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The Impact of COVID-19 Shutdowns on the Gold Supply Chain

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Gold Supply Chain Covid-19

Sprott
Global Business

How COVID-19 Shutdowns Impact the Gold Supply Chain

Chains are only as strong as their weakest link—and recent COVID-19 shutdowns have affected every link in the gold supply chain, from producers to end-users.

Increased investor demand for gold coupled with a constrained supply has led to high prices and a bullish market, which has been operating despite these pressures on the supply chain.

Today’s infographic comes to us from Sprott Physical Bullion Trust and it outlines the gold supply chain and the impacts COVID shutdowns have had on the gold market.

The Ripple Effect: Stalling a Supply Chain

Disruptions to the gold supply chain have rippled all the way from the mine to the investor:

  1. Production
    Some gold mines halted production due to the high-risk to COVID-19 exposure, reducing the supply of gold. In many nations, operations had to shut down as a result of COVID-19 based legal restrictions.
  2. Delivery
    Strict travel regulations restricted the shipment of gold and increased the costs of delivery as less air routes were available and medical supplies were prioritized.
  3. Refinery
    Refineries depend on gold production for input. A reduction in incoming gold and the suspension of labor work shortened the supply of refined gold.
  4. Metal Traders
    Towards the other end of the gold supply chain, traders have faced both constrained supply and increased cost of delivery. These increased costs have translated over to end-users.
  5. The End Users
    Higher demand, lower supply, and increased costs have resulted in higher prices for buyers of gold.

Gold: A Safe Haven for Investors

As the virus spread around the world threatening populations and economies, investors turned to safe-haven investments such as gold to hedge against an economic lockdown.

This increase in investor demand affected the four primary financial markets for gold:

  1. Futures Contracts:
    A futures contract is an agreement for the delivery of gold at a fixed price in the future. These contracts are standardized by futures exchanges such as COMEX. During the initial periods of the pandemic, the price of gold futures spiked to reach a high of US$70 above the spot price.
  2. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs):
    An ETF is an investment fund traded on stock exchanges. ETFs hold assets such as stocks, bonds, and commodities such as gold. From the beginning of 2020 to June, the amount of gold held by ETFs massively increased, from 83 million oz to 103 million oz. The SPDR Gold Trust is a great example of how the surge in ETF demand for gold has played out—the organization was forced to lease gold from the Bank of England when it couldn’t buy enough from suppliers.
  3. Physical Gold for Commerce and Finance:
    The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) is a market where gold is physically traded over-the-counter. The LBMA recorded 6,573 transfers of gold amounting to 29.2 million oz ($46.4 billion)—all in March 2020. This was the largest amount of monthly transfers since 1996.
  4. Coins and Small Bars:
    One ounce American Gold Eagle coins serve as a good proxy for the demand for physical gold from retail investors. The COINGEAG Index, which tracks the premium price of 1 oz. Gold Eagles, spiked during the early stages of the lockdown.

Each one of these markets requires access to physical gold. COVID-19 restrictions have disrupted shipping and delivery options, making it harder to access gold. The market for gold has been functioning nonetheless.

So how does gold get to customers during a time of crisis?

Gold’s Journey: From the Ground to the Vault

Gold ore goes through several stages before being ready for the market.

  1. Processing:
    Gold must be released from other minerals to produce a doré bar—a semi-pure alloy of gold that needs further purification to meet investment standards. Doré bars are typically produced at mine sites and transported to refiners.
  2. Refining:
    Refineries are responsible for turning semi-pure gold alloys into refined, pure, gold. In addition to reprocessing doré bars from mines, refiners also recycle gold from scrap materials. Although gold mining is geographically diverse and occurs in all continents except Antarctica, there are only a handful of gold refineries around the world.
  3. Transportation:
    Once it’s refined, gold is transported to financial hubs around the world. There are three main ways gold travels the world, each with their own costs and benefits:

    • Commercial Flights:
      Cheapest of the three options, commercial flights are useful in transporting gold over established passenger routes. However, the volume of gold carried by a commercial flight is typically small and subject to spacing priorities.
    • Cargo Planes:
      At a relatively moderate cost, cargo planes carry medium to large amounts of gold along established trade routes. The space dedicated to cargo determines the cost, with higher volumes leading to higher shipping prices.
    • Chartered Airlines:
      Chartered airlines offer a wider range of travel routes with dedicated shipping space and services tailored to customer demand. However, they charge a high price for these conveniences.

After reaching its destination via air, armored trucks with security personnel move the gold to vaults and customers in financial hubs around the world.

The World’s Biggest Gold Hubs

The U.K.’s bullion banks hold the world’s biggest commercial stockpiles of gold, equal to 10 months of global gold mine output. London is the largest gold hub, with numerous vaults dedicated to gold and other precious metals.

Four of the largest gold refineries in the world are located in Switzerland, making it an important part of the gold supply chain. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai are surprising additions and remain significant traders of gold despite having no mines within their borders.

