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Middle East Mayhem Driving Gold Prices Higher

The Gold Price is rising on the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East says

CONTINUED UNREST in the Middle East and North Africa could push Gold Prices yet higher, reckons Wayne Atwell of Casimir Capital.

With more than 35 years investment analysis experience in the metals and mining business, Wayne Atwell has worked for investment banks Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, touring 200 mines and 300 steel mills on six continents to be selected as one of the 10 best buy-side stock pickers by Institutional Investor magazine several times.

Here the managing director of Casimir Capital tells The Gold Report why Middle East unrest only adds to the longer-term price catalysts of inflation risk and sovereign debt issues in Europe.

The Gold Report: In a recent interview with Bloomberg you said, "Gold Prices have gotten stronger because they're no longer weak." Can you explain that concept to our readers?

Wayne Atwell: Commodities and securities tend to trade on momentum. Gold had been exceptionally strong, but a lot of investors became nervous because gold appeared too strong and people started taking profits. Then the Dollar strengthened and we received some more good economic news, which drove gold down again. The Gold Price has corrected about 7% from its high late last year. Once it breaks through its support level, it could go meaningfully lower. It was in a negative technical pattern and once there is a certain technical pattern on the charts investors start dumping gold and go short. Some people don't believe it, but many people invest based on charts and technical patterns. If enough people invest enough money, then it works.

Gold Prices were on the verge of breaking down further when the Middle East uprisings began and investors became a bit anxious. So far, the citizens of two Arab countries have overthrown their governments. It's been relatively peaceful, which is great, but you can envision a scenario in which it wouldn't be peaceful. Saudi Arabia is likely to have some difficulties that may or may not result in a change of government, and now we're hearing about protests in Iran. The probability is high that both those countries are going to have additional issues. They may not, but unrest in the Middle East has turned the Gold Price around.

TGR: That parallels what you've described in the past as an "event-driven market" for gold. Would further unrest in Arab countries push the Gold Price back above $1400 per ounce?

Wayne Atwell: I tend to think so, I guess it depends on what form that unrest takes. Obviously, the government changes in Egypt and Tunisia were relatively peaceful. But the uprising has already spread to Yemen and Saudi Arabia – and now there's talk of revolts in Jordan and Iran. Saudi Arabia, as you're probably aware, is responsible for about 11-12% of global oil production. God forbid that country has a problem – that could cause a real crisis. Fighting in the Middle East is certainly an event that could push gold meaningfully higher. You will remember what happened in October 1973 when the Arabs cut off oil to the West and the oil price went through the roof. It caused massive anxiety and a very serious recession.

TGR: What are some other events that you anticipate could move the Gold Price this year?

Wayne Atwell: In terms of events, I'm worried about the sovereign debt situation in Europe. The European Union has dealt with liquidity issues for both Iceland and Greece into 2013, but it hasn't solved the underlying problem; it's just dealt with the short-term issue. Unless these countries start balancing their budgets, which is unlikely – come 2013, the same problem will resurface. A sovereign default in Europe is highly probable. Spain has an unemployment rate over 20%, which is just huge. That's an issue, too.

In the US a number of municipal governments are very deeply in the red. They haven't funded their pensions and healthcare for their municipal workers. There's a reasonably high chance that one or more of these municipalities could fail, which would cause a high degree of anxiety and force investors to dump municipal bonds, which again would result in investors' flight to gold as a safe haven.

TGR: In an interview with BNN, you talked about the Chinese and American economies "laying the groundwork for inflation." How are these countries doing that and what do you believe is the timeframe for dramatic inflation increases in both countries?

Wayne Atwell: I've been going to China for 30 years and I have seen a phenomenal change. I'll just throw out a few numbers to put the country in perspective. China consumed about 3-4% of the world's commodities in 1985 and now consumes 35-45% of global commodities, which is astounding. To put that in context, from 2000-2010, global steel consumption grew at a rate of 5% a year. Chinese steel consumption has grown at a compound rate of 17%. So, in 2000, China actually produced 127 million tons of steel; in 2010, it produced 626 Mt. of steel. Basically, the country grew its steel industry by 500 Mt. in 10 years, providing the bulk of global growth.

On average, commodity-consumption growth averages 2.5%, yet here we have steel growing at 5% over a 10-year period and China's steel consumption growing at 17%. It's unprecedented. That, in turn, has caused a shortage of metallurgical coal. Met coal is breaking out and will probably reach a new high shortly because China has gone from being an exporter to an importer. Iron ore is now within about $10 of its all-time high. About 10 years ago, China was about 70% self-sufficient in terms of iron ore; now it's 30% self-sufficient, so China is driving up the iron ore price, as well.

