Junior Gold Exploration
Source: Scott Wright, Zeal Research LLC (4/30/10)
We know where gold is being produced, but where are the juniors exploring for gold?
Fortunately Zeal's latest major research endeavor into the junior gold-stock realm offers insight into these questions. In a quest to find our favorites, which we detail in our acclaimed reports, we scrub the universe of juniors and capture relevant information that assists us in our decision making. And one area we capture is the locations of each junior's projects.
With a pool of over 400 junior gold stocks, the resulting geographical intelligence gives us a good idea of where in the world the juniors are looking for gold. And to serve the purposes of this essay, I added up the total projects in each country/continent and calculated the percentage of the junior pool exploring there.
Before we look at a map of the resulting data, it is worth noting that the universe of junior gold stocks we analyze all have listings in the U.S. and Canada. One reason for this is our newsletter subscribers and report customers are mainly interested in trading North American stocks. But the main reason is these stocks' corresponding NA exchanges are the world's premier venues for smaller resource companies to procure public investor capital.
While you may be able to find some juniors exclusively on say London's AIM or Australia's ASX, most of the world's start-up junior resource companies come to these NA exchanges in order to gain broad-market exposure. And hence most investors interested in juniors trade in these markets. I believe the pool of stocks used in this research fairly represents global junior gold exploration. And looking at this map, it is apparent that production and junior exploration are indeed disproportionate in geographical concentration.
When it comes to gold production, mining is truly a global affair. The world's biggest and best mining operations are scattered across the map and reside in very mixed settings. From deep underground in South Africa to massive open pits in the Peruvian Andes, this planet offers its most precious of metals across a diverse geology of mineralization.
As you can see in this map, the world's top 10 gold producers are spread out across five different continents. And according to the U.S. Geological Survey, Asia dominates the world gold-mining trade. In the last few years China has become the world's top gold producer with about 300 metric tons of output. And combined with Russia (185t), Indonesia (100t) and Uzbekistan (85t), these four countries are responsible for 29% of global production.
In North America we see top 10 producers USA (210t) and Canada (100t) combining for 13% of global production. South Africa (210t) and Ghana (85t) are the African contingents, also combining for about 13%. The country of Australia (220t) is responsible for about 9% of global production. And Peru (180t), South America's lone top 10 member, is responsible for about 8%.
Combined, these 10 countries are responsible for approximately 71% of global gold production. These countries have yielded major discoveries and likely have a lot more gold yet to be found. So naturally you would assume this is where the juniors would congregate. Well as you can see in the percentage numbers next to each country and continent, this is not necessarily the case.
Asia is the world's largest gold-producing continent, yet only 7% of the junior population owns a project there. Africa is the second-largest producer, yet only 9% of the juniors are exploring there. Brazil (50t) and Chile (40t) are just outside the top 10, placing South America right on North America's heels for the third-largest producer, yet less than one in five juniors explore there. And at 4%, Australia is a virtual no-man's land for these juniors.
As you can see North America is the big winner on the junior gold exploration front. An incredible 71% of all juniors have at least one project in the world's third-largest gold-producing continent. Why is this? Why North America and why aren't the juniors exploring for gold proportionate to where it is being produced?
A number of factors go into explaining this disparity. And geopolitics is one of the major ones. While there is a certain level of geopolitical risk in every country, those with higher-risk profiles are least likely to see foreign investment on the exploration front. And this is a big reason why Asia and Africa have such disproportionate profiles.
In Asia the biggest problems facing foreign mining companies are lack of access and encumbering governmental control. Historically China has not been a place where foreign mining companies have found opportunity or success, until recently. China's reformed 1997 Mineral Resource Law finally opened the door to foreigners. But this law still hasn't made things easy, which is why the miners have gingerly set foot in this enormous region of mineral wealth.
