By Rick Rule, Chairman and Founder, Sprott Global Resource Investments Ltd.
Natural-resource-based industries are very capital intensive, and hence extremely cyclical. It is not unreasonable to say that as a natural-resource investor, you are either contrarian or you will be a victim. These markets are risky and volatile!
Let’s talk about cyclicality first. Some of the cyclicality of these industries is a function of their being extraordinarily capital intensive. This lengthens the companies’ response times to market cycles. Strengthening copper prices, for example, do not immediately result in increased copper production in many market cycles, because the production cycle requires new deposits to be discovered, financed, and constructed—a process that can consume a decade.
Price declines—even declines below the industry’s total production costs—do not immediately cause massive production cuts. The “sunk capital” involved in discovery and construction of mining projects and attendant infrastructure (such as smelters, railways, and ports) causes the industry to produce down to, and sometimes below, their cash costs of production.
Producers often engage in a “last man standing” contest, to drive others to mothball productive assets, citing the high cost of shutdown and restart. They fail to mention their conflicts of interest as managers, whose compensation is linked to running operational mines.
Interest-rate cycles can raise or lower the cost and availability of capital, and the accompanying business cycles certainly influence demand. Given the “trapped” nature of the industry’s productive assets, local political and fiscal cycles can also influence outcomes in natural-resource investments.
Today, I believe that we are still in a resource “supercycle,” a long-term period of increasing commodity prices in both nominal and real terms. The market conditions of the past two years have made many observers doubt this assertion. But I believe the current cyclical decline is a normal and healthy part of the ongoing secular bull market.
Has this happened in the past?
The most striking analogy to the current situation occurred in the epic gold bull market in the 1970s. Many of you will recall that in that bull market, gold prices advanced from US$35 per ounce to $850 per ounce over the course of a decade. Fewer of you will recall that in the middle of that bull market, in 1975 and 1976, a cyclical decline saw the price of gold decline by 50%, from about $200 per ounce down to about $100 per ounce. It then rebounded over the next six years to $850 per ounce.
Investors who lacked the conviction to maintain their positions missed an 850% move over six short years. The current gold bull market, since its inception in 2000, has experienced eight declines of 10% or greater, and three declines—including the present one—of more than 20%.
This volatility need not threaten the investor who has the intellectual and financial resources to exploit it.
The natural-resources bull market lives…
The supercycle is a direct result of several factors. The most important of these is, ironically, the deep resource bear markets which lasted for almost two decades, commencing in 1982.
This period critically constrained investment in a capital-intensive industry where assets are depleted over time.
Productive capacity declined in every category; very little exploration took place; few new mines or oilfields replenished reserves; infrastructure and processing assets deteriorated. Critical human-resource capabilities suffered as well; as workers retired or got laid off, replacements were neither trained nor hired.
National oil companies (NOCs) exacerbated this decline in many nations by milking their oil and gas industries to subsidize domestic spending programs for political gain. This was done at the expense of sustaining capital investments. The worst examples are Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Indonesia, and Iran. I believe 25% of world export crude capacity may be at risk from failure of NOCs to maintain and expand their productive assets.
Demands for social contributions in the form of taxes, royalties, carried equity interests, social or infrastructure contributions, and the like have increased. Voters are not concerned that producers need real returns to recover from two decades of underinvestment or to fund capital investments to offset depletion. Today this is actively constraining investment, and hence supply.
Poor people getting richer…
The supercycle is also driven by globalization and the social and political liberalization of emerging and frontier markets. As people become freer, they tend to become richer.
As poor countries become less poor, their purchases tend to be very commodity-centric, especially compared to Western consumers. For the 3.5 billion people at the bottom of the economic pyramid, the goods that provide the most utility are material goods and consumables, rather than the information services or “high value-added” goods.
A poor or very poor household is likely to increase its aggregate calorie consumption—both by eating more food and more energy-dense food like meat. They will likely consume more electrical power and motor fuel and upgrade their home from adobe or thatch to higher-quality building materials. As people’s incomes increase in developing and frontier markets, the goods they buy are commodity-intensive, which drives up demand per capita. And we are talking billions of “capitas.”
Rising incomes and savings among certain cultures in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia—places with a strong cultural affinity for bullion—have increased the demand for gold, silver, platinum, and palladium bullion. Bullion has been a store of value in these regions for generations, and rising incomes have generated physical bullion demand that has surprised many Western-centric analysts.
The third important driver in this cycle has been the depreciation of currencies and the impact that has had on nominal pricing for resources and precious metals.
Most developed economies have consumed and borrowed at worrying levels. The United States federal government has on-balance-sheet liabilities of over $16 trillion, and off-balance-sheet liabilities estimated at around $70 trillion.
These numbers do not include state and local government liabilities, nor the likely liabilities from underfunded private pensions. Not to mention increased costs associated with more comprehensive health care and an aging population!
