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Researching Gold/Silver Mining Companies

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With the precious metals sector still being a complete “mystery” to most of the investing public, precious metals news/information sites like our own can perform an important function by introducing investors to the fundamentals of this sector, and by supplying general guidance on researching this sector.

In my previous commentaries, I have provided investors with considerable detail on the fundamentals for bullion, itself – as well as giving them practical guidance on making purchases. However, I have not engaged in the same depth of analysis regarding the miners who produce this bullion. With the help of our Mining Coordinator, Brian Boutilier, we intend to rectify that situation.

As with anything, we must start with the “ABC’s”. To make sure that no one is excluded from this analysis, I will assume that readers are not only new to this sector, but also new to self-directed investing. For those who already have a sophisticated understanding of these basic principles, we will delve into more advanced topics and analysis in future installments.

To make this analysis a little more “elementary”, we will assume that all of these mining companies are either producers or near-producers (i.e. “advanced-stage exploration projects”) – since “pure” exploration companies are more difficult to value objectively.

Share count:

Obviously the starting-point in researching any stock is to ascertain the company’s share structure. Multiplying the share-count by the share price provides us with a company’s market capitalization. This is the current valuation of the company’s assets, as expressed in the share price.

However, there is a second step in this process, which is especially important when researching mining companies: determining the number of outstanding “warrants” and “options”. Because mining is a capital-intensive industry, miners often need to raise capital for mine-construction, and related investments. Through these financings, companies will often issue large numbers of options and/or warrants – instruments which can be converted to shares.

This means that a much more relevant/accurate way to measure the market capitalization of these companies is with a “fully-diluted” share count – which includes all of those options and warrants, and simply assumes they will be converted to shares. Most companies will keep all of this data close together, making it quite simple to calculate the fully-diluted market-cap.

Before looking for further information, the next thing for a potential investor to ascertain about a company is its status as a “miner”.  Specifically: is the company actually producing gold and silver, or is it still in the “development” stage?

For non-producers, the research (at this elementary stage) is somewhat easier than with producers.

Resource size/drill results:

There are many mainstream “analysts” (with little knowledge about this sector) who refer to any/all miners who are not yet producing as “purely speculative” investments – directly implying there are no “hard assets” from which to attach a firm valuation for these companies. Nothing could be further from the truth, it is simply that the people making such comments lack the expertise to engage in such valuations.

The first thing to look for with any “miner” who is not yet actually “mining” is the size of their “resource” (i.e. the quantity of gold and/or silver, along with other “byproduct” metals) which they have “proven” (with varying degrees of certainty). Ore deposits which have been drilled-out to allow near-100% certainty in their composition are referred to as “reserves”, while ore-bodies with less-detailed drilling are referred to as “resources”.

The most-speculative component of these “resources” is the “inferred” component. It is important to understand that an “inferred” resource is not some all-or-nothing proposition – where “maybe” the ore is there and “maybe” it isn’t. The existence of gold and/or silver in such ore is not in doubt, merely the accuracy of the estimate of the quantity of ore. This means that further drilling into such “inferred” resources can result in the estimate of the quantity of metal to go down or up.

Once you know how much gold/silver is contained in a deposit (more or less), you can begin to attach a crude valuation to that resource/reserve. Obviously, the value of the ore is the value of the bullion, itself, minus the cost to mine/refine it. These “cash costs” vary tremendously between different mines/miners – and are steadily rising with time.

Presently, attaching a “cash cost” of $600/oz for gold and $10/oz for silver is very close to average for gold, while somewhat above average for silver. However, the convenience of these numbers (at the present time) is that they represent roughly ½ the price of bullion. Thus, a very simple way to value these resources today is to multiply the estimated quantity of metal by the price of bullion – and then cut it in half.

Critics (and more sophisticated investors) will immediately argue that this grossly over-values these companies – by not factoring in the capital costs to build the mine, nor the necessary “discounting” (for accounting purposes).

