Bristow: Gold is Heading for a Supply Cliff

Gold production is heading for a ‘supply cliff’ because of a chronic lack of exploration, says Randgold CEO Mark Bristow. He told E&MJ that the search for fresh deposits had fallen to almost nothing. “There has been a complete lack of investment in exploration and we are headed for a supply cliff. If any new demand over what is currently experienced were to occur, it will drive the price,” he said.

Bristow is arguably one of the most successful gold bosses right now. He has turned London based but Africa-focused Randgold into a $7 billion company, and is the only gold producer in the Ftse 100 index. Randgold has built, financed and operates five gold mines in Africa — Loulo, Gounkoto and Morila in Mal; Tongon in Côte d’Ivoire and Kibali in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The company also has a major project at Massawa in Senegal and a portfolio of exploration projects in the most prospective gold belts of West and Central Africa.

In March the company said would increase its annual dividend by more than 50% to $1.00 per share after the company reached its $500 million cash target. A bump in gold demand is not unprecedented. The beginning of the commodity supercycle in the early 2000s was driven by Chinese demand for minerals, including gold. Bullion began a run from the low $300/oz mark until it briefly peaked above $1,800/oz in 2011. In the time since it has fallen perilously close to the psychologically important $1,000/ oz mark but appears on a sustainable recovery says Bristow.

Global events such as Brexit, the election of Trump and a shift in the political landscape across Europe have shaken the established order. Gold has always thrived in such circumstances as investors flee to the security of hard assets. “Everywhere the silent majority have made their stamp on politics,” Bristow said.

Bristow also pointed to the recently introduced Shariah standard for gold investment. To date, Islamic investment funds were prohibited from buying gold because of a Koranic injunction against hoarding it. Earlier this year though the World Gold Council together with Islamic financiers came up with a way to allow investment. This paves the way for Islamic finance to move into exchange traded funds and physical gold.

“Gold is already a staple of everyday life in the Middle East and Muslim Africa, where it is used for trade,” Bristow said. “Now it can be used for investment and this has the potential for huge demand.” According to the World Gold Council as much as $2.4 trillion could flow into bullion in the next few years.

How producers are going to respond to changes such as these would very much depend on their exploration portfolios. Unfortunately, many companies abandoned searching as they scrambled to survive the rapid decline of the gold price.

Industry-wide net debt had grown from $1 billion in the early part of this century to $47 billion, leaving very little cash for exploration. Even if the gold price rose most producers would be using the additional cash to pay down debt rather than invest in finding new resources.

“It’s the reckless behavior of the industry that has left it heavily in debt,” Bristow noted. “The money spent during the commodity supercycle went down the drain.”

Mines were also leery of setting up new operations in countries where regulatory uncertainty heightened risk. South Africa, once the go-to destination for gold had now fallen from favor due to shifting legal requirements around black shareholding. Bristow himself is a South African but has chosen to focus elsewhere on the continent, as have many others.

Around 18 new mines have been commissioned in the past decade in West Africa compared to the half dozen or so in South Africa. The tradeoff however is that poor infrastructure means mining companies have to pretty much bring everything they need with them. In the DRC for instance Randgold is building hydro dams to power for its Kibali operation.

Global consulting firm Ernst & Young said in a report last year that since 2000, mines in Africa spent around $15.3 billion on electricity and operating costs. Bristow warned that governments would need to continue being investor friendly if they hoped to draw ongoing investment.

In the meantime, too little was going into greenfield gold and Bristow expects supply to begin to rapidly decline within the next decade. “There is not enough exploration. We expect gold supply to fall by a third by 2025,” he concluded.

As featured in Womp 2017 Vol 05 -