Rick Rule was one of the headline speakers at the Gold Symposium in Sydney last week. In this interview (along with Louis James and Marin Katusa) he covers a number of topics that featured in his Symposium speech. We’re just putting the finishing touches on our report of his speech, so check back here later this week to get the full low down. In the meantime this is a good primer…
By The Gold Report
The Gold Report: Why is the theory of tapering or turning quantitative easing (QE) off a myth, and who really benefits from QE?
Rick Rule: My view—as an investor, not an economist—is that QE is misnamed. I think it’s another way of saying counterfeiting. It exists in large measure because we’re running a trillion-dollar deficit and, while we can hoodwink investors into funding two-thirds of it, we need to print away the last third.
TGR: What are the consequences of turning off QE?
Louis James: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said himself that he had certain criteria he wanted to see before tapering—employment in particular. Those have not been met. Employment figures have improved, but only in—I guess the technical term would be “crappy” jobs. Long-term employment, the middle class’ bread and butter, is not better.
TGR: Rick, you defy common sense and argue that bull markets are bad and bear markets are good, but it doesn’t feel that way.
RR: JT, at the risk of being sexist, women are normally more rational shoppers than men. Think about the stock market as a mall.
In the mall, the store on the left-hand of the entrance has a big flashing sign that says, “Bear Market Merchants All Goods 70% Off, No Reasonable Offer Refused, Come Back Tomorrow—Prices May Be Lower.” The store on the right-hand side has a tiny sign that says, “Bespoke Bear Market Merchants, No Deals Ever, High Margin for Merchants, Don’t Even Think About Asking for a Deal, Prices May Be Higher Next Week.”
If you’re going to buy a pair of shoes, which store would you go to? This is a no-brainer. When people buy physical goods, they act rationally. When they buy financial goods, they want to overpay. It’s totally irrational, and it’s extraordinarily common. If you want to become wealthier, why wouldn’t you buy financial assets when they’re on sale?
TGR: Staying with the mall analogy, does that suggest that people are afraid stocks will be on even deeper sale tomorrow?
Marin Katusa: You have to look at the timeframe. This is a great market if you’re an accredited investor and have an account with someone like Rick Rule or you subscribe to the International Speculator and follow the right management teams. Today, you can invest in deals with five-year full warrants that would not have been available three years ago. Rick and I have been in meetings where the venture teams laughed at me when I requested full warrants. Rick just said, “Bite your lip, smile, and wait.” And he was right.
If you’re buying stock today in hopes that the market will go up the next day, you’ll be in a lot of pain. But if you have a two- to five-year timeframe, you can get guys like Bob Quartermain and Lukas Lundin on sale.
LJ: What would you give to go back in time and buy Apple just after the Apple II came out? Or to buy Microsoft when DOS was new?
Over the course of the last decade—what I think of as the first half of this great bull cycle—billions of dollars have gone into the ground and done good work.
Companies with 10 million ounces of high-grade gold in a safe mining jurisdiction are on sale below IPO prices. Some companies with excellent management and assets in hand are selling for less than cash value. You can buy these companies now, instead of looking for the next Apple or Microsoft.
RR: Words like “want” and “hope” in speculation are truly four-letter words, profanities. Having a stock in your portfolio that cost $200,000 and has a current market valuation of $40,000 is unfortunate, but irrelevant. Investors need to take advantage of their education and do their best with the situation at hand. Right now, things are cheap. When things are cheap you’re supposed to buy. In bull markets, when things are expensive, you’re supposed to sell.
Right now, buying is easy because you have no competitors. In a bull market, selling is easy because everybody is a buyer. If the market is desperately looking for bids and you are scared to death because your stocks can’t catch bids, you have to bid. They say the market was desperate for asks, but this market is desperate for bids.
TGR: Some have said this the end of the commodity supercycle. Is that a myth? And is it more or less of a myth in some sectors than others?
RR: The narrative that existed in 2009-2010, when the commodity supercycle was the currency of all financial thinking, is unchanged. The first part of that narrative was founded on the idea that world population growth was taking commodity consumption higher. World population growth is not over.
The second part of the narrative was that as poor people gained more freedom, they got richer and consumed more. Political liberalization in emerging frontier markets has continued, and people are wealthier and are consuming more.
A third part of the narrative was that Western consumers had lived beyond their means and as a consequence were debasing the denominators, the fiat currencies. If you debase the denominator, the nominal value of stuff would go up. We have not stopped debasing the denominator.
The entire narrative associated with the resource-industry bull market is intact. Nothing has changed except the price. A cyclical decline in a secular bull market is a different way of describing a spectacular sale, for people who understand that the narrative hasn’t changed.
