Gold News

Gold Mining Stocks: Factors to Watch

The importance of management versus jurisdiction...

WHILE Gold Mining equities continue to lag the Gold Price, junior stocks are gaining traction according to Doug Groh, co-portfolio manager and senior analyst with Tocqueville Asset Management. 

Groh believes investors should not let the market's risk aversion keep them out of a stock picker's market. The trick, Groh reveals in this interview with The Gold Report, is to pick managements, not jurisdictions. 

The Gold Report: Doug, macro factors like the European sovereign debt situation, US monetary policy and an economic slowdown in China drove the markets in 2011, with company fundamentals and stock valuations playing second fiddle. How is the Tocqueville Gold Fund mitigating these factors in 2012?

Doug Groh: We remain very positive on the dynamics of the gold market and are even more excited about the prospects for Gold Mining companies. We really are not taking a different path, other than sticking by our positions and seeking out good opportunities.

The market has been missing the tremendous margins Gold Mining companies have right now, despite rising production costs. The average Gold Price is up more than the cost increase over the past year, which has allowed for margin expansion throughout the industry. 

TGR: What do you at Tocqueville expect of the gold market in 2012?

Doug Groh: We are very optimistic. From our perspective, Gold Bullion is still very much under-owned and Gold Mining equities are very much under-appreciated and misunderstood. 

There is a lot of risk aversion going on. Equity investors worry about operating costs and about the volatility in gold equities. They are concerned that the Gold Price has peaked. 

These concerns ignore the margin expansion in the Gold Mining sector. They ignore that Gold Bullion is under-owned. They ignore that central banks have been significant buyers of gold for two years and will most likely continue to Buy Gold to diversify their reserves away from the US Dollar. 

While gold is susceptible to movements in interest rates and in the US Dollar, the potential for a structural shift in people's interest in gold is very strong. In particular, demand in India and China has a long way to grow. Gold is a very important currency in the Asian market. 

It is hard to say what the Gold Price will be at any given point in time. I still think it is headed to the $2,000/ounce mark in the next 12 months. But that is not the endgame for gold. It still has a long way to go.

TGR: When we talked in June 2011, gold had been outperforming equities for five months. It's 10 months later; did you imagine then that equities would still be lagging the performance of gold? How are you and your fund managers adjusting to that?

Doug Groh: I did not think gold equities would underperform as much as they have. I attribute it to risk aversion in the equity markets. Gold stocks are equities first and foremost. In addition, investors have very high expectations for Gold Mining equities and the companies have disappointed the market's expectations. 

We are holding to our positions. This is more of a stock picker's market than for general exposure to Gold Mining equities. While the Gold Mining exchange-traded funds may serve a purpose, one can add value by actively managing a gold equity portfolio. That requires more due diligence and an understanding of what the companies are trying to do and what they have accomplished.

We focus on companies that are well financed and well managed, companies with track records for building shareholder value and that, importantly, have a very good asset base. We want to know: What resource is the company working from? What is it developing?

TGR: Does stock picking become harder when macro drivers move share prices more than the companies' fundamentals?

Doug Groh: In some regards it requires more patience. Stock picking is difficult. You have to look at the higher quality companies. Understand their strategies. Understand management's vision. It demands that you appreciate the assets they are working with. That requires talking with the companies, visiting their assets, observing what they are doing with those assets and staying in touch with their progress.

TGR: Last June, the Tocqueville Gold Fund was 35% vested in small-cap explorers and developers. Is that still the case or are you leaning more heavily toward companies generating cash flow and perhaps offering a dividend?

Doug Groh: We are shifting out of the junior explorers to some extent. We are not necessarily trading out of our positions, but our positions are now that much more advanced in terms of the companies' lifecycles. Thus, a greater percentage of our portfolio now is in developing or producing companies as opposed to explorers and discoverers. It is a natural evolution. 

And, some of the larger companies have done a bit better than some of the smaller names. So, we have a percentage shift to the larger caps.

TGR: Are you more selective now, given that the price environment among gold equities has created so many bargains? 

Doug Groh: It is interesting that, even though these companies produce the same product, their valuations are all over the place. Companies are valued differently for different reasons; they are getting different discounts for different reasons. 

This means investors have a lot to consider. They have to understand each company and its situation: its capital needs, cash flow, capital structure, strategy and where it operates.

TGR: What advice would you give retail investors in today's environment?

Doug Groh: Investors have lots of choices for exposure to the Gold Mining sector. If they have the network and ability to gather and assess a lot of information, they can invest on their own. More power to them, they should. 

An index fund is another approach. A third way is to invest in a diversified portfolio of well-known names that is covered by various investment banks. Both of these approaches can keep surprises to a minimum. 

TGR: Are institutional investors like Tocqueville Asset Management more likely to set the terms of private placements these days?

Doug Groh: Compared with a couple of years ago, yes. Investors can have a greater input into how a financing is structured these days. Companies need capital and the markets are not quite as friendly to general equity issuance. That means management has to be more creative with financing projects. There is more of an open discussion between investors and management. 

TGR: Where do you see pockets of investment opportunity in the gold space? You seem to be leaning heavily on royalty plays.

Doug Groh: The royalty companies have a very interesting model. They are diversified and have less asset exposure and capital commitment than some of the mining companies. I think this is a very profitable model in this environment.

TGR: What are some other opportunities for investors? 

Doug Groh: I think good opportunities remain for companies developing assets in the right part of the world. That may be West Africa, Mexico, eastern or western Canada, even Alaska. 

TGR: Are you concerned about creeping nationalism today, given events in South America, and even more recently in Mali?

Doug Groh: Yes, nationalism is a bigger concern today. Nationalism can be expressed in many ways including higher taxes on companies, royalties or participating interests. 

Nationalism is not surprising. The industry is very profitable. Jurisdictions recognize that and are trying to capture more of that value for their national needs. But some of those policies are so restrictive that they drive capital and foreign investment away. That is a concern for investors. 

TGR: Does that mean you have steered away from certain jurisdictions?

Doug Groh: Yes, Venezuela and Bolivia come to mind. Russia presents tremendous opportunity, but we are concerned about governance and about how business is conducted there. 

The Middle East and North Africa have interesting potential, but again, there are concerns. 

TGR: Doug, thank you for your time and your insights.

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