After a tough year in 2011, there is definitely a good selection of underpriced junior resource stocks available for astute investors to focus on before the rest of the herd finally wakes up and smells the gold. In this exclusive interview with The Gold Report, Matthew Zylstra, mining analyst at Northern Securities, reviews the gold, silver and PGM markets and tells us why he believes that better times are ahead for junior miners in 2012 and which ones he particularly likes at current price levels.
The Gold Report: When you last spoke with The Gold Report in early March of last year, gold was trading around $1,420/ounce (oz) and silver was around $36/oz. Silver peaked about $49/oz in late April and then gold hit around $1,900/oz in September. Now we’re back up above $1,700/oz on gold and about $33/oz on silver. Where do you see these prices going this year, after it appears that they have likely bottomed out?
Matthew Zylstra: We’re long-term bulls on both metals. Gold has been correcting since September and it looks like it bottomed out around $1,500/oz. We believe the recent decline is a normal pullback in a longer-term uptrend where nothing has really changed to the outlook. We see a perfect environment for the metal—concerns over our currency debasement, negative real interest rates, geopolitical friction, etc. I expect gold will reclaim the 2011 highs and could reach $2,000/oz.
For silver, the picture is less clear. Silver is, in part, an industrial metal accounting for around 50% of demand and less of a currency. Silver peaked at almost $50/oz in April 2011 and the price has been very volatile. We think the move is a correction, again, in a longer uptrend going back to 2003. I expect silver will trade around the mid-$30/oz range this year.
We actually feel platinum has a lot of potential. South Africa, Zimbabwe and Russia account for about 90% of platinum production and there’s a scarcity of good platinum metals group (PMG) projects outside those countries. We expect increased investment demand and believe that supply disruptions, as well as resource nationalization concerns, will drive the price higher. We note that Sprott Asset Management has formed a physical platinum and palladium trust, which could boost investment demand.
TGR: So, what really happened to the platinum market? Historically, platinum traded at a 30–40% premium over gold. Does it have to do with industrial demand or what happened to cause it to trade below gold?
MZ: The main industrial use for platinum/palladium is automotive catalysts. With fears of a global slowdown, their prices came off. But our view is that supply is not going to be able to meet the demand going forward. And, as you mentioned, platinum has historically traded at a significant premium to gold but the value is now only about 95% of the price of gold.
TGR: Getting to the actual equities, the gold and silver stocks certainly didn’t track the metals prices very well the last year. What’s been the problem?
MZ: Gold stocks have performed poorly compared to the metals. We believe this has to do with investors being leery about another period similar to what occurred in 2008 when credit markets froze. Exploration and development companies, in particular, are sensitive to what’s going on in the capital markets since they require capital to continue exploration. Take, for example, Trade Winds Ventures Inc., which was acquired last year by Detour Gold Corp. (DGC:TSX). Shares of Trade Winds traded down to $0.03 in the 2008 crisis. Trade Wind shares were later bought for cash and stock, which at the time amounted to about $0.45 a share. My point is that people are nervous but that creates opportunity especially with what I believe will be a catch-up in equity prices.
TGR: I hope with metals prices staying up, the credit markets will be a little more optimistic and will loosen up a bit.
MZ: We certainly don’t expect another period like 2008. I think that was an aberration.
TGR: So, I hope the stocks start picking up here and not continue acting like gold is $800/oz and silver is $15/oz.
MZ: That is what we expect and the precious metals stocks could really get a boost on QE3 or other stimulus programs.
TGR: So, what do you think is going to be some sort of catalyst to get people more excited faster? Or is this just going to have to be a gradual progression and we are going to have to wait for $2,000/oz gold and $50/oz silver for people to really get into this market?
MZ: The disconnect between gold/silver prices and mining company equities has grown considerably. The sector is cheap by historical standards when you consider the price of gold miners’ shares relative to the price of gold. The Philadelphia Gold and Silver Index (XAU), which is an index of 16 precious metals and mining companies, is close to the lowest level it has been since the 2008 crisis relative to gold. We expect this ratio to gradually work its way back to the average. If we see gold mining stocks move up to even the low end of their historical range versus gold, it will mean a significant gain for many of these companies.
