Doug Casey is an American free-market market economist, financial author and entrepreneur. He has been writing a monthly investment newsletter, the International Speculator since 1979 and I always find his ideas quite refreshing. He is also somewhat of a perma gold bull as gleaned from an interview posted here a few days ago. In a follow-up discussion with Louis James, editor of the International Speculator, Casey focused on the outlook for gold stocks.
Here is the first section of Casey's interview:
L: Doug, we were talking about gold last week, so we should follow up with a look at gold stocks. If one of the reasons to own gold is that it's real - it's not paper, it's not simultaneously someone else's liability - why own gold stocks?
Doug: Leverage. Gold stocks are problematical as investments. That's true of all resource stocks, especially stocks in exploration companies, as opposed to producers. If you want to make a proper investment, the way to do that is to follow the dictates of Graham and Dodd, or use the method Warren Buffett has proven to be so successful over many years. Unfortunately, resource stocks in general and metals exploration stocks in particular just don't lend themselves to such methodologies. They are another class of security entirely.
L: Security may not be the right word. As I was reading the latest edition of Graham & Dodd's classic book on securities analysis, I realized that their minimum criteria for investment wouldn't even apply to the gold majors. The business is just too volatile. You can't apply standard metrics.
Doug: It's just impossible. For one thing, they cannot grow consistently, because their assets are always depleting. Nor can they predict what their rate of exploration success is going to be.
L: Right. As an asset, a mine is something that gets used up, as you dig it up and sell it off.
Doug: Exactly. And the underlying commodity prices can fluctuate wildly for all sorts of reasons. Mining stocks, and resource stocks in general, have to be viewed as speculations, as opposed to investments.
But that can be a good thing. For example, many of the best speculations have a political element to them. Governments are constantly creating distortions in the market, causing misallocations of capital. Whenever possible, the speculator tries to find out what these distortions are, because their consequences are predictable. They result in trends you can bet on. It's like the government is guaranteeing your success, because you can almost always count on the government to do the wrong thing.
The classic example, not just coincidentally, concerns gold. The U.S. government suppressed its price for decades while creating huge numbers of dollars before it exploded upward in 1971. Speculators that understood some basic economics positioned themselves accordingly. As applied to metals stocks, governments are constantly distorting the monetary situation, and gold in particular, being the market's alternative to government money, is always affected by that. So gold stocks are really a way to short government - or go long on government stupidity, as it were.
The bad news is that governments act chaotically, spastically. The beast jerks to the tugs on its strings held by its various puppeteers. So it's hard to predict price movements in the short term. You can only bet on the end results of chronic government monetary stupidity.
The good news is that, for that very same reason, these stocks are extremely volatile. That makes it possible, from time to time, to get not just doubles or triples but ten-baggers, twenty-baggers, and even a hundred-to-one shots in these mining stocks.
That kind of upside makes up for the fact that these stocks are lousy investments and that you will lose money on some of them.
L: One of our mantras: volatility can be your best friend.
Doug: Yes, volatility can be your best friend, as long as your timing is reasonable. I don't mean timing tops and bottoms - no one can do that. I mean spotting the trend and betting on it when others are not, so you can buy low to later sell high. If you chase momentum and excitement, if you run with the crowd, buying when others are buying, you're guaranteed to lose. You have to be a contrarian. In this business, you're either a contrarian or road kill. When everyone is talking about these stocks on TV, you know the masses are interested, and that means they've gone to a level at which you should be a seller and not a buyer.
That makes it more a game of playing the psychology of the market, rather than doing securities analysis.
I'm not sure how many thousands of gold mining stocks there are in the world today - I'll guess about 3,000 - but most of them are junk. If they have any gold, it's mainly in the words written on the stock certificates. So, in addition to knowing when to buy and when to sell, your choice of individual stocks has to be intelligent too. Remember, most mining companies are burning matches.
L: All they do is spend money.
Doug: Exactly. That's because most mining companies are really exploration companies. They are looking for viable deposits, which is quite literally like looking for a needle in a haystack. Finding gold is one thing. Finding an economical deposit of gold is something else entirely. And even if you do find an economical deposit of gold, it's exceptionally difficult to make money mining it. Most of your capital costs are up front. The regulatory environment today is onerous in the extreme. Labor costs are far above what they used to be. It's a really tough business.
Click here for the full interview.