TGR: It's a similar story with copper.

Wayne Atwell: Yes, copper made a new high last week and China consumes 38% of the world's copper; it's only 15% self-sufficient, so 85% of its copper comes from offshore. The rapid growth in China is being driven by the need to move people from the country into the cities, and the country consumes a lot of material when it constructs new buildings, rail lines, power facilities, bridges and ports. China is transforming from an agrarian to an urban society, having moved about 15 million people per year into cities over the last 15 years. It'll likely have to do that for another 10, maybe 20 years.

China is only 43% urban but it will likely become at least 60%, maybe even 70% urban within 20 years. This is putting a strain on the global supply of industrial materials – prices for many of which are at or close to all-time highs, which is inflationary. The mining industry has a pattern of looking for new mines and developing new properties but when you grow at a rate that's faster than the historical norm, it puts extra strain on the industry. We're not going to run out of these materials but we must go look in more remote locations to find the materials.

TGR: What about inflation in the US?

Wayne Atwell: Here in the US, the government is out of control. Our government spending is frightening. Last year, we had a $1.6 trillion deficit. It's coming down a bit this year, but it's still going to be very high. The deficit is about 10% of GDP; historically, it peaked at 4%. Government spending is about 25% of GDP. We haven't seen these numbers since the end World War II. We're in uncharted territory – the government is spending too large a share of our GDP. The interest on our debt, as forecast by government budget office, is going to go from $350 billion this year to $900 billion within five years. Forget healthcare, social security, Medicare or Medicaid – we're going to add +$500 billion to the interest expense. This will drive the Dollar down and result in serious inflation.

In the case of China, industrial demand is pushing up commodity prices and creating inflation. As far as the US is concerned, you can't have this pattern of government spending in the reserve currency of the world without causing serious problems. There is every reason for investors to go into the gold market to put a certain percentage of their assets in gold for protection against super inflation.

TGR: Do you think these factors will push gold to an all-time nominal high in 2011?

Wayne Atwell: Gold made a new high late last year. It has made a new high 10 years in a row. We think it will make a new high of $1600 this year and $2000 within the next one to three years. We suggest buying on a correction; it probably won't go much lower. We believe holding 5-10% of one's assets in gold makes sense.

TGR: Among other financial services, Casimir Capital puts together financings for companies, many of which are junior miners. Why does Casimir focus on the junior mining segment of the market?

Wayne Atwell: I wrote a piece on the junior Gold Mining industry recently, which makes a number of points. One is that the denominator is obviously much smaller for the gold juniors. If both a major and a junior gold exploration company find a 1 million-ounce gold deposit, it's going to have a much more significant impact on the junior explorer's share price. Only about 5 out of every 100 exploration discoveries is really of interest to majors because most of the very large gold properties have already been found.

It's extremely difficult to find an exciting new gold property. So, if you're spending money on gold exploration, the probability is you're going to find a small gold deposit. But in many cases, the gold majors are prospecting for new exploration properties in their corporate finance department. They're looking at and frequently buying intermediate or small gold companies with substantial gold deposits that the majors can develop themselves.

TGR: Yes, the Gold Mining majors essentially use the junior explorers as their exploration arm...

Wayne Atwell: Exactly. It's like their exploration department. Gold deposits will be in production anywhere from 5-20 years. They're generally small. Majors have to replace their depleting resources, plus people expect growth. It's very expensive for a major to go out and find, and then develop gold properties. If, however, a junior develops a 0.5 Moz. deposit, it doesn't have to build as much infrastructure. Developing a property as a junior is just a lot less expensive than it is as a major.

TGR: But they're selling the gold for the same price.

Wayne Atwell: Exactly. The index we put together last year showed the juniors appreciated about 49% in 2010, whereas the majors were up roughly 27%.

TGR: Before we let you go, could you give us your outlook for gold over the next few months?

Wayne Atwell: Let's go back to the event-driven motivation for moving the Gold Price. The events we don't yet know about will likely determine the direction. The underlying momentum is positive when you look at the US budget, government spending and Europe's sovereign debt problems. And the problems that governments have created will only get worse as populations age and Social Security obligations become greater – that's certainly a problem. We're all aware of those slower-moving issues, but I think what drives gold in the short term are events in the Middle East and any sovereign debt default. Unless there's a major unexpected event, we'll probably see gold break out to a new high in the second quarter. We're roughly halfway through the first quarter now, so we look for the Gold Price to be rangebound the next two to six weeks before breaking out in the second quarter. But it's subject to material impact by unexpected events, which always have a way of happening.

TGR: Thank you for talking with us today, Wayne.

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