The global gold mining industry is showing signs of life as merger activity picks up and industry veterans set up new companies and hunt for projects, taking advantage of weak prices to lay the groundwork for a rebound.
Almost four years after the price of gold began tumbling, cash-starved and debt-ridden miners are selling, merging or closing shop, pushing the value of completed gold mining mergers and acquisitions in the first five months of this year to $3 billion, twice what it was in the same period in 2014, according to Thomson Reuters GFMS, a metals research consultancy.
At the same time, with stock markets near record highs, some fund managers are examining the sector. In the first quarter, Paris-based asset manager Carmignac Gestion bought 11.65 million shares of Goldcorp, the highest valued gold mining company, making it the Vancouver-based miner's eighth biggest shareholder, Thomson Reuters data show. Carmignac declined to be interviewed for this article.
"The perception that mining equities show good value is starting to spread," said Hedley Widdup, a fund manager at Melbourne-based Lion Selection Group, which invests in small mining companies and explorers.
"Since the start of this year, there has definitely been a change in sentiment," he said, though it "is far from pervasive."
To be sure, no one is expecting an overnight resurgence and signs of pain are still widely visible - in bankruptcy filings, job cuts and an industry preoccupation with reducing costs.
And though the gold price is not forecast to recover this year, a rebound could start next year, albeit slowly. GFMS is forecasting an average price of $1,170 an ounce this year, below the current $1,185. Its 2016 forecast is $1,250.
"We felt that finally it looked as though you might be able to pick up projects," said Marc Prefontaine, Chief Executive of Canadian gold miner Orla Mining, which started operations this month. He said he didn't know when the gold market would rebound, "but we just felt it was not going any lower."
Prefontaine, who was CEO of Grayd Resources before it was sold to Agnico-Eagle Mines in 2011 for $275 million, says conditions are good for a full-time return to the industry.
GENERALISTS' INTEREST PIQUED
Helping fuel optimism for a revival is the return to the sector of so-called generalist investors, money managers whose focus isn't exclusively on gold mining companies. Their flight from the mining sector helped fuel a 36 per cent collapse in the market value of the top 40 global miners between 2012 and end-2014 to $791 billion, PwC data shows.
"There has been more interest from generalists at the broker conferences for meetings," said David Harquail, Chief Executive of gold royalty company Franco-Nevada Corp. "Often these generalists have no positions in the gold sector."
Non-gold focused mutual funds nearly doubled the number of shares they hold in 11 of the world's biggest gold miners in the first five months of this year, according to data from Thomson Reuters' Lipper service. The number of funds holding gold shares also increased.
South Africa-based Investec fund manager Hanré Rossouw said he has been debating whether now is the right time to invest again in mining shares.
"I don't think commodity prices are going to dramatically go up from here but I do think that the individual companies' ability to cut costs will differentiate their performance," he said. In the gold sector, he favors South Africa's AngloGold Ashanti.
A few large generalists have come onto Kinross Gold Corp's share register in recent months, said Andrea Mandel-Campbell, a spokeswoman for the world's seventh biggest gold producer. She declined to name them.
"There is recognition that there is value in the sector and the market is starting to sense that the companies are better managed now," said Joseph Forster, portfolio manager at Van Eck, one of the gold mining sector's biggest shareholders.
A number of assets put up for sale, including Barrick Gold Corp's Australasian assets, have drawn multiple offers, a potential sign of better days ahead for the industry.
"The fact that a number of companies are potentially fighting for an asset in the gold sector at this time, let's face it, is positive," said Douglas Forster, Chief Executive of Canada-based Newmarket Gold Inc, which last month unveiled a $190 million merger. Newmarket is backed by Lukas Lundin and Randall Oliphant, well-known gold mining industry veterans.
For others, the signals for getting back into the mining sector - stronger demand, weaker supply and specifically for gold, a weaker US dollar - are not yet evident.
"I'm not really bearish but I don't see the trigger yet to get really bullish. As a result I am still more on the cautious side and that's why we have very slim holdings right now," said Darren Lekkerkerker, a portfolio manager for Fidelity Investments in Toronto.
(Additional reporting by Susan Taylor in Toronto and Silvia Antonioli in London. Editing by John Pickering)