Gold News

Smart Money in Gold & Silver Mining?

Debt only looks appealing, and raising equity is highly dilutive in this down-market...
LAWRENCE ROULSTON is an expert in the identification and evaluation of exploration and development companies in the mining industry.
A geologist with engineering and business training, he is the president of Quintana Resources Capital ULC. He generated an impressive track record for Resource Opportunities, the subscriber-supported investment newsletter of which he was founder and editor. 
And now, as he tells The Gold Report's sister title The Mining Report here, canny investors should pay close attention to the flood of new money entering the sector and note carefully where it is going says Roulston.... 
The Mining Report: When we last spoke in June 2014, you said that gold at $1250 per ounce was a reasonable baseline price going forward. Do you still believe that? 
Lawrence Roulston: Yes. Actually, the fact that gold has remained at this level while the US Dollar has become so strong is very significant. 
My preference is to pay less attention to the gold price per se and more attention to specific gold and silver companies that are good investments in their own right. This means companies with smart management teams that are expanding resources, advancing projects toward production, increasing production or doing other things that add value. As the gold price eventually moves higher, such companies will realize bonuses on top of what should already be an attractive return.
TMR: In the last two years, two independent phenomena have occurred simultaneously: companies have greatly reduced costs, and, as you mentioned, pretty much all currencies have lost value against the US Dollar. Taken together, how much has this improved the condition of miners outside the US?
Lawrence Roulston: In particular, Canadian and Australian miners have benefitted greatly: a 20% boost on the revenue line, which has led to an even larger boost of operating margins. As a result, many companies that were struggling two years ago are now much healthier. 
TMR: We hear often that it is difficult to impossible for mining companies to raise financing in the current climate. Is this an excuse used by companies with poor management?
Lawrence Roulston: I wouldn't be quite so judgmental, but certainly, in spite of all the complaining about moribund financial markets, a truly enormous amount of new money is cnoming into the junior mining industry. From October to February, junior mining and exploration companies raised $3.5 billion. About two-thirds of that money was raised in Canada. The balance was raised in Australia, the US, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. 
Breaking that down, $1.7bn was new equity, which went into about 130 companies. Another 40 companies raised $1.8bn in debt. Keep in mind, this was just the juniors. The larger companies raised several billion as well. There is no shortage of money for companies with good management teams that can win the confidence of the smart money investors. And there are billions of Dollars sitting on the table waiting for the right deals. 
TMR: What does the merger and acquisition (M&A) scene tell us about the financial markets and mining?
Lawrence Roulston: I've counted 14 substantial takeovers in the past three months. All those deals involved big premiums to the trading prices, but this good news hasn't gotten a lot of attention in a market that's so focused on negativity. These M&As remind us that there's a lot of money out there ready and willing to get into the junior mining sector.
TMR: Would you say that those companies that have not been able to raise money face a bleak future?
Lawrence Roulston: No question. In fact, the majority of junior miners have no projects with any real value in the current metal pricing scenario, and so their managements cannot get the attention of the people who write the checks. Eventually, the market will change, and a rising tide will raise all the surviving boats. But if you are a shareholder today in a broke company without a really good project, it might be time to move on. 
TMR: Companies can raise money in a number of ways: equity, debt or selling streaming royalties. How do you rate each option, starting with equity?
Lawrence Roulston: In a downmarket like this, equity can be highly dilutive. Unfortunately, managements have often lost sight of the shareholder's interest. They finance in a highly dilutive manner because it's important for them to continue to collect their salaries, even as it becomes virtually impossible for existing shareholders to ever get a decent return. Some managers believe their mission is to advance their projects, but the primary mission of management should be to advance the share price and make money for shareholders. This can be accomplished only by adding real value.
Many companies have recently done big rollbacks. Ten-for-one consolidations are now routine. After that, shareholders have little hope of ever seeing a return on initial investment. 
TMR: How about debt? 
Lawrence Roulston: Debt might look cheap on the surface. For juniors, however, there are hidden costs that make the real cost of debt much, much higher than the nominal rate. There are origination fees, finder's fees, processing fees and bonus warrants. Often, the lender will insist on hedging, which can rob shareholders of any upside in metal prices. Or the lender will take an offtake agreement, which is full of hidden costs. Sometimes lenders charge a marketing fee, which is really just a hidden royalty. And every time the mining company needs to change the terms of the loan, there is a penalty fee. 
No one will loan money to a junior without a return of at least 20-25%. It's also extremely risky for a company to take on debt if it lacks reliable production or operates a single mine. Companies with debt can lose everything should they miss payments. We've seen this many times over the last couple of years – companies go bust, and the shareholders get nothing. 
TMR: How do you regard the third option, streaming?
Lawrence Roulston: It makes a lot of sense in many cases, especially if the company is streaming a byproduct metal, not its primary metal. I should clarify that streaming is somewhat different from a royalty. Streaming has tax features that can benefit both the producer and the investor. 
