The first thing to notice is that gold and the GDM form three distinct trends over different periods. The transition between trends is shown as open circles. The correlation statistics (R-squared) for each trend is close to a perfect 1.00,4which means that there is indeed a very strong correlation between gold bullion and gold shares.
Each trend is positioned progressively to the right at higher gold prices. This means that higher gold prices have been required to maintain the same GDM value. Each time the trend shifts from A to B to C, stocks are de-rating due to a loss in value. In the late 1990s, many companies became heavily hedged, locking in future production at low prices. When the bull market started, they were unable to take advantage of higher prices until in the 2000s, when they started spending billions of dollars to buy back their hedge books. As a result of what appear to be irresponsible hedging policies, gold stocks devalued from Trend A to B. The good news is that today the industry remains essentially unhedged, not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past.
A different type of mistake caused the second devaluation form Trend B to C. The global mining industry was the victim of double-digit cost inflation during the 2008 to 2011 period of Trend B. The gold miners were not immune to this, and shareholders saw profit margins squeezed and capital cost escalations that diminished returns on new projects. Frustrated by the relentless rise in costs and missed expectations, the market de-rated the sector to its current Trend C. As has been the case with hedging, we believe the industry will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Managements are now focused on maintaining operational excellence and preserving margins.
To be fair, in the 1990s there were many companies with policies against hedging, and more recently there have been many with prudent cost controls. We have aimed to generate alpha5 in our portfolios by avoiding hedged producers and investing in companies with low costs and manageable debt. However, the majors have struggled the most with the problems that have plagued the industry. These companies dominate the indices and they are the “go-to” names for large generalist investors. In our view, poor leadership has cast a negative image across the broader industry.
We do not believe the industry will encounter further de-ratings in the future. We believe that a “Trend D” is not in the cards because the hard lessons that have been learned will not be forgotten, and companies should be able to maintain value. It is also unlikely that the industry re-rates higher towards Trend B. In order to create a positive step-change in value, it would take revolutionary technology or substantially more high-grade discoveries that enable low-cost mines to be built. While some companies are likely to make game-changing discoveries, we do not see it happening for the industry as a whole. Budgets have been slashed and geologic limitations have made exploration success harder to come by.
This means that Trend C is probably the “new normal”, and, if so, what can we expect? The stocks are exhibiting considerable beta6 to the gold price. From the September close of $1,142 per ounce, a $100 (8.7%) change in the gold price caused a 36.4% change in the GDM along Trendline C. At higher gold prices the beta diminishes, but is still significant. For example, a $100 (6.2%) change from $1,600 per ounce causes a 13.7% change in the GDM along the trendline. Fundamentally, we explain this through optionality and leverage. At lower gold prices the volatility increases as stocks trade more like pure options. Around the $1,000 per ounce gold price, the industry does not generate any free cash and has little intrinsic value. However, there is still investment demand for the equities as options on higher gold prices.
This Cyclical Bear Market Continues to Find a Base
Leverage at low gold prices also causes increased volatility and beta. Operating leverage increases when earnings and cash flows are at depressed levels. Small changes in the gold price can provide large percentage changes in earnings. For companies with high debt loads, there is also substantial financial leverage at low gold prices because so much of their cash flow is tied up in servicing debt.
While the near-term outlook for gold is murky, we expect to see plenty of volatility as this cyclical bear market continues to find a base.