, but because I was cashed up and I was extremely experienced, it was just an absurd theater that I took advantage of. There were a bunch of people who didn't know much about these stocks that bought them in 1996, and that same group of morons that knew nothing about what they owned or why they owned them and so puked them out in 2000. Your job as a speculator is to be on the other side of both of those trades.
Jeff: This implies that gold returning to the $1900 level and going higher could be a couple of years away.
Rick: I have no opinion on that. It's important to note that most of the juniors are nonviable at any gold price. When people ask me what would happen to the price of Amalgamated Moose Pasture if gold went to $2000, I'm forced to say to them, "Well, it really shouldn't matter. Amalgamated Moose Pasture doesn't have any gold. They are looking for gold, and if the price of something that you don't have any of goes up, it shouldn't make any intrinsic difference."
The truth is, we need to unwind the excesses of the last decade in the junior market. We've done a pretty good job of that, but we need to finish it.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a gold bug. But if you think gold is going higher, buy gold. If you are going to buy gold stocks, buy them because there is some internal reason to own that company and why it is becoming more valuable. Never confuse the two.
Jeff: Good point. What do you make of the record insider buying in the junior market?
Rick: I think there are two things to consider there. The first is that the high-quality gold juniors are very cheap. We believe, statistically, that the high-quality gold juniors are the cheapest they've ever been since 1992. So you are seeing very sophisticated buying of the gold juniors to match the selling from other places.
The other thing you're seeing with insider buying are financings where they issue God knows how many millions of shares at a nickel to raise $300-400,000, which are basically going to pay insiders' salaries. These people are basically putting the money from one pocket into another pocket, and issuing themselves 10 or 11 million shares in the process. There are hopefully 500 or 600 companies headed to extinction.
Both of those things are happening. One of them is bullish, and the other is just the way these junior markets work.
Jeff: A lot of analysts, especially the CNBC types, claim the gold bull market is over, that we've entered a bear market and it's time to get out.
Rick: I disagree with that on many levels. The narrative associated with gold and the narrative associated with the resource story hasn't changed. How many of your readers – in fact, how many listeners to CNBC or CNN – believe that the Western world's financial crisis is over? How many believe that any of the G20 nations can balance their budget? How many believe that central bank liquidity is a substitute for solvency, owing more than you can pay back? How many people would deny that physical gold demand has been strong?
The point is that the narrative that drove the gold market in 2006 and 2010 is very much intact. Nothing, in fact, has changed. The only thing that has changed is the perception and the price, both of which are lower, which is better. So yes, I am absolutely a gold bug, particularly when you compare it with the alternative, the US 10- or 30-year Treasury, which Jim Grant famously describes as "return-free risk." Does return-free risk sound attractive to you? It doesn't to me.
Rick: I also need to say that my 30-year track record and Eric Sprott's 30-year track record are a function of being extremely aggressive buyers in very bad markets. The $10 billion business that is now Sprott, Inc., is really a consequence of aggressive investing during bear markets. In periods like the 1990 bear market and the year 2000 bear market, it is precisely markets like these, when we have taken pain but have also taken aggressive action. And the rebound coming back out of markets like these can be very violent. You don't have the ability to reap the rewards of those upturns if you are not an aggressive investor in downturns like these.
Jeff: I've heard you say that you've made the biggest part of your wealth during big selloffs. This has been one for the record books, so are you viewing this as being another one of those opportunities?
Rick: Absolutely, Jeff. Let's face it, I'm 60 years old. This is probably my last major market cycle. I'm going to make the most of it. I can tell you that I'm having the most fun I've had in my career for 13 years. I have spent all my life honing my skills, building up the capital, building up the client base – this is tailor-made for me. I realize this period is unpleasant for some people, but the market doesn't care if it's unpleasant. The market doesn't care if it's inconvenient. You take what the market gives you – and this market is giving me a gigantic sale on assets I want to own.
Jeff: It's very exciting from that perspective. It begs the question, though: how do investors know when to reenter the market? How do we know when to buy?
Rick: You know, Jeff, I'm always early. Your friend Doug Casey will tell you that about me. I have a very logical mind. I believe if A is true, B is true, and C is true, then X will be the result. And when I reach that conclusion, I often confuse imminent with inevitable. So I don't know the answer to that.
What I do know is that my own net worth seems to go up fivefold coming out of a bear market and going into a bull market. Suppose it took 18 months longer than I had hoped; does that really matter, given the magnitude of the outcome? When there is a sale at a store for goods that you want, do you really worry too much about the fact that there might be another sale two weeks from now? I don't think you do. When goods that you want to own are attractively priced, you buy them.
Jeff: What about the investor who has already built a full position in a high-quality company; how does someone take advantage of what you're essentially calling a lifetime buying opportunity?
