Gold News

Gold: Why Rio Sold Cortez to Barrick

More money was spent looking for Gold than any single other mineral in 2007...

LATE LAST WEEK Rio Tinto said it would sell off its 40% stake in the Cortez gold project in the US state of Nevada to world No.1 gold producer Barrick for $1.7 billion.

   In return for its cash, Barrick gets 4.6 million ounces of additional proved and probable reserves at Cortez, where the cash-cost of production is below $300 per ounce.

   Cortez produced 538,000 ounces of gold last year. Barrick said it expects some planned investment in the property will ramp that up to about 1 million ounces per year in two years. So why would Rio Tinto sell its stake in a gold mine when gold prices are rising?

   Well, Rio Tinto carried the Cortez property on its balance sheet at a value of just $155 million, according to Andrew Trounson in the Australian. How come? That 40% stake in 538,000 ounces of annual production comes to about 215,200 ounces. Take a Gold Price of $940, subtract production costs of $300 per oz and you get $640 per ounce. Multiply that by 215,000 oz and you get about $138 million – the market value of Rio Tinto’s share of Cortez’s current annual production.

   Of course, if you factor in a rising Gold Price and increased production at Cortez, then the market value of Rio Tinto’s stake is ever larger. Any way you look at it, though, at $1.7 billion Barrick Gold paid a premium for Rio Tinto’s stake. Rio Tinto got a price much higher than the book value of the asset. So was it a good deal for Rio Tinto and its shareholders?

   Well, gold isn’t Rio’s main business. Iron ore and aluminium are. And Rio Tinto has all that debt to pay down that financed the Alcan merger. Plus, it must fend off BHP Billiton’s $147 billion bid. Rio Tinto’s stake in Cortez wasn’t generating a lot of earnings, either.

   It’s the potential change in the market value of the underlying assets that Barrick Gold paid for. Barrick – a notorious gold hedger in years past – clearly believes the gold price is going higher. As a producer, it now wants to find more gold to produce.

   This is what makes gold exploration and prospectors so appealing in a gold bull market, as opposed to actual producers. They don’t have to incur the actual cost of production. They just have to find the stuff (which is hard enough). If they CAN find it, the rising market value of the underlying asset is like a rocket booster to the share price.

Gold Exploration Booms in 2007

   When a commodity goes up in price, more people start looking for more of it. ABARE reports that minerals and oil exploration was up 53% last year to $3.9 billion. More money was spent looking for gold than any single other mineral.

   Most Aussie oil exploration is taking place off shore, either in the Bass Strait or up in the Northwest Shelf. Finding oil is expensive, but with oil around $100, plenty of people seem to think it’s worth it.

   Gold showed the smallest increase in exploration year-over-year. But if you were looking at in terms of the market value of the underlying assets, it’s hard to argue against gold. The iron contract price is headed up. So is the oil price. Both are functions of strong economic growth in the developing world, and, in the case of oil, resource scarcity.

   But gold? Yes, it’s hard to find and expensive to produce. But the important thing about gold is its role as money. As central banks move to a new stage in the credit crisis, we reckon gold will resume its ancient role as a store of value.

Best-selling author of The Bull Hunter (Wiley & Sons) and formerly analyzing equities and publishing investment ideas from Baltimore, Paris, London and then Melbourne, Dan Denning is now co-author of The Bill Bonner Letter from Bonner & Partners.

See our full archive of Dan Denning articles

Please Note: All articles published here are to inform your thinking, not lead it. Only you can decide the best place for your money, and any decision you make will put your money at risk. Information or data included here may have already been overtaken by events – and must be verified elsewhere – should you choose to act on it. Please review our Terms & Conditions for accessing Gold News.

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