China's legal framework can be extraordinarily complicated. Those juniors that don't understand it, and also those that don't have the right Chinese-national connections, have had trouble procuring licenses and permits. Only in 2006 did the first North-American miner pour Chinese gold, and only a handful of foreigners have done so since. Even though there are excellent opportunities for junior explorers, their collective migration into China is slow-moving. So far only a handful (2%) of well-connected juniors is finding success.
Russia, the world's fifth-largest gold producer, has mining laws that make it very difficult for foreigners to run profitable businesses. There is a very fine line between the public and private mining sectors in this country, as the government has ultimate control over its vast natural resources. Russia's current mining laws are basically designed to enable the government to take majority ownership of large deposits of "strategic" natural resources.
Currently gold is considered a strategic metal, and Russian law gives the government pilfering rights on any deposit with resources over 50t (1.6m ounces). Unless foreign miners brave enough to explore there are going after smaller deposits or have well-connected Russian joint-venture partners, all they will find is frustration. Thankfully Russia is now considering easing these laws a bit in order to attract foreign investment. A handful (1%) of juniors are taking on this larger geopolitical risk in hopes of being the early ones to cash in.
Uzbekistan is a gold-rich country with several large mining operations. And if you ask Newmont Mining if the geopolitical risk is worth it in this country, you'll get an emphatic no. In 2005 Uzbekistan changed its laws to end tax "benefits" for foreign companies. And in a mafia-style move the government demanded back-taxes from Newmont. Newmont of course couldn't and wouldn't acquiesce to this nonsense, so Uzbekistan illegally expropriated its mine. Only the boldest of juniors dare set foot in this country.
Today these mainland Asian gold powerhouses see most of their gold production from either state-owned outfits—large private homeland companies in bed with the government—or in China's case thousands of smaller-scale miners. Farther south, the bulk of Indonesia's gold production is actually a byproduct of some of the world's largest copper mines. And the good news is these mines are majority-owned by North American companies.
While the acceptance of foreign ownership is great, exploration is still a challenge across this large 17k+ island nation. And a new mining law that was recently passed has its pluses and minuses. While this law is touted to encourage foreign investment, there are a lot of questions and uncertainties. On the whole even though only 1% of the junior population is exploring for gold in Indonesia, there is huge opportunity there for the companies willing to bear the risk and test the waters of the new mining law.
Overall most Asian countries are shifting ever-so-slightly toward opening their mineral resources up to the outside world. And this should lead to more juniors venturing out east, improving on the current 7% number. But things can certainly change in a flash, as seen in the happenings at another Asian gold powerhouse.
Mongolia has a rich gold-mining history and massive known resources. And the mining industry was thrilled when the country recently enacted a new mining law favoring foreign investment and removing an awful windfall-profits tax. But with the Mongolian President since throwing a fit over existing mining licenses and placing a moratorium on issuing any new ones, this country's geopolitical risk just got upgraded.
As for Africa, only 9% junior participation on this continent shows these lands come with challenges. And these challenges take on different shapes on opposite sides of the South Africa border. South Africa had long been the gold industry's top producer. In fact only 40 years ago this country's high-grade gold deposits were responsible for over two-thirds of the world's supply.
But over the years South Africa's easy-to-access near-surface gold zones have been depleted, and the economics of extracting the deeper ores are not as robust. With the low-hanging fruit all but gone, South Africa has seen a 75%-plus production decline since 1970. And this former king-of-the-hill has now fallen to third in the global ranks. Thanks to South Africa's increasingly complex geology, a bit of governmental risk, and some currency issues, this country is not a popular spot for juniors to explore as you can tell by its 1% tally.
Now there is still a lot of subterranean mineralization to be mined, and South Africa will continue to produce a high volume of gold at today's price. But it is not economically feasible for juniors to perform expensive underground exploration there. Tomorrow's South African gold will be found by the large miners able to perform underground drilling within their own deep shafts.
North of South Africa we see a hodgepodge of possibilities and impossibilities. Unlike Asia where there is iron-fisted governmental control in most countries, most African nations are plagued with central-government instability and uncertainty. It is not a normal month if an African country is not in the news thanks to a coup or civil war. But even amidst this continental strife, a number of countries are host to exciting exploration opportunities.