TGR: Are there some sectors that still feel as if it’s a commodity supercycle?
MK: Definitely. Look at oil.
RR: But your readers don’t want to look for hot sectors, because they are overpriced. They want to look for cold sectors. They want to find the sector, management team, or the company that’s going to be hot.
TGR: If oil is hot right now, what is going to be hot?
MK: From the energy side, I think within three years uranium will be hot.
TGR: Why the three-year timeline?
MK: There are three major catalysts. First is the end of the US-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement (HEU). The last shipment will happen at the end of 2013.
Second is the transitional agreement, in which the Russians will provide up to 50% of the uranium on a new pricing metric than the HEU agreement. Only this time, the Russians have new dance partners: Saudi Arabia, China, India, Korea, even France. The reality is the Americans will have to pay more for uranium from the Russians.
Third, nuclear reactors are not all being taken down; they’re being built. Japan plans to bring its reactors back online, just not on the timeframe the junior resource sector wants them to. The Japanese cannot afford to pay the most expensive electricity prices in the world and stay competitive. They have no choice but to move forward with nuclear power.
TGR: Is the end of HEU already priced in to uranium?
MK: Yes, both because the market is determining what it’s worth today and because Japan shut down 40 nuclear reactors. That’s a black-swan game-changer that shifted everything.
Yet, the long-term price is 50% higher than the spot price, and more than 90% of the uranium being consumed and traded is based on the long-term price. That’s the equivalent of saying gold today is $1,300/ounce, but if you want to take delivery in three or four years—which is what nuclear utilities do for uranium—you have to pay $1,900/oz. Or copper at $4.50/pound if you want delivery in five years. That’s the situation in uranium today.
TGR: Louis, which sector are you looking forward to?
LJ: There’s talk on the streets about helium, although I’m not sure I want to move in that direction. I’m happier focusing on something right in front of me and that I understand. Finding a company that has a multimillion-ounce, high-grade deposit and is on sale at half price is similar to going into the supermarket and finding the thickest, most beautifully marbled T-bone steak, fresh cut today, on sale for half off. Why bother with hamburger of unknown quality?
TGR: We keep hearing that we’ve hit a bottom, which would imply that the market is moving up. However, Rick, you have described it as a bifurcated market in which the bad stocks will continue to sink, which would be a good thing. How do we know which companies will sink and which will revive?
RR: That’s a critical question. Before your readers classify stocks, they need to classify themselves. Are they the type of person who will put enough time and attention into securities analysis to compete on their own? Or do they need other people to help them compete?
While securities analysis and stock selection in the junior market is imperfect, it can be done. It requires understanding the stock. If you’re not willing to understand the stock, you need an advisor.
TGR: How many hours does that work take? What questions should investors be asking?
RR: Speculators running their own portfolios without advice should limit the number of stocks in the portfolio to the number that they can spend two or three hours a month working on. That means reading every press release, proxy, quarterly, and annual report. Read the president’s message and measure it against what he said the company would accomplish over the year.
Speculators unwilling to do that need to hire somebody who will. That may mean subscribing to one of the trading services offered by Casey or hiring an organization like Sprott to be a broker or a manager.
Getting to bifurcation and stock selection, if 15% of the stocks are moving higher, 85% are moving lower. You won’t be able to concentrate 100% in either camp, but if you get more right than wrong, you’ll make so much money that the outliers will be irrelevant. If you get it wrong, you’ll lose so much money that you ought to be in some other business.
TGR: Are there fewer brokers walking the streets of Vancouver these days?
MK: Definitely, also fewer analysts and fewer corporate development positions and many fewer investor relations people.
There are more BMWs, Mercedes, and Ferraris on sale, and now more offices becoming vacant.
TGR: Does that mean only the best are left?
MK: Not necessarily.
RR: But it does reduce the population. To be a responsible analyst, you once had to look in a cursory fashion at 4,000 companies. Today, having only 3,000 companies to look at is an advantage.
The three of us look at data in a summary fashion to try and dispose of a company. You look for something to kill your interest. The good news is that the population of timewasters is down by at least a third. That’s unfortunate for their shareholders, but that’s their problem, not ours. Our job is to look after our subscribers or clients.
TGR: Let’s talk about regions. Is it true that the Yukon is remote?
LJ: It’s no more remote now than it was last year. You can’t write off the Yukon or anywhere without looking at and understanding the specifics of individual opportunities. Miners with remote projects that have high enough margins are able to barge or truck diesel fuel in and run gen-sets, etc. If Canadians can mine diamonds in the Arctic Circle, they can mine gold in the Yukon.
