Gold Mining in South America: Risks and Opportunities

Has some emerging market risk been overblown...?

ONCE viewed as fraught with danger, some South American markets are now some of the most robust economies in the world. But the shares of companies exploring and producing in these markets often continue to lag based on long-held fears that are no longer valid, according to Carlos Andres, chief analyst and managing editor of the Frontier Research Report and the Global Resource Investor.

In this interview with The Gold Report, Carlos Andres discusses how to capitalize on the narrowing gap between real and perceived risks in South America and beyond. 

The Gold Report: Carlos, you note in the January edition of Frontier Research Report, entitled "2011 In Review: A World in Turmoil," that only three countries with major stock exchanges finished 2011 in the black: Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. Is the face of global risk changing?

Carlos Andres: In a word? Yes. Some emerging and frontier markets with significant natural resource endowments continue to emerge as robust places to invest and weather economic storms for savvy investors. Paradoxically, the world's developed economies have become the more risky markets. 

TGR: What factors are contributing to that?

Carlos Andres: On the one hand, robust natural resource demand has asserted itself over the last decade, led by Asia in general and China in particular. Latin America deserves favorable mention as well. This is reflected in the rise in global commodity prices over the same period. It's being fueled by factors such as population growth, industrialization, urbanization and infrastructure development driving income growth and middle-class expansion. As a result, when you are operating in these markets, there is a strong sense of economic activity, optimism and wealth creation. It's tangible. You can see it and feel it. 

On the other hand, as has been covered ad nauseam by media of all kinds, developed world markets are mired in myriad types of interlinking crises: financial, political, budgetary, debt, employment, military, etc. This fuels a high degree of uncertainty for investors in these markets. To a certain extent this is masking the economic growth on other markets.

TGR: Can you rank what you consider the top risks in the junior resource space?

Carlos Andres: There are a lot of risks competing to be on that list! Consulting firm Ernst & Young recently released its annual metals and mining Top 10 report. At the top of the list, and I don't disagree, is resource nationalism. There's a resurgence of resource nationalism and it does seem to be taking on a rather virulent strain as of late. 

Second on the list is a significant shortage of skilled geoscientists. An all-time record of $18 billion was spent on non-ferrous metals exploration in 2011. As mining activities have picked up, so has the demand for skilled and experienced workers. There are not enough of them to go around.

Another rising risk factor, stemming from the success of the sector, is cost inflation. There is competition for the factors of production, including capital equipment. This is a significant factor underpinning the viability of mining projects. 

Ernst & Young also lists capital project execution, or the ability to raise enough capital to execute projects successfully. That's obviously a problem given current weakness in capital markets. Despite record production levels and profitability, investors have fled the sector. There's a large disconnect that should spell opportunity for discerning investors

TGR: Does that particular risk speak to a lack of skilled management, too?

Carlos Andres: Yes. Management has to shepherd capital very carefully and conservatively when cash is tight. It does come down to experienced management teams who are shrewd and very nimble on their feet. They must be creative about where and how to obtain financing as well as how they allocate it. Also, their accomplishments and reputations often have a lot to do with being able to bid away financing from management teams who are weak in this area. 

Ernst & Young also talks about maintaining a social license to operate, which is a sophisticated way of saying it's a good idea to get along with the locals near the mine. As we are learning, management teams ignore this issue at their peril.

TGR: The industry has done a poor job of that, by and large.

Carlos Andres: It has. It's becoming an increasing area of concern and focus for management teams as problems have flared in various locales. The shrewd companies are beefing up in that area to respond to social needs and concerns. It requires an added dimension of expertise. These issues have added to the costs for many companies. It has become a problem for both mines that have been operating for a very long time as well as new projects. 

TGR: Investing in small-cap resource plays can be a high-risk game. What are some things that investors routinely do that expose them to more risk than is necessary?

