The new gold rush

By Chris Daniels

In 1890, the Waihi Gold Mining Company of London bought the Martha Mine. The firm pioneered the use of cyanide to extract gold from the quartz rock and, suddenly, uneconomic seams of rock became, well, goldmines.

More than 100 years later, events on the far side of the world are again reverberating in the Coromandel township. This time, US President George W. Bush can take the bow.

His adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the profligate spending of the US consumer, have left the world's largest economy short by US$2 billion a day.

As a result, the greenback has gone into a tail-spin.

This fall, coupled with the fears for world security, have sent gold prices soaring to as high as US$458.70 ($644.80) an ounce in December.

It has since eased as the US Federal Reserve lifted interest rates and was, last night, quoted at US$417.80 an ounce. Nevertheless, it means boom time for New Zealand's gold miners.

A surge of cash is flooding in from overseas to bankroll exploration and development from the top of the North Island to the deep south.

Peter Atkinson, managing director of Heritage Gold, one of the few survivors of the gold sector hit by the 1987 sharemarket crash, is enjoying the reversal of fortunes.

"Certainly, the appetite's there now and it's global. I mean they're raising money in Canada, in London - several Australian stocks have gone to London.

"It's funny how the wheels turn full circle, here we are looking at Waihi and Karangahake and, in the 1880s and 1890s, all the development capital for those two projects came from London - both projects were run by firms with listings on the London stock exchange. "Raising money in English pounds and spending it here in New Zealand; 120 years on we're doing the same thing."

Heritage Gold has been one of the main beneficiaries. Just after Christmas, it raised $1.22 million from Australian investors to develop its big project - the Karangahake underground mine just out of Waihi.

It has research showing that for an initial $24 million investment, it may be able to extract 50,000oz of gold from 150,000 tonnes of ore for a profit of about $12 million based on December's gold price. Heritage is aiming for production within two years.

In New Zealand, there are two other miners quoted on the stock exchange. The small Australia-based explorer, Aurora Minerals, floated in June, raising A$4 million, and then achieved a dual listing in September.

So far, it only has permits for geological mapping, geochemical sampling and aerial surveys of its four prospecting areas in New Zealand. As yet it can't even drill, let alone start mining if it does find gold. It is prospecting in Otago and Kerikeri.

Australia's Oceana Gold, bought Oceana Gold New Zealand, formerly GRD McCraes, in December of 2003. It is mining deposits at the Macraes mine in central Otago, as well as deposit in Reefton and Sam's Creek near Nelson.

The world's biggest gold producer, the US listed Newmont Mining, completes the picture in New Zealand.

After taking over Australian miner Normandy in 2002, it became the owner of the Martha Mine, named after a family member of its Victorian founder, William Nicholl.

Paul Dowd, vice-president and managing director of Newmont's Australasian operations, said the recent surge in gold prices had not had a huge impact on its New Zealand activities. Priced in New Zealand dollars, the metal was relatively stable.

Newmont, with its global reach, balances its portfolio with a high risk mine in one country set off by a lower risk venture elsewhere.

"New Zealand represents a real growth area for Newmont - it is one of the richest gold areas in the world."

The Coromandel/Hauraki goldfield was under-explored and Newmont believes there is significant potential, particularly near its Waihi operation.

Investors in New Zealand have also caught gold fever, but only for operations offshore.

Atkinson says many here are willing to put their money in Australian mining companies, after reading nothing more than a news report and a company website.

"I don't know why, it's hard to explain that. That's been my experience over 20 years here."

When Heritage Gold was first listed in 1986, he raised the bulk of the money in Sydney and London. The last "few hundred thousand dollars" needed to come from New Zealand to get the spread of 300 local shareholders needed to meet the listing requirements.

"That was the hardest part of the money to raise. I don't think that's changed a lot."

He believes NZX chief executive Mark Weldon's plans for the New Zealand Stock Exchange will make a big difference, although it could take some years.

But Macquarie Equities investment adviser Arthur Lim has seen a growing enthusiasm for gold companies as an investment.

He says many come to him wanting to put their money into mining projects armed with information on overseas floats, with little understanding of their prospects.

He asks them: "Why are you buying it? Do you know something we don't?"

He warns some assume the company's shares will do well simply because it is a gold-mining company, but each is different. Some have a high cost of production, others have large reserves, while the hedge policies of others might be wrong.

Indeed such is a the allure of gold that often people mistake it for what it is - a metal that is used mainly for jewellery, dental work and is hoarded by the world's central banks as a repository of value.

Only this week, the China Economic Daily published the world's first newspaper made of gold. The newspaper, published in the booming city of Shenzen, was selling for 69,000 yuan ($11,725).

Economics has swung in gold's favour but what comes up can also come down, as it has many times in the past. How long should miners keep sinking money into these holes in the ground? Research from US merchant banking giant JP Morgan Chase released last week forecast a 6 per cent rise in gold prices this year, climbing to US$435 an ounce. This coming after a 13 per cent rise in 2004.

For the immediate future, the situation in the Middle East and the heavily indebted US economy should establish a floor under gold. But, longer term, the outlook is more murky. Central banks and the world's financial institutions have got about 12 years of global production sitting comfortably in their vaults, some 32,000 tonnes. But its attraction is fading.

In 1999, the Central Bank Gold Agreement was signed, in which 15 of the world's governments promised to only sell their gold at a slow pace - a speed it is hoped will not flood the market and depress prices. These 15 renewed their agreement last year, promising to keep annual gold sales at 500 tonnes for the next five years.

Like any price-fixing cartel, it depends on all members staying with the pact and not breaking ranks. From 1999 to 2002, the British government sold down part of its gold reserves, disposing of about 395 tonnes.

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has also suggested recently that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund should sell down gold reserves to help alleviate the debt burden on developing countries.

And while booming economies in India and China may push up demand for jewellery, why not cash in on their demand for more useful metals?

Copper, nickel, steel, coal - all used in the construction of the new cars, washing machines and office blocks - are also in demand.

Lim suggests buying shares in world mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto might be a better way of earning a return on this rapid industrialisation in Asia.

Like those Victorian gentlemen investing in Waihi gold mining in 1890, economic growth may be due more to the contribution of the unglamorous coal and iron industries than the romantic allure of that shiny gold at the bottom of a hole.

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