The recent drop in gold prices is a confirmation, or a revelation, to investors of the battle between the physical and paper gold markets. In this interview with The Gold Report, Brien Lundin, editor of Gold Newsletter, predicts the timing of a handoff from Asian physical demand to Western speculative demand and assesses the readiness of the junior market to respond to a revival in commodity prices. Plus, in a tip to Father's Day, he discusses his efforts to groom the next generation of investors.
The Gold Report: In your latest newsletter, you advocate that gold investors pay close attention to the Federal Reserve meeting taking place on June 18. What are you looking for out of that meeting?
Brien Lundin: The main driver for gold right now is quantitative easing (QE). An investor trying to figure out where the gold market is heading in the near to intermediate term needs to focus on QE. Investors should look for clues to the future prospects of the Fed's QE program—that's what's going to drive gold in the short and intermediate term. The question really is: To QE or not to QE? The next Fed meeting will be a prime indicator of that, and the one after that and the one after that.
My general view is that the reports of a resurgent U.S. economy are way ahead of themselves and some data points are indicating that the recovery is not that robust and may even be in danger. The jobs numbers will shed some light on this. If such a scenario develops, then the snap back for gold would be pretty dramatic. A weakening U.S. economy would be bullish for gold because it's bullish for continued QE, and that's the real factor for gold going forward.
TGR: Besides the jobs numbers and the Fed meeting minutes, what indicators are you watching to get some insight into whether the economy really is improving?
BL: People need to listen to the Fed. The Fed is trying to be more open and transparent, despite the typical central banker doublespeak. But it is looking at two numbers right now: Jobs and inflation. The jobs number is predominant because every indicator that economists currently use to measure inflation is showing no significant inflation. Now, the consumer price index (CPI) is not the CPI of our fathers, and it has been jiggered here and there to underreport price inflation. Regardless, until we start seeing price inflation in the CPI, the Fed will be more conducive to easing. The unemployment numbers, however, are where we'll see some real action or perhaps some tapering if the unemployment rate starts to improve.
TGR: What's your take on the price behavior in the precious metals markets? Where do we go from here?
BL: I think the big price action that's happened in gold over the last six weeks or so is a big revelation. It has revealed the character of the modern gold market, which has developed into a West versus East or paper gold versus real gold market. In the West, there are speculators who invest in the future exchanges primarily. They are more concerned about the short-term direction for gold and the other precious metals. The future exchanges are really nothing more than an opinion poll on the price of gold. It's not really a place where real metal gets bought and sold but, rather, the futures market is a place to trade derivatives. In a real sense, it is fractional reserve investing.
In mid-April, when we had the big smackdown in gold, over 400 tons sold on the Comex. In a matter of an hour or two the amount of metal sold exceeded, by over 100 tons, the amount of gold in the Comex warehouse. The Comex trading on that day had no relation to the physical markets. Conversely, the price drop resulting from that selloff spurred physical demand throughout the world, but particularly in price-sensitive markets in Asia.
One of the things people looked at throughout all of this was the big drawdown in the exchange-traded funds (ETFs) of physical gold. Since the beginning of the year, the remarkable drawdown in the ETFs amounted to around 370 tonnes of gold. Over that same timeframe, I estimate that more than 600 tonnes of gold have been consumed in China alone. And that doesn't include the huge demand in India or the rest of Asia. It also doesn't include the surging physical demand for gold in the Western markets or the renewed central bank demand. If you add it all up, I think that price smash in April did nothing but increase global gold demand.
TGR: How does an investor get data on increased physical consumption worldwide?
BL: It's tough. I've tried to compile these numbers many times before. You get some information from the World Gold Council. Now, you get some information from the Shanghai Gold Exchange, which, although it's a futures market, represents more of a physical market in China. You look at imports through Hong Kong into China. Indian import data is more difficult. And you have anecdotal reports of demand. The World Gold Council is the only group that actually tries to sum up all of these totals, and it doesn't offer much in the way of real-time information. So it's really tough, but there are seasonal trends that investors or retail investors need to keep in mind.
Unfortunately, although we've had tremendous physical demand providing an underpinning for the market recently, we're entering the seasonal slow period of early to mid-summer for physical gold demand. One of my concerns is that as physical demand lessens, we may see some resulting price weakness in gold.