Increased merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the sector will get people interested in a lot of these companies. As the price of gold and silver continues to rise, the economics become very compelling, especially for large- and mid-cap companies to acquire smaller players.
More interest in precious metals will help too. With what I see as a developing currency war—a race to devalue—I think more investors are going to turn to precious metals and related equities.
TGR: It certainly seems like there are a lot of smaller companies out there with some interesting looking projects that may be sitting ducks for being taken over. If they have to keep going back to the market to raise more money and create more dilution, that could be a problem. What’s your thinking on that?
MZ: Small exploration companies are going to continue to need funds to advance their projects, and costs have been increasing. That’s a major problem. The need to raise capital isn’t going to change but we are seeing alternative ways of financing such as gold and silver streams, alternative debt arrangements and joint ventures, which mean less dilution.
TGR: A lot of companies that were able to load up with plenty of cash at reasonable prices are obviously happy in this market. Do you think they’re going to get pushed to go out and do acquisitions?
MZ: I think what we’re seeing now are mining companies with the ability to acquire languishing juniors taking advantage of the environment. The seniors and intermediates, which have filled up their treasuries with robust gold and silver prices, certainly have the ability to do the same. At the end of the year we saw companies like Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. (AEM:TSX; AEM:NYSE) acquiring Grayd Resource Corp, AuRico Gold Inc. (AUQ:TSX; AUQ:NYSE) acquiring Northgate Minerals, and New Gold Inc. (NGD:TSX; NGD:NYSE.A) acquiring Richfield Ventures Corp. and Silver Quest Resources Ltd. We see this trend intensifying, especially if mining company valuations don’t keep pace with rising metals prices.
TGR: That brings us to a little follow-up on some of the companies that you talked about last time. A couple of the junior producers you talked about were Barkerville Gold Mines Ltd. (BGM:TSX.V) and Orvana Minerals Corp. (ORV:TSX). Can you tell us what’s going on with them?
MZ: The market has been disappointed with production from both companies. Barkerville recently got a boost after receiving a permit for its Bonanza Ledge property, which is a high-grade open-pittable gold resource. The delay in getting that permit meant that production was not what we had originally expected. Updated resource calculations for the company’s Bonanza Ledge, Cariboo Quartz and B.C. vein zone in the first half of 2012 could be a positive there.
Orvana has two properties that were both put into production in 2011. In Spain, the company’s El Valle-Boinás/Carlés is an operating gold mine, which is not seeing the head grade we had expected. Grades are slowly increasing from around 2 grams per tonne (g/t) to an expected 3.5 g/t. Its other project in Bolivia, the Don Mario mine, has a different problem. It’s an open-pit, copper-gold mine where recoveries have been less than expected—around 50% versus 70–80% for copper. We look for recoveries to improve and think a lot of the bad news has been priced into the shares. We’re also encouraged by the fact that Bill Williams has now taken the helm of the company. Bill has exceptional operational technical expertise.
TGR: So you feel both of those are reasonable values at this point?
MZ: On Barkerville we’re taking a wait-and-see approach and have the stock rated as a hold. On Orvana we believe the negative news has been priced into the shares and valuation looks compelling.
TGR: So, how about some of the near-term producers that you follow, such as Canadian Zinc Corporation (CZN:TSX; CZICF:OTCBB)?
MZ: Canadian Zinc is a situation where the valuation has not kept up with the project. The company recently passed the major hurdle for environmental approval of its Prairie Creek mine. It’s a really interesting story—an old Hunt Brothers mine that could be in production in 2014 or maybe even as early as 2013. For readers who don’t know the history of the Prairie Creek mine, it is in the Northwest Territories and was just a few months away from going into production when silver prices collapsed in the early 1980s and the Hunt Brothers went bankrupt. It’s a high-grade silver-lead-zinc mine with much of the infrastructure in place that we think has a lot of potential. We actually believe this is an ideal time to own shares of the company since fundamentals have improved and the share price has drifted lower with the sector.