COVID-19: The Perfect Storm for Gold?

As countries took stringent safety measures such as travel restrictions and border closures, the number of commercial flights dropped exponentially across the world. For the few commercial airlines that still operated, gold was a low-priority cargo as space was dedicated to medical supplies.

This impeded the flow of gold through the supply chain, increasing the cost of delivery and the price of gold. However, thanks to the diverse geography of gold mining, some countries did not halt production—this helped avoid a complete stall in the supply of gold.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created the perfect storm for gold by disrupting the global supply chain while investor demand for gold exploded. Despite heightened delivery risks and disruptions, the gold market has managed to continue operating thus far.

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Mining

How to Avoid Common Mistakes With Mining Stocks (Part 5: Funding Strength)

A mining company’s past projects and funding strength are interlinked. This infographic outlines how a company’s ability to raise capital can determine the fate of a mining stock.

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Funding Strength

A mining company’s past projects and funding strength are interlinked, and can provide clues as to its potential success.

A good track record can provide better opportunities to raise capital, but the company must still ensure it times its financing with the market, protects its shareholders, and demonstrates value creation from the funding it receives.

Part 5: The Role of Funding Strength

We’ve partnered with Eclipse Gold Mining on an infographic series to show you how to avoid common mistakes when evaluating and investing in mining exploration stocks.

Part 5 of the series highlights six things to keep in mind when analyzing a company’s project history and funding ability.

Funding Strength

View all five parts of the series:

Part 5: Raising Capital and Funding Strength

So what must investors evaluate when it comes to funding strength?

Here are six important areas to cover.

1. Past Project Success: Veteran vs. Recruit

A history of success in mining helps to attract capital from knowledgeable investors. Having an experienced team provides confidence and opens up opportunities to raise additional capital on more favorable terms.

Veteran:

  • A team with past experience and success in similar projects
  • A history of past projects creating value for shareholders
  • A clear understanding of the building blocks of a successful project

A company with successful past projects instills confidence in investors and indicates the company knows how to make future projects successful, as well.

2. Well-balanced Financing: Shareholder Friendly vs. Banker Friendly

Companies need to balance between large investors and protecting retail shareholders. Management with skin in the game ensures they find a balance between serving the interests of both of these unique groups.

Shareholder Friendly:

  • Clear communication with shareholders regarding the company’s financing plans
  • High levels of insider ownership ensures management has faith in the company’s direction, and is less likely to make decisions which hurt shareholders
  • Share dilution is done in a limited capacity and only when it helps finance new projects that will create more value for shareholders

Mining companies need to find a balance between keeping their current shareholders happy while also offering attractive financing options to attract further investors.

3. A Liquid Stock: Hot Spot vs. Ghost Town

Lack of liquidity in a stock can be a major problem when it comes to attracting investment. It can limit investments from bigger players like funds and savvy investors. Investors prefer liquid stocks that are easily traded, as this allows them to capitalize on market trends.

Hot Spot:

  • A liquid stock ensures shareholders are able to buy and sell shares at their expected price
  • More liquid stocks often trade at better valuations than their illiquid counterparts
  • High liquidity can help avoid price crashes during times of market instability

Liquidity makes all the difference when it comes to attracting investors and ensuring they’re comfortable holding a company’s stock.

4. Timing the Market: On Time vs. Too Late or Too Early

Raising capital at the wrong time can result in little interest from investors. Companies in tune with market cycles can raise capital to capture rising interest in the commodity they’re mining.

Being On Time:

  • Raising capital near the start of a commodity’s bull market can attract interest from speculators looking to capitalize on price trends
  • If timed well, the attention around a commodity can attract investors
  • Well-timed financing will instill confidence in shareholders, who will be more likely to hold onto their stock
  • Raising capital at the right time during bull markets is less expensive for the company and reduces risk for investors

Companies need to time when they raise capital in order to maximize the amount raised.

5. Where is the Money Going? Money Well Spent vs. Well Wasted

How a company spends its money plays a crucial role in whether the company is generating more value or just keeping the lights on. Investors should always try to determine if management is simply in it for a quick buck, or if they truly believe in their projects and the quality of the ore the company is mining.

Money Well Spent:

  • Raised capital goes towards expanding projects and operations
  • Efficient use of capital can increase revenue and keep shareholders happy with dividend hikes and share buybacks
  • By showing tangible results from previous investments, a company can more easily raise capital in the future

Raised capital needs to be allocated wisely in order to support projects and generate value for shareholders.

6. Additional Capital: Back for More vs. Tapped Out

Mining is a capital intensive process, and unless the company has access to a treasure trove, funding is crucial to advancing any project. Companies that demonstrate consistency in their ability to create value at every stage will find it easier to raise capital when it’s necessary.

Back For More:

  • Raise more capital when necessary to fund further development on a project
  • Able to show the value they generated from previous funding when looking to raise capital a second time
  • Attract future shareholders easily by treating current shareholders well

Every mining project requires numerous financings. However, if management proves they spend capital in a way that creates value, investors will likely offer more funding during difficult or unexpected times.

