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Researching Gold/Silver Mining Companies II

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In the first installment of this tutorial on investing in precious metals mining companies, I provided investors with the “ABC's” of researching these companies: simple, basic information which would allow even novice investors to begin to distinguish between these miners.

This was followed-up with a piece from our Mining Coordinator, Brian Boutilier – who explained how he used such basic data as part of his “screening process”. Before getting into more in-depth research, Brian uses this first level of analysis to separate companies which are potentially worth investing in from those with much less likelihood of success.

In this piece, I will introduce readers/investors to a more rigorous level of analysis, which will allow us to get a much clearer picture of exactly what these companies are working towards with their operations. There is much more to analyzing these companies than simply ascertaining whether they are already producing, or still “exploring”. Once we categorize these companies in a more precise manner, we can zero-in on what specific pieces of data are of greatest importance.

In this respect, analyzing the “producers” is more straightforward, so we will begin with this cross-section of the miners. For purposes of this commentary, I will assume that all producers are small producers (or “juniors”), as there really isn't any “mystery” as to what the larger producers are doing with their own businesses.

Regarding the junior producers, the general question to be answered is can any particular miner boost total production, and/or improve efficiencies, and/or increase profits? Concerning the first issue, the first aspect to examine is whether they have the existing capacity to increase production. Can their crushers/ball mills process more ore than what is currently being fed through?

Again, this is a question which can and should be easily answered by the investor relations department for these companies. If the answer to this question is “yes”, then likely all it will take for the company to increase output is through adding some additional “feeder” equipment to get the ore to the crushers, or perhaps gaining access to additional ore through further drilling and/ore ramp construction. Introducing such changes into operations are relatively low-cost means of boosting production, and very likely would not require additional financing in order to increase production in that manner.

For those miners already operating at capacity, the first issue is will this mine ever increase production? This is not strictly an issue of money. Depending on the size of the ore deposit and the nature of the ore deposit, it may never be practical to expand production. For mines with relatively small deposits, there is no point in investing enormous amounts of capital which will ultimately do nothing except cause the mine to close sooner (through using-up the ore at a faster rate). It’s unlikely that cramming the production into a shorter time-frame would produce an acceptable rate of return for such a large capital investment.

However, even companies with large ore deposits will sometimes find that it makes no sense to attempt to increase the scale of operations. An example of such a mine is the Topia Mine of Great Panther Silver. This mine has been a relatively small producer for over 400 years. Obviously there was plenty of ore to justify a larger operation, so why did none of the mine’s owners (over a 400-year history) ever try to make this a much larger producer?

The answer to that question is found by examining the nature of the ore deposit more closely. In the case of the Topia Mine, it has always located very high-grade ore, making it a very profitable producer. The “catch” is that this high-grade ore is contained in a multitude of very narrow “veins”. It takes much more careful mining to efficiently mine such ore – which reduces the amount of ore which can be fed to the mill. Thus, despite the quantity of ore, increasing production would have never been a cost-effective choice for this mine.

As investors, we can gain insight into what sort of mining might be done with any ore-body by referring back to a topic discussed in the first installment: drilling results. As I pointed out previously, there is a wealth of information to be obtained from these samples – starting with the width of the veins of ore which are encountered.

Had Topia been a brand-new discovery, rather than a 400-year-old mine, we could reliably predict that it would eventually become a small producer, simply by noting the narrowness of the veins. Conversely, if we look at drill results from a different ore deposit which indicate one or more very wide veins of mineralization, this immediately suggests that (if/when such ore was mined) it would likely be a larger producer, assuming that total tonnages justified such an operation.

Of course, in many cases capital costs are the determinative issue with respect to whether a mine can increase production. A small producer simply may not generate enough revenue to be able to finance a mine’s expansion, whereas with large producers capital costs are much less of an issue.