Rick: I think a key part of the answer has to do with "high-quality company". Most investors, particularly in the junior sector, are very bad at stock selection, and they don't have a good sense of what constitutes a high-quality company. If, in fact, I am to answer the question precisely as you asked it – what does a person do if they already have a full position in a high-quality company – then the answer is easy: relax. But if the question goes to somebody who has a laundry list of 20 companies and doesn't really remember why he or she bought the companies and is not aware of the fundamentals of the company and hasn't bothered to benchmark those companies against other companies that exhibit similar characteristics, that's a very different question.
In bull markets and in bear markets, one must continue to high-grade one's portfolio. One must make oneself at least once a year sell at least 20% of the portfolio. If you have 20 names in the portfolio, you have to make yourself sell four or five of them, and increase your positions in your best names. And you don't just do that in bull markets, you do it in bear markets, too.
Jeff: It's critical to be selective with stock picking.
Rick: It is absolutely critical. You've heard me say this before: if you merged every junior exploration company in the world into one company, that company would lose somewhere between $2 billion and $5 billion a year. So how do you price the industry...do you price it at five times losses? Ten times losses? The question, of course, is apocryphal.
What you need to remember is that all of the performance that gives the sector its occasional luster is concentrated in the top 10% of companies. People who are going to participate in the sector need to either spend the time or spend the money to have their portfolio selectively high-graded on a consistent basis. It's all about stock selection. If you want the extra leverage inherent in equities, do securities analysis and pay attention to those equities.
Jeff: Someone wrote to me recently saying, "I thought I was going to get rich in gold mining stocks, and here they are plummeting." What is your response to the investor who makes that kind of comment?
Rick: That's easy. Natural resource businesses and precious metals businesses are capital intensive and extraordinarily cyclical. Somebody in the sector must always remember, you are either a contrarian or you will be a victim. It's funny; people only want to be contrarians when it's popular. The fact that the narrative hasn't changed, the fact that the facts haven't changed, the fact that nothing has changed except the TSX.V being off by 60%, means that the same goods that appeared attractive to people at twice current prices must be more attractive now.
The gentleman or the lady who wrote to you is probably somebody who only believed in the narrative when it was being reinforced by the market. That's not being a contrarian, that's being a victim. If you came into a market when it was popular in 2010 and then you exit the market when it's unpopular in 2013, that's a classic example of buying high and selling low, a silly thing to do.
Remember the take-home phrase: you are either a contrarian or you are a victim. To buy low, you have to buy in markets that don't have competition. To sell high, you have to be a seller in markets where other people are greedy. It's that simple.
Jeff: Are there any specific catalysts you're looking for to turn the gold market around, as well as gold stocks?
Rick: There are three catalysts in every market. First, markets work, and the cure for low prices is simple: low prices. Bear market pricing causes bull market pricing. And the overvaluations of bull markets cause bear markets.
With regard to gold itself, I think the real catalyst will be the fact that on a global basis, people are mistaking liquidity – counterfeiting, if you will – with solvency. The truth is that the Western world has lived beyond its means for some substantial period of time, and they are attempting to engineer a default by depreciating the purchasing power of the denominator – the currency – so I think that's the ultimate catalyst for gold.
With regard to the stocks, which are a very different set of circumstances, I would suggest that one catalyst may be an increase in the gold price, but a much more important catalyst is the fact that high-quality gold companies, in our opinion, are selling at the best price they have sold at for 20 years. They are simply too cheap. It won't be immediate, but it will cause some of the higher-quality names to be taken over, because it's cheaper to buy gold than it is to go find gold.
And the third thing that's really going to surprise people in the juniors is that we are slowly coming into a discovery cycle. There is nothing that adds hope and liquidity like a discovery. People talk about what a pathetic market we had last year, but if you happened to own Reservoir Minerals before its discovery, the stock went from $0.26 to $3.50. Africa Oil went from $0.80 to $10. This is a market that will reward performance, but it's a market that has been starved for performance, too.
Jeff: Okay, last question. I'm a planner, so I want to write down in my calendar what year I'm going to be sitting on a beach sipping a mai tai with you after we've sold our junior stocks for 10 or maybe even 100 times our original investment. What year should I write in my calendar?
Rick: I suspect it will be in the epicenter of a bull market five years from now. It might be sooner, frankly, but I've found that these cycles take four or five years, and we're sort of two and half years into the cycle.
First, though, we need a cataclysmic selloff to mark the bottom. Then we'll go sideways for a while. I certainly think that people who are involved in the gold stocks that don't have a two- or three-year time horizon are delusional.
Jeff: Okay, it's in my calendar. Thanks for the insights, Rick.
Rick: It's an enormous pleasure for us, Jeff. We have done this for 30 years in the Sprott organization, and this is our third big decline. And as I said, the fact that we manage $10 billion is due to bear markets, and your speculative readers need to remember that.
Jeff: Good point. Where can readers go if they want to learn more about Sprott?
Rick: We would love for people to come visit us at Sprott Global. We encourage them to sign up for our daily Sprott commentary by hitting the subscribe button at Sprott's Thoughts on the website.
Jeff: Very good. Thanks again, Rick.
Rick: Always a pleasure, Jeff.