TGR: So that’s another one to watch closely and this may be a good time to be picking some up. What about some of the other junior explorers that you like and have talked about in the past?
MZ: For very near-term production I have followed but do not cover Armistice Resources Corp. (AZ:TSX). The company expects to produce 25,000 oz gold in 2012. At around $0.22/share, which is about 50% less than last year, valuation looks interesting. Two that I cover, which are exploration stories, are NioGold Mining Corp. (NOX:TSX.V; NOXGF:OTCPK) and Prophecy Platinum Corp. (NKL:TSX.V; PNIKD:OTCPK; P94P:FSE). NioGold continues to drill at its Marban project in Val-d’Or, Québec. This is a joint venture with Aurizon Mines Ltd. (ARZ:TSX; AZK:NYSE.A) where Aurizon is funding $20 million for exploration. We think the resource could grow fairly significantly from the current 960,000 oz to 1.4–1.5 million ounces (Moz). We actually think Marban could give Aurizon’s other project, Joanna, some competition. I think the valuation looks fairly attractive here, trading at about 60% lower than our calculated net asset value.
We’re also excited about the potential of Prophecy Platinum. Prophecy has the Wellgreen deposit in the Yukon, which contains 12 Moz of combined PGMs and gold plus 2.4 billion pounds (Blb) of nickel and 2.2 Blb of copper. The in-situ value is around $50 billion and we think a preliminary economic assessment due out in Q112 will show some strong economics for an optimized open-pit. The company is carrying out other work to derisk the project, including metallurgical studies and additional infill drilling for which we’ll start seeing results early this year.
TGR: So, that one is well priced at this point and a buy as far as you’re concerned.
MZ: Absolutely. The price drifted down after the excitement over the updated resource estimate, but it’s come down to a level where we think it offers very good value. We have a $6.40 target price.
TGR: So then, let’s look at some silver juniors. One that you follow is Cream Minerals Ltd. (CMA:TSX.V; CRMXF:OTCBB; DFL:FSE). What’s going on with that one?
MZ: Cream is a company I cover and which I visited late last year. It’s an exploration company with a 41 Moz silver deposit called Nuevo Milenio. It also has about 300,000 oz gold. We believe the company has the potential to really expand the current resource. Cream completed about 20,000 meters (m) of drilling in 2011 and we expect an updated resource out late Q112. This should actually upgrade a fair amount of the Inferred resource to Indicated and could add about 30% to that resource. We also see it doing another round of drilling of 20,000–30,000m in 2012, which we think has the potential to more than double the current resource.
TGR: That sounds promising.
MZ: Another one I don’t cover but I think is very interesting is Oremex Silver Inc. (OAG:TSX.V; OARGF:OTCBB; OSI:FSE). This is a small-cap silver exploration company with assets in Mexico. The company recently moved up on good initial results on its Chalchihuites project. The project is in the same area as First Majestic Silver Corp.’s (FR:TSX; AG:NYSE; FMV:FSE) Del Toro project, and we understand First Majestic is aggressively acquiring property in the area. The company’s flagship property, Tejamen, has a defined 51 Moz silver deposit. We think the president and CEO is also a real asset for a company with a market cap of around $20M. He’s been manager of exploration and development for Barrick Gold Corp. (ABX:TSX; ABX:NYSE) in South America.
TGR: So, are you expecting that 2012 is going to be the year that mining stock investors finally wake up and smell the gold and realize it’s time to get into this market?
MZ: I think this is the year! Investors have been cautious and focusing just on the downside, holding their money in cash. I think investors should be opportunistic and look for well-run companies with strong management and great assets.
TGR: Well, we’re certainly hoping for that also. We appreciate your joining us today and look forward to talking with you again.
MZ: Thank you and I appreciate the opportunity.
Analyst Matthew Zylstra joined Northern Securities in 2010 after having worked at Sprott Resource Corp. and investment counsel firm Foyston, Gordon and Payne Inc., a unit of Affiliated Managers Group Inc. He is focused primarily on junior precious metals producers and also follows some base metals miners. Zylstra has worked in the finance sector since 1999.