Regarding “efficiency”, this is typically divided into two facets. Part of the efficiency of any mine is based upon “recovery rates” – i.e. the percentage of the metal(s) contained in the ore which is successfully extracted through mining. Typically, mines aim for recovery rates of 90% or higher. However, in some cases the geology or metallurgical properties of the ore do not allow such high recovery rates.

It should also be noted that in the case of “polymetallic deposits” (ore containing several minerals), usually only the primary metal can be recovered at close to a 90% rate. The metallurgical process must be customized for any/every ore deposit, and what results in optimal recovery rates for one metal will not achieve the same efficiency with secondary “byproduct” metals.

The other aspect of efficiency are the generic issues for all companies: a skilled/motivated work force, vigilant quality-control, and cost-effective administration. While such factors can generally not be ascertained through any ordinary research, they can obviously be extremely important to the long-term operational performance for any particular mine. In this area, we must infer the efficiency of management, through observing bottom-line performance.

All of these factors, together, will tell us whether any particular miner can increase profitability internally. Naturally, in the case of gold and silver miners, these companies are mining the two most under-priced commodities which are widely traded in our economies. This provides a “margin of error” for precious metals investors which is absent from most other sectors. Specifically, with rising commodity prices, even a mediocre miner should be able to improve results over time – simply through selling a commodity which is steadily increasing in price.

This should mean that even when we make mistakes with our investments that it should not result in absorbing severe losses. More particularly, should a company take a nose-dive after some bad results, it will generally not be necessary for investors in such companies to “bail out” at such an inopportune time. Instead, we can afford to be a little more patient – and look to make our exit after the company has had some time to reverse previous poor results.

Another issue of which investors must be cognizant is with respect to the polymetallic deposits I spoke of previously. Generally, gold and silver miners attract a valuation “premium” over-and-above the valuations of base metals miners (like copper, lead, zinc, etc.). Presumably this historic premium is in recognition of gold and silver’s status as the best “money” our species has ever devised. Unless/until human commerce itself dies out, there will always be an important use for these commodities in our economies.

What is important here is that while polymetallic deposits tend to boost the profitability of miners (since more than one metal is being mined/processed simultaneously), they tend to lower the “premium” attached to these miners – as the additional metal(s) being produced dilute the “purity” of the mine’s operations.

Indeed, even with the larger producers, some of these companies are severely penalized by the market in terms of their valuation due to high base-metals content in their production. Equally important, miners with high levels of base metals in their output will be seen as being much more “sensitive” to changes in the economy than a “pure” gold/silver miner. Specifically, in any “panic” or severe economic downturn, gold/silver miners who produce significant amounts of copper or lead or zinc (or other lesser “industrial” metals) will be bid-down much lower by the market than the pure producers.

Conversely, the pure producers derive relatively greater leverage from increases in the price of gold/silver – since a higher percentage of their total revenues are coming from these precious metals. The only potential down-side from being a pure producer is if there should be a severe pull-back in (only) the prices of precious metals (a very unlikely scenario), then such miners would be more vulnerable than those deriving revenues from other metals as well.

Once we have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of gold/silver producers, we are ready to move a little further down the “food chain”, to the “near-term producers”. Such companies can provide superb investment opportunities because most of the “question marks” about the viability of any particular ore deposit have already been answered by this point in time. So let’s take a closer look at these companies, in order to focus-in on the more important data.

There is at least one, and often two events/developments in the evolution of an ore deposit into a mine which separates “near-term producers” from the next, lower stage of development: “advanced-stage exploration projects”. The first necessity is that the miner must have completed some sort of “feasibility study” on its ore deposit. This is an extremely detailed report on the ore deposit which combines a metallurgical analysis of the ore with an engineering appraisal of what kind of mining operation would be optimal and how much the construction of such a facility would cost. Slightly less-rigorous forms of such analysis are referred to as “prefeasibilty studies” or “scoping studies”.