TGR: That was the commodity, but what about the miners? During this pullback, have most miners mirrored the underlying commodity?
BL: Yes, mirrored and magnified. The good thing about the mining equities is that they tend to leverage the moves in gold and silver. The bad news is that they tend to leverage the moves in gold and silver. In this cycle, as the metals have dropped, the equities have absolutely been lambasted. I tell my readers that there is too much uncertainty in the near term.
The longer-term picture remains very bright for the metals because the world's governments are going to continue to float their economies on an ocean of new liquidity for the foreseeable future. So the fundamental economic backdrop for gold and, ultimately, the equities remains bullish. But in the near term, especially as we get into the seasonal slow period for physical demand, too much risk exists out there. I'm advising people to keep their heads low, be patient and wait for mid to late summer before they make any new purchases.
TGR: It's a little bit of a risk-off trade for the mining equities. Does that mean you are weighted toward producers rather than explorers?
BL: In a very general sense, the producers will benefit much more quickly from a rebound in the precious metals. With that said, there are specific juniors that are hot on the trail of big, new discoveries and/or are expanding discoveries with the drill bit right now. The juniors have always been more of a news-driven sector. So looking at the broad sector, it will take a while for enthusiasm to filter down through the producers, through the majors and down to the juniors, but specific companies could have significant and company-making news in that meantime.
TGR: You mentioned juniors and then producers. One company that has attributes of both that you have followed for a long time is New Gold Inc. (NGD:TSX; NGD:NYSE.MKT). It was a junior several years ago, and grew into a midtier. It recently acquired Rainy River Resources Ltd. Is this the start of a new trend in consolidation in the sector?
BL: I hope so, but New Gold is kind of a special case. It's a very well-run, very aggressive company. Our readers in Gold Newsletter have benefitted from that for years, as that company has been one of our recommended producers. It is much more aggressive than the rest of the producer flock, but that's really not saying a lot because nobody has been very aggressive recently. I hope it's the beginning of a trend, but New Gold has always been a bit of a special case. It has been able to move quickly to secure companies and projects that have turned out to be very economic. You see the opposite by some of the larger majors having reached, in the past, too far and too aggressively and paid too high a price for projects that did not turn out to be as economic. I'm very bullish on New Gold, and I do hope it's the beginning of a trend.
TGR: What are your thoughts on silver?
BL: I'm very bullish on silver. Silver offers optionality to gold. Silver equities offer optionality to silver, so you can really get a lot of bang for the buck through some really well-run, well-positioned silver producers.
I like Silver Standard Resources Inc. (SSO:TSX; SSRI:NASDAQ), SilverCrest Mines Inc. (SVL:TSX.V; SVLC:NYSE.MKT), Endeavour Silver Corp. (EDR:TSX; EXK:NYSE; EJD:FSE) and Great Panther Silver Ltd. (GPR:TSX; GPL:NYSE.MKT). There is a nice selection of companies out there on the smaller end of the scale, companies that have good, solid production growth profiles.
TGR: Do you have a forecast or an expectation of silver prices?
BL: Not to any decimal places, but silver will track gold. And silver will move more quickly than gold in whatever direction gold is headed. I'm bullish on gold, so I have to be bullish on silver.
TGR: Across the industry, pundits are talking about the death of the junior mining sector. Is the death of the junior mining sector exaggerated?
BL: I don't think the junior sector is dead, although it may be comatose. The thing that will surprise the people who are waiting for further and further levels of capitulation in the junior market is how quickly this market can wake up. I've seen worse days. If you look in the late 1990s and even the very early 1990s or late 1980s, you'll see times when the market was comparatively worse off. In those days, the financing infrastructure was limited relative to where it is today. Since then, capital markets have matured. With the money available from the previous rounds of QE, a lot of money is available to come into the junior market when that market turns around.
TGR: Positives include financial infrastructure, a large investor community, positive fundamentals and money on the sidelines.
BL: Absolutely, but first we need a turnaround in prices to start a rally.
TGR: For juniors, where do you see good risk-reward opportunities now?