Remoteness by itself is not the issue. The issue is margin. If you’re in the Yukon and you’ve got something low grade, with low recoveries and complex metallurgy—don’t call us, we’ll call you. If you have something high grade, open pit, that leaches, tell me more.
TGR: Rick, in your presentation, you talked about platinum and palladium. Is that an area where the supercycle needs to whip things up?
RR: I don’t think it even requires a supercycle. With platinum and palladium, I can look empirically at simple supply and demand. On a global basis, the platinum and palladium industry doesn’t earn its cost of capital. That means one of two things will happen: The price of platinum and palladium will increase, or there won’t be enough platinum and palladium to supply current demand.
In the context of supply, you don’t have to worry about investor inventories because there are almost none. The world supply of existing, finished platinum and palladium is less than one year’s fabrication demand.
The consequence of the industry not earning its cost of capital is that production has fallen by 19% over six years. New mine supply is falling. South Africa itself accounts for 70% of world platinum production and 39% of world palladium production.
In South Africa, the industry has deferred $5 billion in sustaining capital investments; workers are dying and infrastructure is more and more decrepit.
A skilled worker crouching 7,000 feet underground in 105-degree heat in two inches of water makes $700 per month. An unskilled worker who mucks the material on his hands and knees 400 meters from the mine face to the adit makes $200 a month. A migratory worker sustaining a family in the homeland is probably sustaining another family at the mine face. Wages have to go up, but they can’t because the companies don’t earn their cost of capital.
According to the majority of South Africans, social take—taxes and royalties—has to go up, but can’t because companies don’t earn their cost of capital.
Prices have to go up. Platinum and palladium prices can go up because their utility to users is so high. It goes into high-carat jewelry. Platinum goes up a smokestack. Mostly, it goes out a tailpipe.
It costs $200—the cost of a catalytic converter in a new car—to give us the air quality we enjoy today. There’s a social consensus in favor of stricter air-quality standards. If the price of platinum and palladium doubled, the catalytic converter would cost $400 in a $27,000 new car; the demand impact would be de minimus.
LJ: We all know the often-quoted phrase that most of the gold ever mined in the world is still sitting in purified form on the surface in one form or the other. Platinum and palladium are different; they are consumed. I agree with Rick.
I would go one step further regarding South Africa. It’s not just the economics that don’t work; it’s the country itself. It’s a balloon resting on pins. I see platinum and palladium as speculation on South Africa going up in flames, which is an easy bet to take now. I’m sorry for the South Africans, but it’s a bad situation with no easy way out.
TGR: There’s been a lot of talk about the dearth of young, qualified people coming up to take a place in management teams. Has the next generation of managers—and investors, for that matter—left the sector? If so, what will happen?
MK: There’s a significant age gap in our industry. When I was taking geology courses at university, our professor would ask why we were taking this class. There were no jobs. He recommended we go into computers, and a lot of people did.
Unfortunately, good management teams are very difficult to come by. Only 1 in 3,000 projects ever becomes an economic mine, and I’d say investing in the right people is more important than any other factor.
LJ: This scarcity makes the investor’s job a little easier. Just type the CEO’s name in Google and look up his history. Has he done this before? Has he succeeded? Was he an accountant or a used car salesman? Google is one of our primary triage tools.
People is the first of Doug Casey’s famous Eight Ps. If I hear about a story that fits our general criteria, the first thing I look at is management and directors. If I recognize the name of someone who has lied to me or whom I don’t trust, I don’t even look at the project.
TGR: New people coming up need to get experience by being in a successful project. Are there enough successful projects that they’re learning how to do it?
LJ: I don’t necessarily agree with that angle. All experience is good experience. A person can learn a lot from working for a company that does something wrong. It’s having lots of experience, both good and bad, that is so important. The problem is that, unless you get very lucky, you need to have experience to really call shots well, and there are not enough people out there with the decades of experience needed.
On the bright side, because there is money in the field now, geology departments are no longer shutting down; enrollment is up. Supply is improving, but it will be another 5 to 10 years before the supply of highly experienced personnel really improves.
RR: Let’s personalize it for your readers. There are three analysts in the room: an old one and two young ones. I guarantee you that, as a consequence of the bear market they just experienced, the two younger analysts will make their readers more money with less risk in the next bull market.
Youth isn’t enough. You need to have a decade under your belt so that you have lived through the changes. Marin and Louis just lived through the kind of challenges I lived through in the 1980s. They now have the two things needed to survive in this racket: legs and scars.
MK: He’s not joking about the scars.
RR: The transfer of the mantle from the Doug Caseys and Rick Rules of the world to the Marin Katusas and Louis Jameses is under way. The batons are being passed.
TGR: Is the bear market making a better generation of investors? Will they be more patient, have more perspective given what they’ve been through?