Note that this presumes that the miner has already completed a “resource estimate” – a topic I discuss in greater detail in the first part of this series. The “resource estimate” is a scientific appraisal of the tonnages of the ore-body, as well as the purity or “grade(s)” of the metal(s) contained. What is interesting with all such estimates is that the researcher conducting this analysis must choose a “cut-off grade” for the estimate. In other words, they are not estimating all of the gold and/or silver contained in a particular deposit. Rather, they are only estimating the tonnages of ore which can (currently) be extracted profitably.

Obviously, as long as bullion prices are increasing faster than mining costs, the appropriate “cut-off grade” for these ore deposits will go lower with time. This can be tremendously important in valuing a particular company. In a large but low-grade deposit, there could potentially be millions of ounces of gold not included in the official “resource estimate” simply because it was contained in ore below the cut-off grade used for analysis. This means that in the majority of ore deposits, the official resource estimate will be an extremely conservative measurement of the actual amount of gold/silver contained. Furthermore, if these ore deposits are “open” in any direction, then the resource can be expanded an unknown amount through further drilling.

Being “open” means that either laterally, or “at depth” the drilling which has been done to date has not reached the end of the deposit. It is vital that investors be aware of whether a deposit is open in one or more directions laterally, or “open at depth” – meaning that mineralization continues below the deepest drilling conducted to that point. Indeed, one company which I hold personally had a mineral deposit which was “open at depth” for more than four kilometers when I first invested in it. Obviously, I didn’t need a crystal-ball to know that this company would be able to find much more ore through further drilling. Looking past the “headline” numbers doesn’t take a lot of time, but can make a tremendous difference in the long-term return which investors will earn with these companies.

Thus, with “near-term producers”, while much of the uncertainty has been eliminated, there still remains tremendous up-side potential over time with most of these companies. A further element of uncertainty is eliminated if/when a second development takes place: the financing of the capital costs to build a mine and commence commercial production.

As with most companies, it’s generally true with gold and silver miners that completing such a major financing will result in large amounts of new debt and/or dilution. What this means is that a near-term producer will usually see its share price retreat significantly (but temporarily) immediately after a financing – despite this being a significant advance in the company’s evolution. Thus, many experienced investors will watch such companies until the financing is completed – and then buy-in.

This strategy can back-fire. There are many ways in which an ore deposit can eventually become a mine, and one very common option is the joint venture (“JV”). With smaller miners, the typical scenario is that it teams-up with a larger company which either has the “deep pockets” to finance construction itself, or else brings in a lot of operational expertise – including the expertise necessary to obtain financing on the most favorable terms.

While such deals inevitably represent the smaller miner surrendering a significant share of ownership of the deposit, they can and do often result in no new debt or (direct) dilution for the smaller miner – and obviously vastly less long-term risk about the future of such a project. In such scenarios, the near-term producer can often see its share price surge higher immediately after such a deal, especially if there was any market-skepticism as to whether the project would/could be financed.

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis of these companies, even adding-in the other details from the previous commentary. However, keep in mind that our goal is to acquire/hold “baskets” of these companies. Once investors reach this level of detail in their own research, that immediately puts them ahead of 90% of the general market “experts” and financial advisors who try to evaluate these companies for their own clients.

In addition, once new investors to this sector have acquired an understanding of these basic fundamentals, they are now ready to begin to look at the mining companies at even earlier stages of development. In my final installment of this series, I will provide investors with some insight into these companies, and (hopefully) the “tools” to start to invest in such companies in a competent manner.

 

[Disclosure: I personally hold shares in Great Panther Silver]

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Brian Boutilier
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written by brian boutilier, October 01, 2010
I see you did a reset. Ah well, it looks great from where I'm reading it. Nice article.
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, October 01, 2010
To all members: we have had a "format" issue with this commentary. Please let our webmaster, Chad McNamara know immediately if you are having problems viewing this (or any other commentary) - and sorry for the inconvenience...

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