After a lackluster 2013, which represented the end of the 12-year bull run for gold, the yellow metal somewhat regained its shine in 2014. Concerns about the economy and geopolitical tensions acted as catalysts to gold prices which shot up to a high of $1,388 per ounce in the first quarter. It remains to be seen whether the momentum is sustained through the balance of 2014.
In 2013, gold suffered a 28% drop, ending at around $1,200 per ounce -- the steepest plunge in more than three decades. It was not one event that affected the gold market in the year. A plethora of factors -- the Federal Reserve's taper or no taper confusion, conflict in Syria and the U.S. government's partial shutdown, and finally the taper call at year end -- pushed gold prices down throughout the year and tarnished its image as a safe haven asset.
A See-Saw Ride for Prices in 2014 So Far
Gold started 2014 at $1,223 per ounce and rose steadily, thanks to the growing demand for jewelry in China, the largest consumer due to the Lunar New Year. In mid-March, gold attained a six-month high of $1,388 per ounce. The 13% gain since the start of the year was stoked by Ukraine worries, fears of slowdown in China and weak U.S. economic data that drove investors to bullion as a safe haven.
However, the bubble soon burst with gold prices again falling below $1,300 per ounce in late March on stronger-than-expected U.S. economic data. After see-sawing on either side of $1,300, gold prices plummeted to around $1,250 per ounce in late May. Positive U.S. economic indicators boosted the dollar and pushed the gold price in the opposite direction.
Investors took the opportunity to shift from gold and flock to the stock markets instead, sending New York indices to record territory. Gold's safe-haven status during times of turmoil was tarnished by the waning concerns about Ukraine. Furthermore lower demand in China as well as India in contrast to the record levels last year also kept prices at check.
The wipeout of a chunk of gains by the metal witnessed earlier led to a heavy sell-off in gold stocks. Barrick Gold Corporation ( ABX ), AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. ( AU ), Goldcorp Inc. ( GG ), Yamana Gold, Inc. ( AUY ), Agnico Eagle Mines Limited ( AEM ) and Kinross Gold Corporation ( KGC ), all took a beating.
Demand Flat in Q1
As per the World Gold Council, total gold demand in the first quarter of 2014 remained flat year over year at 1,074.5 tons, as increase in jewelry demand was offset by lower demand in the investment space and in the technology sector. The overall volume of 570.7 tons was the highest first-quarter volume recorded since 2005.
Jewelry demand maintained its bullish run for the seventh consecutive quarter. Demand went up 3% as prices fell. The advent of the Chinese New Year, followed by Valentine's Day, led to record first-quarter jewelry demand in China. Demand in India, however, dipped due to the ongoing restrictions on gold imports as well as the governmental elections. There was an uncertainty, particularly with respect to the import curbs and whether these might be lifted. Customers were reluctant to buy until a clear post-election picture emerged.
One of the most noteworthy developments in the quarter was in the investment sector. Demand dipped only 2%, a marked improvement from the substantial decline in the past few quarters. Net ETF outflows in gold were zero in contrast with the 177 tons of outflows witnessed in the year-ago quarter. Tensions in Ukraine made investors flock to gold as a risk diversifier which resulted in positive monthly inflows to ETFs in February, for the first time in over a year, which was repeated in March. However, it was short-lived as economic recovery in the U.S. as well as worldwide again led to outflows.
Demand for gold bars and coins bore the brunt of the unconducive circumstances, falling to their lowest levels for four years. Demand plunged 39% from record levels year over year. As gold prices steadily increased during the quarter contrary to expectations of falling further, investors maintained a cautious stance, awaiting a clearer price trend.
A degree of profit-taking also contributed to the year-over-year decline. The opportunistic buying that contributed to a portion of last year's surge resulted in some of these relatively tactical buyers closing out of their positions as the price rose in the course of the quarter.
Central banks remained the primary acquirers of gold, albeit at a slower rate, purchasing net 122 tons in the period, accounting for around 11% of total gold demand. In the technology sector, gold demand was down 4% due to shift to other cheaper materials.
In terms of demand, 2013 was an exceptional year, which saw consumers flooding to purchase jewelry, bars and coins as the price went downhill. In 2014, year-on-year comparisons will be affected by the extraordinary levels of demand that were witnessed in the consumer space last year.
Supply Up a Meager 1% Due to Reduced Recycling
Mine production in the first quarter of 2014 was at 720.5 tons, up 6% year over year as new operations either ramped up production or came on-stream. Canada stayed atop the leader board with contributions from the new Detour Lake, Canadian Malartic and Young-Davidson mines. In the Dominican Republic, production continued to ramp up at the Pueblo Viejo mine, which came on-stream in late 2012.
Recycling of gold contributed 322 tons to the total supply, down 13% year over year. The drop in gold prices led to a decline in recycling activity as consumers are less inclined to part with their stocks at lower prices. Overall, gold supply inched up 1% to 1,048.5 tons in the first quarter, dragged down by lower recycling activity.
In the first quarter, mining companies continued to contain costs and increase operational efficiencies. This should feed through to continued growth in mine production in the coming quarters.
The price decline added to the woes of the industry that was already grappling with rising costs, labor issues, strikes, delays and/or the cancellation of projects. If prices fall further, margins will be constrained as the price of gold closes in on the cost per ounce of the companies. Gold miners have decided to suspend projects, curtail their capital spending and resort to employee layoffs to conserve cash. The companies are actively pursuing opportunities to optimize their portfolio, including the divestiture of certain non-core or non productive assets.