My response is in two parts. First, this is intended as merely a superficial examination of these companies – allowing even novice-investors to begin to distinguish between the relative value of various miners. Secondly, all of these development-stage miners are still continuing to drill-out their properties, meaning that the total amount of ore (eventually) found and proven through exploration will continue to increase over time. Depending on the quantity of exploration already completed, many of these ore deposits will be shown to be two or three times as large as these preliminary estimates (if not more).

Closely related to resource-size (and also accessible to novices) are the drill-results. Picture in your mind the Earth’s “crust” from the surface, and going lower as a series of “layers”, composed of various geological formations, along with an enormous variety of minerals and other substances.

The drills cut vertically through these “layers”, and when they encounter mineralization, these layers are referred to as “intercepts”. When a company’s drill results are presented to the public through “news releases”, the tables which contain these results may (at first) seem somewhat confusing and intimidating to novice-investors.

Put aside such fears. Once we understand what an “intercept” is, interpreting the rest of the data is quite straightforward. With each “intercept” there are several pieces of information included: the depth (beneath the surface) at which the intercept was encountered, the thickness (or “width”) of the layer, and the concentrations of various minerals which are discovered during analysis of the results.

Gold and silver purities (or “grades”) are expressed as “grams per ton” (of ore), or “ounces per ton”. It will likely astonish novice-investors to learn that most ore containing as little as 1 or 2 grams/ton of gold  can now be mined profitably. As gold prices continue to soar higher, we will likely see even ore with ½ g/ton of gold become profitable in most circumstances. Note that the presence of other minerals (such as copper, lead, zinc or other metals) increases the value of the ore, and reduces the “cash costs” for the gold (or silver) when these byproducts are sold as “credits”.

While many investors’ attention will be focused solely on the “headline numbers” with respect to the purity or “grade” of the ore, such temptations must be suppressed. Yes, the grades of ore are very important, but what is arguably even more important are the quantity of such intercepts – and their width. A half-dozen wide intercepts of “low-grade” ore will yield a far greater resource than a thin, single vein of gold – no matter how rich the grades are.

Once valuable ore is encountered, these miners will drill-out additional holes laterally, in order to demonstrate how long these “veins” of mineralization extend. As more and more drill-holes are completed, it becomes possible to calculate the quantity of metal contained in the ore – and then add it to any existing “resource”.

At this point, these miners will want to initiate “feasibility studies” (or “pre-feasibility studies”), to not only price-out the costs of building a mine, but to select a specific mining process and then to estimate a more precise “cash cost” for producing the gold/silver. Upon completion of such studies, we can value these companies with a much greater level of precision.

Operations:

Once a mining company is able to commence commercial production, its valuation (and investor focus) shifts from being purely concerned with resources and drill-results to being more concerned with the quantity of metal being produced, along with the efficiency of operations (which is reflected in the cash-costs of production).

The resource-size is still important, in that it tells us about the “mine life” of operations (at a given level of production). However, what all investors must be aware of is that once a company has commenced production, it is not going to want to squander all of its revenues/profits simply drilling-out its ore-body as fast as possible – just to boost the “resource” to its maximum size.

This is extremely inefficient, as drilling into this “virgin” rock will also often entail creating new shafts/ramps to access this rock. Instead, what a producing miner will often choose to do is to be more pragmatic – and only drill-out enough of its (total) resource to guarantee a reliable “feed” of ore for its “crushers” to process. Generally, a five-year mine-supply is considered more than ample for companies to effectively and efficiently plan-out their operations into the future.

This is why drill results are still important, even for companies which have been producing for years – as they tell investors whether the miner is able to find new ore to replace what has already been mined, and guarantee full-production in the future.

Note that “junior miners” do not automatically become “profitable” the moment they start mining. While (at these prices) they should certainly be producing a profit on their operations, most of these miners will have additional properties which they are also seeking to advance to production.

Depending on the number of additional properties, how “aggressively” the company is expanding, and how profitable its existing mine(s) is, a junior miner may or may not actually be producing net earnings. Investors should not be frightened away from a producer merely because it is not yet profitable – as long as it is clearly adding “shareholder value” with its additional development activities (and not engaging in excessive “dilution”).