BL: I see the best investments in the sector on a case-by-case basis. I don't do a lot of macro-level analysis because once you start off with the big picture, then drill down to a more focused picture and down to the project level, there are lots of places to make false assumptions. Rather than top down, I like to take things on a story-by-story basis and see if a company, particularly in the juniors, has a shot at finding an economic deposit. That analysis is somewhat independent of the global economic picture. A good deposit or a great deposit can overcome a lot of other problems.
With that said, I'm turning more bullish on uranium lately. After looking at that story, I believe that we're going to go into a supply deficit toward the end of this year or early next year. That's a very powerful story that we'll start seeing develop over the coming months.
TGR: The big player in uranium is Cameco Corp. (CCO:TSX; CCJ:NYSE), which has a large majority of the production globally. Apart from it, most of the other players are explorers. Does that mean that you're interested in uranium explorers?
BL: To some degree, as I say, the ones that have very good individual stories. The last time we had a really rollicking bull market in uranium and uranium juniors was about five years ago. They called it uranimania back then, and any company that had some version of the word uranium in its name and its property position could have a $20 million ($20M) market cap. The companies that have survived from then are the better-run companies with the better prospects, and a number of them are in production or are about to get into production. So they are very highly exposed to the uranium price.
Uranium Energy Corp. (UEC:NYSE.MKT) is one, as is Uranerz Energy Corp. (URZ:TSX; URZ:NYSE.MKT). On the exploration front are the Alpha Minerals Inc. (AMW:TSX.V) and Fission Uranium Corp. (FCU:TSX.V)stories. And I think that's going to get much bigger. One of the better stories out there, and a story many are overlooking, is Kivalliq Energy Corp. (KIV:TSX.V).
TGR: You're not concerned, with the names that you just mentioned, that near-term or short-term new production will come on-line to flood the market?
BL: No, I don't think that a big flood of new production will swamp the market, at least not enough to overcome the deficit position. The Highly Enriched Uranium agreement with Russia that's ending this year is going to take 15–20 million pounds off the market and most likely put the global market into a significant deficit position.
TGR: Besides uranium, you like the fundamentals for platinum. Do you want to talk about that?
BL: I cover Prophecy Platinum Corp. (NKL:TSX.V; PNIKF:OTCPK; P94P:FSE). Where else in the world do you have a high-grade, bulk mineable, platinum-palladium project? There isn't one, especially in a geopolitically reliable region. Wellgreen is an extraordinary project; plus, platinum and palladium have positive fundamentals that are tremendously powerful right now. The key to that project is that the preliminary economic assessment (PEA) that came out was good and was economic.
However, the size of the project assumed in the PEA presented challenges. It was neither small and quick to production nor large enough to bring long-term production forward. It was right in the middle and showed a mine life of 37 years. For Wellgreen to work best, it needs to be either much larger or significantly smaller than what the PEA showed. In this market, I think it needs to rework that plan to show it as a smaller project with lower capital expense and, therefore, a much higher rate of return. With that said, it's still very large and still has the potential to grow significantly with this season's drill targets. The deposit has a lot of allure for a major company.
TGR: What would Wellgreen's path to production look like?
BL: Prophecy itself could develop and finance a smaller project focused on some higher-grade starter pit scenarios, and it has gone a long way in trying to identify those starter pits. It could end up joint venturing with a major to develop a slightly larger scenario or it could get sold off to a major for a much larger scenario.
TGR: You also cover several companies with projects in Mexico. What are the highlights there?
BL: Mexico is a great place geologically and a fairly good place politically. The country has a long history of mining and mining laws are well established. The business climate helps companies work and secure land title. Its more streamlined path to production is a great benefit to the smaller producers. Mexico offers a lot of great opportunities and many discoveries are yet to be found.
TGR: Any specific names?
BL: I like Cayden Resources Inc. (CYD:TSX.V; CDKNF:NASDAQ). For a junior, Cayden offers a lot to like, including a good share structure and money in the bank. The company sold a small portion of its project in the Guerrero Gold Belt to Goldcorp Inc. (G:TSX; GG:NYSE) for approximately $16M. That will fund exploration on its primary projects for the next two years. One highlight is the El Barqueño project, which is showing impressive trench results, including 21 meters at 8.3 grams per ton. Cayden should be able to start drilling that target in the near term.