Carlos Andres: It's obviously important for investors to pick the right management with the right projects in the right jurisdictions with financial firepower. The average retail investor often falls down on the job in this area despite the fact that there are lots of good news and research resources out there to help separate the wheat from the chaff. 

There are maybe 3,000 publicly traded junior resource stocks and a lot of them are not worth their listing. The first step is to eliminate the worthless, which means the list of 3,000 quickly becomes 300 or less that are worth considering.

However, many investors who are committed to this sector tend to engage in very poor trading strategies. This is not covered nearly as much as it should be. I'll try to reduce it to some simple ideas: When trading, investors often feel as if they have to get in on this before it's too late and, therefore, they will chase price as it moves up. Although it is certainly possible to make money this way in some cases, it is a bad habit that will work against you in the long run.

Investors also tend to allocate far too much capital to individual companies while at the same time not maintaining sufficient cash reserves. When price moves against them, their investment capital is fully deployed. Given the inherent volatility in junior resource stocks in particular, the prices of shares can move dramatically against them. These folks end up selling with large losses. They become demoralized and never return to these markets. Whereas if they had pursued a different trading strategy, they might find themselves not only being able to endure the storm, but able to generate wealth and become successful long-term investors in the sector. 

TGR: What would you suggest?

Carlos Andres: Something along these lines: Investors first find a company they like. It's at a certain price. It's a good price, but good strategy says you shouldn't allocate all your money at once. Given that many investors will allocate far too much of their capital to one stock, once decided on an amount, an investor should probably reduce it. It's a good risk-management practice in volatile markets.

If you decide to allocate $10,000 (K), maybe you just spend $1K at the current price and wait and watch. If the price falls significantly, say 20%, and you still think it's a great company in a great jurisdiction, you spend another $2.5K. You are buying on the way down because you believe in the fundamentals, rather than chasing the price up because you are relying on the herd as proof for the value of the stock. You want to be selling to the herd and not buying from them. The only way to do this consistently over the long-term is to make a habit of buying value at distressed prices.

Therefore, the lower the price goes, in 20% increments, for example, you would spend larger and larger chunks of your allocation of $10K. Thus you are lowering your basis as you go. When the price finally does turn around, you will have made a significant purchase right near the bottom. It allows investors to manage emotions and risk while accumulating value. If the company's stock takes off just after the initial investment of $1K, you may have missed out on putting $9K in, but you still get to participate in the upside and you will sleep well at night.

There are, of course, more nuances to this type of approach to trading. These are the basics just to give some idea of how investors should be thinking.

TGR: Resource nationalization is a big part of jurisdiction risk. My sense is that there's greater jurisdiction risk now than there was even five years ago. What's your view?

Carlos Andres: It was always there, but more countries are jumping on the bandwagon and asking for a bigger slice of the pie by raising taxes, royalties and the ownership interest a country takes in a mine. In some cases, such as in Africa, there is free-carried interest where the state is entitled to 10–20% of the mine without having to bear any of the development costs. It is creating uncertainty so the analyst has to wade through this.

Some countries, like Indonesia, are adding a new twist. In order to capture a bigger piece of the pie, the government wants to require companies that extract natural resources to build refineries and smelters to refine products in-country before they are exported. Going from ridiculous to sublime, Indonesia is also requiring that after 10 years of owning a mine, a company must divest itself of 50% by selling to Indonesian concerns.

Where it starts to get really intense is outright nationalization. We've seen some of that in Argentina and Bolivia lately. There were rumors in mining-powerhouse South Africa as well, but cooler heads appear to have prevailed for now.

TGR: When companies are investing the kind of capital it takes to develop a large mine, they don't want to lose half of it after just 10 years. That's quite extreme.

Frontier Research Report has success identifying countries where there is more "perceived risk" than there is actual risk. What are some of those jurisdictions? 

Carlos Andres: We like to profit on the difference between perceived risk and actual risk because we're able to buy things really cheap if perceived risk is higher than the reality. A company's true value is revealed when it meets significant milestones and investors take notice. However, there are times, like the present, when the margins between perceived and actual risk narrows a bit.