In line with this strategy, Barrick Gold has divested non-core assets for a total consideration of over $1 billion since July 2013, including the sale of the Kanowna and Plutonic mines in Australia. Goldcorp and Barrick sold their respective stakes in the Marigold mine in Nevada. Barrick Gold's sale was part of its effort to rid itself of some higher-cost assets, thereby reducing debt burden. On the other hand, the sale of the mine is consistent with Goldcorp's plan of concentrating on core assets, thereby creating value for shareholders.
As part of its continued portfolio optimization actions, Newmont Mining Corporation ( NEM ) signed a deal to divest its Jundee underground gold mine in Australia. The divestment underscores Newmont's strategy to focus more on its core assets that have a longer life and lower cost. Staying true to its objective, the company has sold its Midas mine in Nevada to Klondex Mines Ltd. It has also sold its equity interest in Paladin Energy Ltd. Agnico Eagle Mines recently sold off 8.6% of the issued and outstanding common shares of Sulliden Gold Corporation Ltd. (SUE.TO) as they were a non-core asset.
The austerity in the mining sector has led to more measured mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Companies have slowed down M&A deals since last year, but Chinese gold miners remained active on the acquisition front to capitalize on the strong domestic demand for gold and lower gold prices.
This year, Agnico Eagle Mines and Yamana Gold have come together to acquire Osisko Mining Corporation. Agnico Eagle and Yamana will jointly acquire 100% of Osisko's issued and outstanding common shares. The deal came after rival miner Goldcorp made another bid to take over Osisko.
The agreement is a strategic fit for both Agnico Eagle and Yamana. The acquisition is expected to be mutually accretive and improve both companies' total cash cost and all-in sustaining cost profiles. They will also get access to Canadian Malartic, the largest producing gold mine in Canada which has the potential to produce an average of roughly 600,000 gold ounces per year for 14 years.
It is clear that M&A activity in the mining industry is expected to remain slow. Deals will come through only when companies have enough cash to seize the opportunity to take over assets unloaded by peers. It remains to be seen whether the Osisko Mining acquisition could lead to a fresh round of M&As in an otherwise dormant market.
Sector Q1 Earnings Scorecard - Disappointing
With all the companies in the Basic Material sector having reported for the first quarter, the curtains have fallen on first-quarter earnings season. Earnings decreased 2.7% in the first quarter of 2014 while revenues nudged up 0.9%. This is a marked deceleration from the fourth quarter of 2013, in which the sector's earnings had risen 16% while revenues had moved up 2.9%. Nevertheless, the Basic Material sector had a beat ratio (percentage of companies coming out with positive surprises) of 54.5%.
The earnings dip should not make investors shy away from the Basic Material sector as the feebleness in the first quarter is broad-based and not concentrated in any particular sector. For further details about earnings for this sector and others, please read our 'Earnings Trends' report .
Q2 & Beyond - Holds Promise
For 2014, earnings at the sector are expected to grow at a rate of 8.4% in the second quarter and 14.6% in the third quarter but decelerate to a growth rate of 5.7% in the fourth quarter. Overall, in 2014, the sector's earnings are projected to grow 9.6%. In 2015, the growth will almost double to 18.5%.
Industry Ranking & Outlook - Positive
Within the Zacks Industry classification, the gold industry falls under the broader Basic Materials sector (one of 16 Zacks sectors). We rank all of the more than 260 industries in the 16 Zacks sectors based on the earnings outlook for the constituent companies in each industry. This ranking is available on the Zacks Industry Rank page .
The way to align the ranking and outlook from the complete list of Zacks Industry Rank for the 260+ companies is that the outlook for the top one-third of the list (Zacks Industry Rank of #87 and lower) is positive, while the outlook for the bottom one-third (Zacks Industry Rank #174 and higher) is negative. Currently, the gold mining industry is featured in the topmost tier with a Zacks Industry Rank of #68, indicating a bullish stance.
Please note that the Zacks Rank for stocks, which are at the core of our Industry Outlook, has an impressive track record, verified by outside auditors, to foretell stock prices, particularly over the short term (1 to 3 months). The rank, along with the Expected Surprise Prediction (ESP) (Read: Zacks Earnings ESP: A Better Way to Find Earnings Surprises ) helps in predicting the probability of earnings surprises.
So What Lies Ahead?
One of the research firms, The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. ( GS ), with a particularly bearish attitude on gold, expects gold price to fall to $1,050 per ounce by the end of this year pinned down by the easing of Chinese credit concerns and Ukraine tensions along with stronger U.S. and Chinese economic activity. However, other research firms feel that the yellow metal still has potential to get its act together and forecast prices in the range of $1,250 to $1,400.
Gold is expected to bounce back from the dismal lows in May as India has slashed import duties in view of weakness in bullion prices. India had curbed bullion imports last year, including a record 10% duty on overseas purchases to address the high current account deficit. Gold is the second largest import item for India after petroleum.
The easing of restrictions and the upcoming wedding season would again stir up gold demand in the second largest consuming nation. Even though strength in the U.S. and European equity markets will distract gold investors, gold prices will get a solid thrust from retail demand for gold, particularly in India and China.
Moreover, production pullbacks in response to lower gold prices last year and mining development delays, could lead to a supply crunch which would push prices higher. Additionally, the Fed is committed to keep interest rates at lower levels for some time. Thus, even with the tapering in place, gold might regain its shine this year. A positive Zacks Rank and projected earnings growth for 2014 injects optimism in the so far faltering gold mining industry.
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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.