TGR: You also watch companies in the Yukon. The latest Yukon gold rush, which started in 2009, brought high expectations that haven't been fulfilled. Can you give us an update? Are there some exploration opportunities that have stood the test of time?
BL: When the Yukon erupted with Underworld Resources Inc.'s Golden Saddle discovery, Gold Newsletter was the only publication to recommend Underworld, and we did it before that discovery. It turned out to be a very profitable experience for our readers. Along with a couple of other projects, Golden Saddle really ignited a gold rush in the Yukon.
Along the way, there were some speed bumps. People didn't realize how long it takes to develop prospects and get them to drill-ready status. In that environment, the shortened drill season affects project speed—you can only explore one season a year. As a result, development has taken longer, and it is much more difficult than people had imagined. When you combine the slow project progress in the Yukon with the correction in the junior market, the net result is that some companies that have already made discoveries are selling for fractions of what their ultimate worth will be.
One example of this is Kaminak Gold Corp. (KAM:TSX.V) with its Coffee project. At today's prices, it represents real value. Eventually, I believe it will be taken out at a multiple to today's price.
I'm interested in and have been recommending Comstock Metals Ltd. (CSL:TSX.V) as well. I'm a fairly large shareholder in the company. Comstock's project is interesting for many reasons, including that it may be an extension off the same structure as Underworld's Golden Saddle discovery. It had interesting drill results last year. Comstock is following up with its VG zone this year and, hopefully, will be able to advance some of other targets to drill-ready status before the season is over.
TGR: If investors were looking for, in the best possible sense, the next Yukon or the next underappreciated region that has potential to be a world-class district, where would they look?
BL: Let me share some of the key takeaways of going through a few cycles in the precious metals market. One of the things we saw in the early 1990s was the perception of a revolution of freedom across the world. New regions opened to modern mineral exploration. Two examples were Southeast Asia and Indonesia—and then came the Bre-X scandal. Another example was Venezuela—and then came the leftist Hugo Chavez. The Next Big Thing is a moving target. Success breeds, in some cases, envy and expropriation. I stress to investors that they don't need to be pioneers—it's the pioneers who get the arrows in the back. Investors don't have to take on added geopolitical risk when we have well-positioned companies with proven deposits and proven exploration teams that are selling at huge historic discounts.
TGR: Is there anything else you want to say?
BL: Looking at the general market, the concern I have right now is that we're beginning to see speculative demand in the West come back into gold. We're beginning to see some short covering by Western speculators. While that is positive in the short term, we may see a falloff in physical demand as we get into summer. I'm not sure that the strong physical demand that we're seeing now will be handed off in an orderly fashion to the Western speculators. If so, we could have some further weakness in gold going into midsummer. And that's why I am targeting around the end of July as a good time for investors to come back into the market and pick up some bargains.
TGR: I noticed that you have expanded the scope of attendees that you are welcoming to the next New Orleans Conference. As Father's Day approaches, can you talk about this?
BL: A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with Frank Holmes, the CEO of U.S. Global Investors, discussing ideas for the next New Orleans Investment Conference. Frank came up with an idea that hit me like a thunderclap: Let parents bring their kids to the conference for free. I love the idea. This would encourage more attendees to bring along their kids, to show them the benefits of free markets, expose them to the constant threats to their liberty, reveal the hidden dangers of on-going monetary debasement and teach them how to protect their money and freedoms. I'm always searching for ways to expand our unique experience and outlook to younger people who rarely get exposed to the free market ideals that we promote.
We wrapped up the idea as a limited-time special opportunity between Mother's Day and Father's Day, but I decided to extend it through the end of June. And, incidentally, it also applies to children who want to bring along their parents.
TGR: That's a great way to get the next generation introduced to the investment markets. We look forward to speaking with you again.
BL: Thanks, it was great to speak with you.
With a career spanning three decades in the investment markets, Brien Lundin serves as president and CEO of Jefferson Financial, a highly regarded publisher of market analyses and producer of investment-oriented events. Under the Jefferson Financial umbrella, Lundin publishes and edits Gold Newsletter, a cornerstone of precious metals advisories since 1971. He also hosts the New Orleans Investment Conference, the oldest and most respected investment event of its kind.