Cash position:

While a company’s current “liquidity” is an important concern for any potential investment, as stated earlier, mining is a capital-intensive industry. This makes the current cash-position for mining companies even more important (and yet more important, again, for companies not yet producing).

Obviously any mining company which is low on cash, and not yet making net earnings on its operations will likely be forced to do a financing (or perhaps enter into some “joint venture” arrangement with a third party) – resulting in some level or form of dilution. The other option would be for the company to sell-off an asset. Some “development” companies never intend to become miners, but rather simply “explore” and then sell-off these properties (however, now I’m getting into more advanced subject matter).

A quick phone-call, or e-mail to the “investor relations” department of any of these companies should be enough to get a rough estimate of current “cash” – along with the “burn rate” (for companies not yet making net earnings).

Jurisdiction/Location/Geography:

The largest portion of global mineral exploration and mining is conducted by North American-listed (and primarily Canadian-based) companies. However, these companies operate on every continent on Earth, with the exception of Antarctica.

This means that there is tremendous variation between companies/properties on a number of fronts. Some governments are more or less receptive to “foreign” investment/development – and along with this their legal systems differ widely in how “mining friendly” these jurisdictions are. While this may seem like something which is impossible for a novice to ascertain, the obvious short-cut here is to find out if there are many other miners operating in a particular area.

Similarly, “environmental concerns” or “aboriginal land claims” can be tremendously important in determining whether a particular property (and a particular mining company) will ever be able to go into production. Novice investors should look for “clues” such as whether a miner is operating in an established mining-region (or “camp”). Companies looking for gold and silver in known, historical mining districts tend to be more successful in finding these metals and will likely face fewer obstacles in going into production. Furthermore, there will often be significant amounts of existing mining infrastructure – which can dramatically reduce the capital costs associated with mine construction.

Lastly, investors should try to acquaint themselves with the specific geography of a particular property. It may be “near” other mines/miners, but obviously a property on some sort of plateau-formation would be more accessible (and easy to develop) than a property situated on the side of a mountain.

Obviously, such a superficial level of analysis does not allow a novice-investor to immediately start picking their own mining investments. What it does allow is for someone seeking to become a mining-investor to start to make comparisons between these companies – and to separate the “contenders” from the “pretenders”.

Mining-ETF’s (and particularly the “junior miner” ETF’s) are an excellent “short-cut” for novice investors to enter this sector. These ETF’s represent “baskets” of miners which have been chosen by fund-managers with at least moderate expertise in selecting these companies. Not only are they relatively “safe” starter-positions for investors, but they provide their own list of companies with which novice-investors can start to individually research these companies.

Brian Boutilier has compiled a large database of these companies on our own site, and summarized the data he has collected – to provide a great starting-point for investor research. This database does not represent a “collection” of companies which each investor should attempt to acquire in its entirety. Rather, Brian is constantly looking at different miners, and when he finds a company which is at least “interesting” enough to him to be a potential choice for investors, he adds it to our database.

While some investors will prefer to subscribe to various analysts/experts – and let those people/sites do their thinking for them, we take the opposite approach. We see these mining companies as being “accessible” to the average investor, and with a prudent, methodical approach to such investing, we believe the vast majority of people should be capable of success in this personal investing.

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Brian Boutilier
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written by brian boutilier, September 20, 2010
Hard to see the downside with Metanor at a glance. They continue to expanding the resource and increase mill through put. S/O around 133M , they own a 1,200 TPD mill north of Val d'Or and has to potential to become a 60,000oz producer. They did have a setback at the mine last year. Lost a worker in an accident, the SP fell quite a way during that period. I haven't taken a hard look at the financials lately. Perhaps they have a debt load. I noticed 45 million in warrants, and the likelyhood they will need more capital this year. They only have 300K or so. So dilution is still an issue. They are griding through the long, dark days of a young producer.
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written by HA65MPH, September 19, 2010
MEAOF.PK
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written by HA65MPH, September 19, 2010
Reading on miners , I came across this one ..any thoughts ..MEAOF.PK
Brian Boutilier
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written by brian boutilier, September 19, 2010
You bring up a good point Derek. There certainly are difference in Deposits, and therefore difference in processing be it a mill or a plant. I am usually not as concerned about the milling or processing style. I am, however, very interested in the anticipated rate of return and the cost of processing/OZ.

