Gold Mining stocks face a slow, long-term decline in output...
PORTFOLIO Joe Foster calls himself a "stock picker", says the Gold Report – and he's pretty good at it.
Class A shareholders in Van Eck Global's International Investors Gold Fund have seen an average return of almost 25% for 10 straight years under his care. "I'm looking for the gold companies that are going to outperform the indexes, my peers and gold," Joe says in this exclusive interview with The Gold Report...
The Gold Report: Joe, in your view, what are the catalysts that will push gold to the next level?
Joe Foster: Well, there could be a range of catalysts, any one of which could rear its ugly head.
TGR: Which ones are most likely?
Joe Foster: The financial system has not yet recovered from the shock of the credit crisis. We're in the midst of a historic credit contraction that could turn into a deflationary credit contraction. As the Fed and the economy deal with this, there is a range of possibilities that could create a catalyst.
One would be further implementation of quantitative easing, where the Fed steps in and buys securities in order to prop up the financial system. A second is the housing market, which looks like it's weakening again. If we see a double dip in the housing market, it could create the financial stress that provides a catalyst.
The sovereign debt issues are something that, to me, will be on the table for quite some time. They could flare up again in Europe and elsewhere. State and municipalities' finances are in very difficult shape right now. We could see some form of stress in the municipal bond market that could cause some sort of a catalyst for gold, as well.
So there's a range of catalysts that could come into the market over the next year or two that drive it higher.
TGR: The Fed may look at more quantitative easing, but it doesn't really have a lot of room to operate as far as interest rates go. What sort of economic policy does America need at this point?
Joe Foster: I think our monetary system needs an overhaul. I guess some sort of stimulus, whether it be quantitative easing or some more fiscal stimulus, might be necessary to keep the economy from going into a deeper recession. But I think plans to create a more sound monetary system would go a long way toward boosting confidence in the government's ability to handle these crises in the future or to prevent them from happening.
TGR: Do you think what is happening now will ultimately result in a new currency down the road? Perhaps even a global currency?
Joe Foster: A global currency would be very difficult. Just to have a sound Dollar again would create a lot of stability around the world. Many other countries still peg their currencies to the Dollar, so proper management of the Dollar would, in effect, create a sound global currency. The Dollar is still the world's reserve currency. I'm calling for some sound money policies that we haven't seen since the Dollar was floated back in the 1970s.
TGR: In a June commentary on gold you said, "states across the country are undertaking austerity measures to counter gapping budget deficits." Could a state, or states, defaulting on loans or even declaring bankruptcy be the next leg down that turns the recession into something worse?
Joe Foster: Well, I doubt it would go as far as a state actually declaring bankruptcy. Congress looks like it's going to approve another round of state aid to keep the states afloat. I think you would see the federal government step in before we saw a bankruptcy. But states like New York and California and others around the country are in serious financial trouble. We'll have to see if the austerity measures that they're implementing will keep them out of bankruptcy. I think this is more of a slow burn. I don't see it as being the catalyst for the next leg in the gold market. I think we'll reach the next leg in the gold market before any state reaches such a desperate situation.
TGR: How high do you see gold getting by the end of this year and through the end of 2011?
Joe Foster: I'm looking for it to make new highs as we trend into 2011, moving through the fall of 2010. The high was around $1,265 in June. We've been on a steady trend higher. There's a lot of volatility in the gold market, but I would expect that trend to continue. It wouldn't surprise me if it moved through the $1,400 level sometime during 2011.
TGR: You said that you believe that the government would step in and prevent a state from declaring bankruptcy or becoming insolvent. Do you believe the government is, to some extent, manipulating the gold market?
Joe Foster: I think that's speculation. I haven't seen solid evidence that the government is manipulating the gold market one way or the other. Even if they are, I think the market will determine where the Gold Price goes in the longer term.
TGR: You have managed assets for investors since 1998. In the post-2008 era, are you managing your gold fund the same way you did in the pre-2008 era?
Joe Foster: Well, we're using the same strategies or similar strategies now that we have since this bull market began in 2001. Relative to our peers, we're probably overweight in juniors and mid-cap companies and underweight in the large-cap companies. Some of the fundamental strategies that we use remain in place.