Among the more geopolitically-stable countries is of course top 10 producer Ghana. Ghana welcomes foreign investment, and even though the government commands 10% free-equity interest in all gold projects, miners are able to run very profitable operations. Juniors are also finding success in such countries as Burkina Faso, Tanzania (though maybe not for long with a brand-new law raising mineral royalties), Senegal and Mali. Though these countries don't have the stability of most first-world nations, juniors willing to take on the higher geopolitical risk can be greatly rewarded.
South America is seeing a lot more junior exploration activity than the aforementioned continents. And much of this has to do with a generally-less-risky geopolitical atmosphere. It also has to do with the fact that some of the most significant discoveries in the last couple decades have been made in this continent. And many of these are located high in the Peruvian Andes.
Peru is South America's stalwart gold producer, increasing its production nearly tenfold over the last 20 years. It has a stable central government, its economy relies heavily on its mining industry, it has friendly mining laws and it welcomes foreign investment. For this reason, Peru is a country that is seeing exploration activity that is near-proportionate to its global production rates.
Also a growing exploration destination is Brazil. Brazil is not necessarily a new gold-mining frontier, but renewed activity across its vast expanse of land is quickly moving this country back up the charts. Back in 1990 Brazil had produced over 100t of gold, but for a variety of reasons production dropped off to under 40 tons by 2005. With gold prices high, a mature gold infrastructure, a stable first-world government, mining-friendly laws and some material discoveries in recent years, Brazilian gold mining and exploration is now back in vogue.
Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Colombia and even little-known Guyana do come with pockets of geopolitical risk, but these countries are excellent locales for juniors to find success. Unfortunately outsized risk does not evade South America. And this is seen via a sweeping Marxist movement that has infected several of this continent's other promising gold regions.
Venezuela and Bolivia in particular have not been kind to foreign mining companies. And Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez is the ring leader of this sorry bunch. Chavez has all but nationalized his country's natural-resources industries. And his protégé Evo Morales in Bolivia is right on his heels. While select juniors have found success in these countries in the past, extremely high geopolitical risk is currently keeping most foreigners away.
Moving on to Australia, I was quite surprised to see such a small percentage of juniors down under. This country is home to massive gold deposits and has long been one of the world's top producers. And there is still a lot of gold yet to be found in this part of the world. Australia is a first-world, modern, and mining-friendly country, and ultimately I suspect there are many more private and ASX-listed juniors exploring in this country than there are in our pool of North American-listed stocks.
But from what I understand Australian mining law offers little incentive for junior exploration. Australia's current tax system only benefits exploration from miners already producing gold, not juniors undertaking greenfields/grassroots exploration. This is deterring junior exploration, and many analysts believe the resulting lack of significant discoveries will strain this country's pipeline in the future.
Finally to North America, and as you can see this continent is by far the most popular locale for junior exploration. The U.S. and Canada have long been top 10 gold producers, so it is natural for explorers to look for gold in this mineral-rich part of the world. But Mexico is no slouch either. In fact, at 50t produced in 2009, Mexico has more than quintupled its gold output over the last 20 years.
Mexico is now just outside the world's top 10 gold producers, and this country has become a very attractive destination to look for gold. Not only does Mexico have low geopolitical risk, it has a rich mining history that goes back to the 16th century when the Spaniards found precious metals within its borders.
I mention this history because over the last several hundred years thousands of small-scale artisanal miners carried on Spanish mining traditions. And these miners were content tapping the easy surface outcrops, rarely following the mineralization very deep. Because of this, today's mining companies don't have to look too hard to find Mexican gold. All they need to do is find historic mine workings, and either drill directly underneath them or explore an adjacent claim to find extensions.
Thanks to modern technology, mining companies can go much deeper and don't have to worry about water tables. And juniors are enjoying great success across Mexico's rich precious-metals belts. These crafty exploration companies have history guiding them to the gold. And this is why 14% of all gold juniors have at least one Mexican project in their portfolios.