Heres an excerpt from First Majestic, and how they break out cost. This is from an NI 43-101 tech report.
TABLE 19-3
First Majestic Silver Corp.
First Majestic Plata, S.A. de C.V.
La Parrilla Silver Mine
Cutoff Grade Parameters for Sulfide Ore
CONCEPTS COSTS AND OTHER
Average Operating Cost per Tonne $66.94
COG Silver Only (g/t Ag) 293
COG - Lead Credits (g/t Ag) 246
Silver Recovery in Mill (%) 62.4%
Payable Silver from Refinery 95.0%
Lead Recovery in Mill (%) 55.0%
Payable Lead from Refinery (%) 88.0%
Silver Price ($/oz.) $12.00
Lead Price ($/lb.) $0.75
Zinc Price ($/lb.) $0.75
Monetary Exchange Rate $11.00 pesos: $1.00
61,419 tonnes

So, a fair amount of information, but the bottom line is Silver Recovery Rate, and and the cost of production. I usually find this kind of information in NI 43-101s, or pre/feasibility studies, for Advancer type companies trying to go into production. I like you, try to figure out just how profitable the process will be, not just how much rock they have. I don't always post that kind of detail, but put the hot-links in, so you can look for yourself. Hope that helps. Brian
navderek
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written by navderek, September 18, 2010
Do the mining company reports provide the breakdown in percentage between what is oxide vs. sulphide contained in their reserves and/or resources? Does this apply to all metal types such as Gold, Silver, Platinum, etc... or just Gold? I'm starting to wonder now if there is a range of variance between element types and difficulties encountered to extract, for example Uranium or Nickel, or other non traditional PM's.
Hopefully Brian can shed some light on it. In the meantime I will try and do some research on my own and post my finding in the forums - probably a better place to discuss this further.
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, September 18, 2010
Good question, Derek - as it's about the ONE aspect of geology where I have a little understanding (lol). For anything more involved, it will be up to Brian!

Basically, the oxides have a looser chemical-bond between the gold and the surrounding rock. This allows a high "recovery rate" for the metal(s) in the ore, with only normal processing.

Conversely, with the sulphide-based ores, the chemical-bond is MUCH stronger. This is generally "bad news" on a number of fronts. First, if you try to process sulphide ores in the same manner, you get atrocious recovery-rates - literally leaving most of the metal in the "tailings" (the waste-product after mining and milling).

In previous decades, if you tried additional "processing" to get more of the gold out, this required HORRENDOUSLY destructive techniques. If anyone has heard "horror stories" about environmental devastation from gold-mining, it is THIS form of primitive processing of sulphide-based ores which would be at the root of it.

FORTUNATELY, there are now hi-tech and even environmentally-friendly ways of processing sulphide-ores - with the most interesting of these techniques being the use of bacteria to break-down the chemical-bond. They simply expose the ore to this bacteria after some initial crushing and processing, and after the bacteria have worked their magic, almost the same recovery-rate for this ore can be obtained as with oxide-based ores - with no more harm to the environment.

Naturally, oxide-based ores are preferred - which is WHY all the easily-accessible oxide-based ore bodies have already been mined. This means we MUST get the majority of our metals in the future from sulphide-based ores, so it is fortunate that all this means today is slightly higher capital costs for the extra processing equipment, and somewhat higher cash costs for processing.
navderek
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written by navderek, September 18, 2010
This is a great introduction on how to go about analyzing mining companies. I'll be the first to say that I've already learned a lot from this one article and I'm looking forward to the next ones!

When I recently attended the Kitco eConference there was a speaker who talked about "Sulphide" deposits vs. "Oxidized" deposits and that basically the oxide deposits are easier to mine (due to less processing requirements). Does this differentiation apply to any type of ore, or is it specific to certain ore types? Also does the mining company provide this information automatically or is it something you have to question them about?

-Derek

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