Many analysts are even more concerned about the debts and liabilities of other developed economies—Europe and Japan. In both places, debt-to-GDP ratios are greater than in the US. Europe and Japan are financing themselves through a combination of artificially low interest rates and more borrowing and money printing. This drives down the value of their currencies, helping their exports.
But which nations’ leaders will stand firm and allow their export industries to wither as their domestic producers suffer from cheap competing foreign goods? If Japan’s Abe is successful at increasing his country’s exports at the expense of its competitors like Taiwan, Korea, or China, then his policies could lead to competitive devaluation. And how will the European community react, for that matter?
Loss of purchasing power in fiat currencies increases the nominal pricing of commodities and drives demand for bullion as a preferred savings vehicle.
The factors that have driven this resource supercycle have not changed. Demand is increasing. Supplies are constrained. Currencies are weakening. Thus I believe we remain in a secular bull market for natural resources and precious metals.
With that in mind, I would call the current market for bullion and resource equities a sale.
Where to invest?
Let’s talk about a type of company most of us follow: mineral exploration companies, or “juniors.” We often confuse the minerals exploration business with an asset-based business. I would argue that is a mistake.
Entities that explore for minerals are actually more similar to “the research and development” space of the mining industry. They are knowledge-based businesses.
When I was in university, I learned that one in 3,000 “mineralized anomalies” (exploration targets) ended up becoming a mine. I doubt those odds have improved much in 40 years. So investors take a 1-in-3,000 chance in order to receive a 10-to-1 return.
These are not good odds. But understanding the industry improves them substantially.
Exploration companies are similar to outsourcing companies. Major mining companies today conduct relatively little exploration. Their competitive advantage lies in scale, financial stability, and engineering and construction expertise. Similar to how big companies in other sectors outsource certain tasks to smaller, more specialized shops, the big miners let the juniors take on exploration risk and reward the successful ones via acquisitions.
Major companies are punished rather than rewarded for exploration activities in the short term. Majors therefore tend to focus on the acquisition of successful juniors as a growth strategy.
Today, the junior model is broken. Many public exploration companies spend a majority of their capital on general and administrative expenses, including fundraising. Overlay a hefty administrative load on an activity with a slim probability of success, and these challenges become even more severe.
One response from the exploration and financial community has been to put less emphasis on exploration success and focus instead on “market success.” In this model, rather than “turning rocks into money,” the process becomes “turning rocks into paper, and paper into money.”
One manifestation of that is the juniors’ habit of recycling exploration targets that have failed repeatedly in the past but can be counted on to yield decent confirmation holes, and the tendency to acquire hyper-marginal deposits and promote the value of resources underground without mentioning the cost of actually extracting them.
The industry has been quite successful, during bull markets, at causing “sophisticated” investors to focus on exciting but meaningless criteria.
Being successful in natural-resource investing requires you to make choices. If your broker convinces you to buy the sector as a whole, they will have lived up to their moniker—you will become “broker” and “broker.”
We have already said that exploration is a knowledge-based business. The truth is that a small number of people involved in the sector generate the overwhelming majority of the successes. This realization is key to improving our odds of success.
“Pareto’s law” is the social scientists’ term for the so-called “80-20 rule,” which holds that 80% of the work is accomplished by 20% of the participants.
A substantial body of evidence exists that it is roughly true across a variety of disciplines. In a large enough sample, this remains true within that top 20%—meaning 20% of the top 20%, or 4% of the population, contributes in excess of 60% of the utility.
The key as investors is to judge management teams by their past success. I believe this is usually much more relevant than their current exploration project.
It is important as well that their past successes are directly relevant to the task at hand. A mining entrepreneur might have past success operating a gold mine in French-speaking Quebec. Very impressive, except that this same promoter now proposes to explore for copper, in young volcanic rocks, in Peru!
In my experience, more than half of the management teams you interview will have no history of success that shows that they are apt at executing their current project.
Management must be able to identify the most important unanswered question that can make or break the project. They must be able to say how that question or thesis was identified, explain the process by which the question will be answered, the time required to answer the question, how much money it will take. They also need to know how to recognize when they have answered the question. Many of the management teams you interview will be unable to address this sequence of questions, and therefore will have a very difficult time adding value.
The resource sector is capital intensive and highly cyclical, and we expect that the current pullback is a cyclical decline from an overheated bull market. The fundamental reasons to own natural resource and precious metals have not changed. Warren Buffett says, “Be brave when others are afraid, be afraid when others are brave.” We are still “gold bugs.” And even “gold bulls.”
Rick Rule is the chairman and founder of Sprott Global Resource Investments Ltd., a full-service brokerage firm located in Carlsbad, CA. He has dedicated his entire adult life to different aspects of natural-resource investing and has a worldwide network of contacts in the natural-resource and finance worlds.
Watch Rick and an all-star cast of natural-resource and investment experts—including Frank Giustra, Doug Casey, John Mauldin, and Ross Beaty—in the must-see video “Upturn Millionaires,” and discover how to play the turning tides in junior mining stocks, for potentially life-changing gains. Click here to watch.