The United States is next-most popular, with one in four juniors owning a project in this country. While the U.S. does tend to have a strict regulatory environment, the laws are cut-and-dried and geopolitics is usually a non-issue. The U.S. also has a very strong mining history, and has long been among the world's top gold producers.
Interestingly as opposed to some of these other emerging gold producers that have been growing their output over the years, U.S. production has been on the decline. It was gold's last secular bear that carved its destructive path, ravaging the U.S. gold-mining industry. Gold falling under $300 rendered many of the U.S.' low-grade deposits uneconomical, and this country's production fell off sharply.
Since its 1998 apex, U.S. gold production has fallen steadily. Though not quite as sharp a decline as seen in South Africa, 2009's volume is down a staggering 43%. But with gold prices where they are today along with the presence of several known mining districts that still house gold, the juniors believe this U.S. production decline is coming to an end. Exploration capital is being pumped into such places as Nevada, Alaska, Wyoming, South Carolina and Arizona. And the juniors are positioning themselves for a U.S. revival.
Finally we get to Canada, where nearly half the junior population is exploring for gold. Like the U.S., Canada saw its production apex in the late 1990s and has since seen a sharp production decline. But it was economics, not ore depletion that shut down many of Canada's bustling gold districts around the turn of the century.
After a 44% decline off its 1997 high of 171t, Canada has finally rounded the corner and in 2009 exhibited production growth for the first time in years. Sparking this growth was a huge secular-bull-driven gold rush. And as a result Canadian gold production is expected to continue to grow higher for many years to come.
Like Mexico and to some extent the U.S., junior exploration in Canada is finding its greatest success in reviving historic mining districts. But over the course of this bull not only have we seen past-producing mines brought back to life, we've seen many new gold discoveries. And some of these discoveries are of the elephant kind. Hundreds of juniors spinning their drills in the world's second-largest country by total area are indeed reviving the Canadian gold-mining industry.
Canada is also inarguably the safest country in which to mine and explore for gold. Not only is geopolitical risk minimal, but the government actually offers huge incentives to exploit its natural resources. Quebec for example rebates nearly 50% of mineral-exploration capex back to the juniors exploring in its province. With very favorable geology across its massive mineral belts and a friendly government, why wouldn't juniors go for gold in Canada?
71% of all gold juniors explore in North America for a reason. Canada, the U.S. and Mexico each have strong gold histories that can be leveraged for future success. A mixture of low geopolitical risk, favorable geology and supportive infrastructure are among the many benefits that have won over juniors in this part of the world.
Overall junior gold exploration is indeed a global affair. But where the juniors are looking is certainly not proportionate to where gold is currently being produced. For a variety of reasons North America is a heavy favorite among the junior circuit, but this certainly doesn't mean juniors can't find success elsewhere.
The juniors exploring and advancing projects even in the riskiest parts of the world can still greatly reward shareholders. These companies typically trade at discounts to their peers operating similar projects in safer environments, but it doesn't mean they aren't capable of huge gains.
In our latest report profiling our favorite 12 advanced-stage junior gold stocks, you'll indeed find a lot of North American exposure. But you'll also find global diversification that has these juniors actively exploring and developing mines in 11 different countries. Buy this 26-page report today and you'll have the detailed fundamental profiles of each stock at your fingertips, including analysis on where in the world they are focusing their efforts.
The bottom line is junior gold explorers go for the gold all over the globe. Of the universe of juniors researched in our latest study, we find drills spinning from Papua New Guinea, to China, to Tanzania, to Guyana, to Turkey, to the Dominican Republic, and to Canada. But as most explorers tend to be risk-averse, the junior population is concentrated in geopolitically safe regions.
The geographical junior landscape is radically different from the mine-production landscape. Many of the big gold-producing countries are inhospitable to small foreign mineral explorers funded by public investor capital. These juniors tend to congregate in safer North American and South American countries. And why not? These regions are yielding more and more major gold discoveries.
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