I would say that the big difference is that, prior to the credit crisis, we spent a lot of time explaining to investors why they should invest in gold as a hedge against financial stress. Since the credit crisis we don't spend much time explaining why you should invest in gold because investors get it. Everybody gets it now that gold functions as a sound currency and as a financial hedge in times of turmoil.
I spend more time describing how we construct our portfolio and manage the fund because investors are now asking: "How do I invest in gold? Do I want Gold Bullion? Do I want a Gold ETF? Do I want a managed fund? Do I want an equity ETF?" Those are the questions that investors are asking now that we weren't hearing prior to the crisis.
TGR: That's noteworthy. But your asset allocation must've changed some since the crisis. You said it's heavier than your competitors on juniors and mid caps.
Joe Foster: I've got an entire range. I've got companies from juniors all the way up to the largest producers in the fund. We play the whole spectrum of gold companies. It's just that I've got a higher weighting in juniors and midtiers than I do in the large-cap companies. We're stock pickers, we're bottom-up, fundamentals-driven stock pickers. I'm looking for the gold companies that are going to outperform the indexes, my peers and gold.
TGR: You've certainly done a good job. Over the last 10 years, Class A shares in your International Investors Gold Fund are up almost 25%. Does gold's steady climb upward provide a greater margin for error in gold fund management?
Joe Foster: Not really. When you look at Gold Mining, gold production peaked in 2001 and it's been on a slow decline ever since. In an industry that's in decline, you know you're going to have winners and losers. The market likes companies that can provide growth. But in a declining industry those types of companies become fewer and farther between. And there are lots of gold companies that have underperformed gold in this cycle. So stock picking becomes very important. It's not always easy to outperform gold in this type of an industry environment.
TGR: How do you go about picking stocks? What are you looking for?
Joe Foster: We look for growth. Companies that can develop properties at reasonable cost and that can increase their margins. The best kind of growth is organic growth, where companies discover deposits and develop them. That's the first thing we look for, organic growth. The second thing would be growth through acquisitions. We look for management that can identify creative acquisitions and grow that way.
TGR: Is it still cheaper for companies to go out and raise money and drill for organic growth versus acquiring assets through M&A?
Joe Foster: It's very difficult to do. For most of the industry, it's almost impossible. The reason gold production isn't increasing globally is that all the easy stuff has already been found. The prolific gold fields of South Africa, Nevada and Western Australia are all mature areas that are in decline. The industry hasn't found another prolific gold area like Nevada. Instead, they have to look all over the world and into remote areas. There are new discoveries being made; it's just not at the pace that we saw 20 years ago when Nevada and Western Australia were emerging.
TGR: You mentioned Nevada. When I was looking at your fact sheet on the International Investors Gold Fund, only about 10% of your holdings are based in the US Does America need more gold mines?
Joe Foster: The US is still one among the top-five gold producers in the world. It's still a substantial gold producer. I don't know if we need more gold mines. It's a function of geology. Probably 90% of the gold production in the US comes out of Nevada. As I said earlier, Nevada is past its prime; it's a region wherein production is in decline.
TGR: But California has banned new Gold Mining projects, and Montana has banned heap leaching as a form of gold extraction. We're seeing some exploration success in places like Wyoming and Idaho. The US is still the fourth-largest country in the world by area, so you would think there are lots of areas that remain unexplored.
Joe Foster: Well, if the United States was more mining friendly, there's no doubt it could be a much larger gold producer than it is; but, in all practicality, that's not going to happen. Mining is such a miniscule part of the US economy that it's not politically feasible to revise the mining laws in states like California and Oregon. It's a bit much to ask in places like that.
TGR: Do you have some parting thoughts for us?
Joe Foster: Well, we talked about the gold market more in the near term, but this gold market's been in bull mode for almost 10 years now. As far as we can tell, it could go on for another 10 years. Who knows? I think the actions we're seeing among the monetary and fiscal authorities around the world are setting up a situation wherein we could see another inflationary cycle once we get through this credit contraction. I think in the longer term, the risk of an inflationary cycle is going to be with us for quite some time. That's going to be the ultimate driver of this gold bull market.
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