Wealth Creation and Funding Strength

Mining companies that develop significant assets can create massive amounts of wealth, but often the company will not see cash flow for years. This is why it is so important to have funding strength: an ability to raise capital and build value to harvest later.

It is a challenging process to build a mining company, but management that has the ability to treat their shareholders and raise money can see their dreams built.

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Mining

How the World’s Top Gold Mining Stocks Performed in 2020

The GDX is an ETF that tracks the performance of the top gold mining stocks. How did the GDX and its constituents perform in 2020?

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GDX and Top Gold Mining Stocks Performance 2020

How Top Gold Mining Stocks Performed in 2020

Gold mining stocks and the GDX saw strong returns in 2020 as gold was one of the most resilient and best performing assets in a highly volatile year.

But picking gold mining stocks isn’t easy, as each company has a variety of individual projects and risks worth assessing. This is why the GDX (VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF), is one of the most popular methods investors choose to get exposure to players in the gold mining industry.

While the GDX and gold miners can generally offer leveraged upside compared to gold during bull markets, in 2020 the GDX returned 23%, just a couple of points shy from spot gold’s 25.1% return.

This graphic compares the returns of gold, the GDX, and the best and worst performing gold mining equities in the index.

Understanding the GDX ETF and its Value

The GDX is one of many index ETFs created by investment management firm VanEck and offers exposure to 52 of the top gold mining stocks.

It provides a straightforward way to invest in the largest names in the gold mining industry, while cutting down on some of the individual risks that many mining companies are exposed to. The GDX is VanEck’s largest and most popular ETF averaging ~$25M in volume every day, with the largest amount of total net assets at $15.3B.

In terms of its holdings, the GDX attempts to replicate the returns of the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index (GDM), which tracks the overall performance of companies in the gold mining industry.

How the Largest Gold Miners Performed in 2020

As a market-cap weighted ETF, the GDX allocates more assets towards constituents with a higher market cap, resulting in larger gold mining companies making up more of the index’s holdings.

This results in the five largest companies in the GDX making up 39.5% of the index’s holdings, and the top 10 making up 59.3%.

An equally-weighted index of the top five GDX constituents returned 27.3% for the year, outperforming gold and the index by a few points. Meanwhile, an equally-weighted index of the top 10 constituents significantly underperformed, only returning 18.4%.

Newmont was the only company of the top five which outperformed gold and the overall index, returning 37.8% for the year. Wheaton Precious Metals (40.3%) and Kinross Gold (54.9%) were the only other companies in the top 10 that managed to outperform.

Kinross Gold was the best performer among the top constituents largely due to its strong Q3 results, where the company generated significant free cash flow while quadrupling reported net earnings. Along with these positive results, the company also announced its expectation to increase gold production by 20% over the next three years.

The Best and Worst Performers in 2020

Among the best and worst performers of the GDX, it was the smaller-sized companies in the bottom half of the ranking which either significantly over- or underperformed.

K92 Mining’s record gold production from their Kainantu gold mine, along with a significant resource increase at their high-grade Kora deposit nearby saw a return of 164.2%, with the company graduating from the TSX-V to the TSX at the end of 2020.

Four of the five worst performers for 2020 were Australian mining companies as the country entered its first recession in 30 years after severe COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. Bushfires early in the year disrupted shipments from Newcrest’s Cadia mine, and rising tensions with China (Australia’s largest trading partner) also contributed to double-digit drawdowns for some Australian gold miners.

The worst performer and last-ranked company in the index, Resolute Mining (-36.9%), had further disruptions in H2’2020 at their Syama gold mine in Mali. The military coup and resignation of Mali’s president Ibrahim Keïta in August was followed by unionized workers threatening strikes in September, slowing operations at Syama gold mine. Outright strikes eventually occurred before year’s end.

How Gold Mining Stocks are Chosen for the GDX

There are some ground rules which dictate how the index is weighted to ensure the GDM and GDX properly reflect the gold mining industry.

Along with the rules on the index’s weighting, there are company-specific requirements for inclusion into the GDM, and as a result the GDX:

  • Derive >50% of revenues from gold mining and related activities
  • Market capitalization >$750M
  • Average daily volume >50,000 shares over the past three months
  • Average daily value traded >$1M over the past three months

Gold mining stocks already in the index have some leeway regarding these requirements, and ultimately inclusion or exclusion from the index us up to the Index Administrator.

What 2021 Will Bring for Gold Mining Stocks

The GDX has had a muted start to the new year, with the index at -2.3% as it has mostly followed spot gold’s price.

Gold and gold mining stocks cooled off significantly following their strong rally Q1-Q3’2020, as positive developments regarding the COVID-19 vaccine have resulted in a stronger-than-expected U.S. dollar and a rise in treasury yields.

This being said, the arrival of new monetary stimulus in the U.S. could spur inflation-fearing investors towards gold and gold mining stocks as the year progresses.

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