And streaming is a lot more flexible than royalties, as it can be customized to fit the circumstances. In a streaming deal, the company receives an upfront payment and then receives a further payment for each pound or ounce of metal as delivered. It makes no sense for a company to stream silver or gold, if that is its primary commodity. Investors in those companies are counting on the upside in precious metals and pay a premium for a company that produces gold or silver, versus an equivalent value of base metals.
But most streaming companies prefer to stream only precious metals. Some miners have streamed their precious metals and suffered because of it. 
TMR: What does it tell you about the management team when they own a significant amount of outstanding shares?
Lawrence Roulston: We at Quintana say that it's extremely important for the management team to have skin in the game. When they have an equity stake, their interests are aligned with the shareholders'. My experience over the last three decades in an extremely challenging business sector is that salaried employees just don't have the same drive and determination as owners, who are far more likely to go the extra distance to achieve success. 
TMR: When management does not own a significant amount of outstanding shares, is this always a negative?
Lawrence Roulston: It's a good rule of thumb. There are situations where management doesn't own shares directly, but has big stock option positions. This is effectively the same position as owning shares directly.
TMR: What does the phrase "smart money" mean to you in the context of the mining sector?
Lawrence Roulston: Smart money refers to investors who understand the resource market as a cyclical business. They know it makes sense to buy at the bottom of the market. Most investors today avoid the juniors, but share prices will increase because the world hasn't stopped using metals, and existing mines are being depleted and must be replaced. The smart money people know that exploration and development projects are becoming increasingly critical to the future of mining.
TMR: Would it be fair to say that British Columbia (BC) mining is under a cloud? Over the last year, we've seen the Canadian Supreme Court award First Nations unspecified rights over all BC Crown land, the tailings spill at the Mount Polley mine and the second rejection of the New Prosperity mine.
Lawrence Roulston: The Mount Polley disaster never should have happened. It's unfortunate that it happened in BC, but it could have happened anywhere. It will undoubtedly lead to more frequent inspections and stricter enforcement of standards and that is a good thing for everybody, including the mining companies. 
There are a lot of misperceptions about mining in BC. First, let me say that the provincial government is extremely supportive of mining and has taken concrete steps to ensure that permitting, whether for exploration or production, is handled quickly and efficiently. The rejection of the New Prosperity mine happened at the federal level after receiving full approvals from the province. It happened while there was a very sensitive case regarding First Nations that was before the Supreme Court and which was destined to become a precedent setting case. It seems that the prime minister wanted to diffuse tensions in advance of what could have been a controversial judgment.
There are undoubtedly challenges with regard to First Nations, but those challenges are manageable. The Supreme Court judgment in that case was not well reported and is generally not well understood. Much was made of the granting of the land title, but the Tsilhqot'in Nation was looking for two and a half times the amount of land that was awarded. Settling that case brings a lot more certainty in that the boundaries are now firmly established.
First Nations in BC have always had "asserted rights" to traditional lands and the judgment merely confirmed what was already in place, which is that the First Nations have the rights to continue to hunt and fish and carry on other traditional activities. Permitting in areas with asserted rights requires a public consultation process, much like the permitting process in many other jurisdictions such as the United States where affected parties have the opportunity to present their case as part of the review process.
Mines do get permitted in BC: a couple of coal mines were permitted last year: New Afton, Treasure Mountain and Copper Mountain were all brought back into production after being shut down for decades. Mt. Milligan was permitted as a greenfields project in a respectable time and is now in production.
So, yes, there is a perception problem regarding BC, but the province stacks up well against most of the rest of the world and is generally a favorable place for exploration and mining
TMR: Many investors in gold juniors have watched their portfolios wither since 2011. Is it time for them to let go of companies that haven't shown recent significant appreciations and recycle their holdings into more hopeful ventures?
Lawrence Roulston: Absolutely yes. Many companies are never going to return to the prices that they traded at in 2009-2011. I understand that it's really hard for investors to let go of companies and lock in big losses, but the reality is that they've already lost the money. It's just a matter of reclaiming whatever money they can and putting it where there is better upside potential. Of course, these decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. It's really useful to get some professional input with regard to junior mining companies. The new team at Resource Opportunities, for example, is very helpful in evaluating juniors.
For those companies that are raising money, have good management teams and projects that are producing or advancing toward production, the outlook is quite positive. Investors should focus on those companies. By the time the overall market is once more on a solid uptrend, the better companies will have already enjoyed big gains.
TMR: Lawrence, thank you for your time and your insights.

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