TGR: Or a lot.

Carlos Andres: Indeed. Now is one of those times where perceived risk is moving close to actual risk. It's narrowed, even in some of my favorite jurisdictions, like Peru, which is a mining powerhouse and is No. 2 in the world in copper, No. 2 in silver and No. 6 in gold. Nevertheless, it's experiencing some problems with local unrest to the point where it's receiving international attention. 

TGR: It's forced Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to change around his cabinet somewhat in order to try to appease both sides.

Carlos Andres: That's right.

TGR: Humala is a former soldier. He's perceived as a leftist, but is he anti-mining?

Carlos Andres: No, I don't believe he is. Prior to the election, we argued to our subscribers that if he won the presidency, given the nature of politics in Peru and the importance of mining to the economy, he would find it very difficult to enforce his platform overnight and would have to moderate it. In the lead up to the election we started to see him do exactly that. 

After he was elected, he proceeded to raise royalties and taxes. The mining companies went along with that. He said he would distribute funds and enact social programs in the rural regions of Peru. It seemed to work out fairly well at first. The local unrest that developed almost immediately after he was elected took many, including me, by surprise. There has always been local unrest but it flared unexpectedly.

TGR: These communities feel that they've been left out of the boom that the country has participated in over the last 10 to 15 years. 

Carlos Andres: I think they felt that if they acted out their social displeasure, maybe they would have the backing of their leftist president, but he perhaps caught them by surprise as he proved unable or unwilling to offer that support.

TGR: Ultimately, is Peru is a good place to be investing?

Carlos Andres: Will mining companies be able to execute projects in Peru and successfully move them from start to finish? Can that still happen logistically, politically, from a regulatory standpoint in Peru? Absolutely. Will investors get comfortable funding projects in a country where there is local unrest? That's the rub. Can companies raise financing in the capital markets in order to push projects through? That's the question mark.

In environments like Peru, where mining will continue robustly even under a cloud, it will be more and more important that investors be able to differentiate well-managed, well-capitalized companies, with sound projects. 

TGR: Some of Argentina's oil and gas resources have been nationalized in recent months. Are the gold mining operations at risk there?

Carlos Andres: The country does not have a history of nationalization in the hard-rock mining industry, although it does in the oil and gas industry. The nationalization of the oil company has a lot to do with the fact that Argentina has gone from energy exporter to net energy importer in a massive way over the last few years. It used to provide all its own energy, but now it's suddenly importing large quantities of natural gas to keep the lights on and it's been draining the country's foreign exchange. As a result, the government has been reacting rather radically. However Argentina didn't try to nationalize the mining industry in the 2001 crisis and so far mining companies are soldiering on.

TGR: What about the move by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to restrict access to imported mining equipment?Carlos Andres: The government of Argentina is not necessarily targeting mining specifically. It is making policy decisions related to keeping foreign exchange in the country. It is impacting mining companies, but it hasn't shut things down for them. Is there added risk? Yes, especially with imposing capital controls and rules on the way dividends are repatriated and capital equipment purchases are made. It is having an impact on mines. But it hasn't shut down operations or exploration.

TGR: Do you have some tips on how to hone our approach in order to take advantage of opportunities while mitigating risks in the junior resource space?

Carlos Andres: As we alluded to earlier, on one side of the ledger, it's important to pick the right management, projects and jurisdictions. On the other side of the ledger, it is equally important to look at trading strategies and how much money to allocate to a particular company. The tried-and-true approach is not to invest more than you can afford to lose. I know everyone knows that, but I suspect a lot of retail investors lack the discipline to stick to it. Wait for the prices to come to you. Buy light in the beginning and buy in ever increasing amounts as the price declines. The rule is accumulation rather than chasing prices as they run away from you. The downside is far too high to chase prices like that. 

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