MK: If they stick with it. It’s all about timeframe and perspective. The bear market will wash out a lot of investors; do not allow yourself to become a victim. But as Rick said, investors have to mitigate risk to stay alive until the next leg in the bull market.
RR: You’re wrong there, Marin. You have to thrive. The year 2000, which was the market bottom, was one of the best investment years of my life. And 2001 was even better, as was 2002.
A bear market is when you make your money. You don’t get to put it in your pocket until things turn, but you make your money by thriving in bear markets. You don’t thrive in bull markets. You cash the checks. It’s very different.
LJ: I expect this will be a painful experience for a lot of people. Some will learn a lesson, but it will be the wrong lesson. The lesson will be: Don’t invest in commodities; they’re too risky. That lesson will stick until the prices go bananas again, when they’ll give it another try and get taken to the cleaners again.
To buy low and sell high, investors have to be able to sell high, which means they are expecting people to act irrationally when prices are very high—which means they didn’t learn the lesson. It’s unfortunate for our world that human nature is so, but it is so, and investors who ignore the opportunities this creates don’t do anyone any favors.
TGR: Marin, going back to energy, there’s been a lot in the media about the International Energy Agency (IEA) report about energy independence in North America. Will we be the Saudi Arabia of natural gas?
MK: North America is already the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Unfortunately, so are the Russians.
The report said that if these eight assumptions happen the way we hope, America will become almost energy independent. The media forgot about the eight assumptions, and they got rid of the word “almost.”
The US has done a great job of bringing North American innovation to the shale industry, but the industry has many other challenges to work through.
TGR: Is Saudi Arabia still the Saudi Arabia of oil? Its wells are getting long in the tooth, and the country is building nuclear plants for domestic use.
MK: We’re all asking that question. The Ghawar oil field has been producing oil since before Elvis hit the scene and today produces about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil. There is significant risk in relying on these old elephant deposits that have been producing for more than 50 years.
RR: I agree. What has happened in the US, and to a lesser degree Canada, is unique because our competitive markets still work. For example, 50 or 60 competitors at Eagle Ford tried and failed using various completion techniques, each time getting better and better. Ultimately, Eagle Ford was an extremely messy success.
In most of the world, there’s one quasi-state oil company looking at a basin. There’s no competition trying different solutions. Exporting American or Canadian technology doesn’t work without exporting the messiness of the North American energy-exploration business.
Marin, would exporting technology from Eagle Ford work in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta Shale?
MK: It would take billions of dollars to make it work at Vaca Muerta. A junior company with a $10 million market cap and $500,000 to make management’s salary and payment on their BMWs will never be able to develop this billion-dollar shale potential. It will require a big company, like a Chevron.
TGR: We heard a lot about the potential for crowdfunding to save the resource sector by funding more companies. True?
MK: I’d like to make sure that all of your readers stay the hell away from crowdfunding for the resource sector. I’ve heard it works OK in the tech sector and among the let’s-make-a-movie crowd, where all that is needed is to raise $150,000 for something that may or may not work.
In the resource sector, real exploration cannot be done for $2-3 million. If people want to invest in the sector, go to someone with a track record, someone who knows what he’s doing. Subscribe to Louis’ newsletter and educate yourself. Stay the hell away from crowdfunding for the resource sector.
RR: The last thing the sector needs is more companies. The idea that the crowd would invest $3 million in a de novo project when there are companies out there that have spent $80 million on an existing project, yet have a $6 million market cap is the most counterproductive activity that one could imagine. If there are 3,000 public companies doing exploration on a global basis, we don’t need another 300. We need 2,000 fewer.
LJ: It’s one thing to go directly to the masses with an art project that some snob at the National Endowment for the Arts turned down, but entirely another to do so for a mine project no knowledgeable investor will touch.
TGR: What myth would you want our readers to stop believing in?
LJ: I would like to dethrone the “grade is king” myth. It’s not grade; it’s margin. You can have an exceptionally high-grade deposit in an exceptionally expensive, difficult, or kleptocratic jurisdiction, and it won’t work. You could have a water table that’s so fluid that you spend more money pumping water than mining. There are so many things that can go wrong or add to costs. Too many people believe if a project is high grade, it has to make money. No, it doesn’t. High margin is paramount, not grade.
MK: I think the myth that the commodity bull market is over is insane. We’re nowhere near being over. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. This is when you start doing your homework and investing money.
RR: The idea that bear markets are bad and bull markets are good is bullshit. It’s the other way around. Bear markets are good. Bull markets are bad.
LJ: Bullshit is a technical term.
TGR: I enjoyed talking with the three of you. Thanks.
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