by Ronan Manly, BullionStar:
One of the more interesting developments in the gold mining sector at the moment is the impending launch of an investor alliance called the Shareholders Gold Council (SGC) whose objectives focus on reversing the poor shareholder returns and underperformance that has been dogging the sector’s leading gold mining stocks for some time now.
This new ‘Council’, which will be activist in nature, has been spearheaded by well-known hedge fund Paulson & Co, and was first pitched to fellow institutional investors and hedge funds during a Paulson & Co presentation at the Denver Gold Forum in September 2017.
For those unfamiliar with Paulson & Co, this is a hedge fund firm established by John Paulson in 1994. Paulson’s hedge fund firm rose to prominence in the late 2000s when it shorted subprime mortgages, and correctly bet on the collapse of the US housing market. Paulson & Co pursues event-driven strategies including merger arbitrage and corporate restructurings and runs a number of funds across equities and credit. Paulson also launched a specific gold fund in 2010 called the PFR Gold Fund which according to HedgeTracker had a “long-term strategy focus investing in mining companies and bullion-based derivatives“. This fund does not invest in physical gold, as was highlighted in the BullionStar article “Are the World’s Billionaire Investors Actually Buying Gold?“.
For those unfamiliar with the Denver Gold Forum, this is an annual three-day gathering of gold and silver mining companies, major institutional and hedge fund investors which invest in the sector, and Wall Street analysts covering the sector. In fact, the Forum’s organizers claim that the event represents nearly 90% of the world’s publicly traded gold and silver companies.
According to an article by Reuters in early June, the nascent Shareholders Gold Council (SGC) has already garnered significant interest from major shareholders in the gold mining sector, and will, at the outset, represent more than 12 institutional and hedge fund investors, including investment institutions such as Delbrook Capital, Tocqueville Asset Management, Livermore Partners, and Kopernik Global Investors, and hedge funds Apogee Global Advisors and Equinox Partners, in addition to New York based Paulson & Co.
Reuters has also reported that major league institutional players such as Vanguard, State Street, Blackrock and Van Eck have also expressed interest in the SGC alliance.
High Cost Base, Destruction of Value
While hedge funds regularly attempt to turn around individual companies, the mobilization of a broad-based shareholder grouping focused on revitalizing an entire sector is still quite unusual, even for Wall Street. It is therefore instructive to examine what motivated Paulson & Co to roll out this idea and pitch the alliance to an entire institutional investment community. Although media coverage has been quite sketchy and exact details of the coalition remain unclear, the Denver presentation given by Paulson & Co’s natural resource specialist, Marcelo Kim provides some clarity, and is therefore worth reviewing.
According to Kim’s presentation ‘Gold Equities: Myths, Dreams and Reality‘, given to the Denver Gold Forum on 26 September 2017, the bottom line is that major gold mining stocks have been severely under-performing both the gold price and the broader equity indices for some time now.
This stock underperformance, thinks Paulson & Co, is due to poor investment decisions by said gold mining companies, destruction of enterprise value / low return on capital, and massive writedowns on ill-judged acquisitions, all in an environment of gigantic pay and compensation packages to gold mining company CEOs, clubby and cronie appointments to the companies boards of directors, and low stock ownership (but high options ownership) by these same company executives and board members. According to Paulson’s Kim, “CEOs and Boards get rich while shareholders lose money“.
To illustate, Kim in his presentation highlighted that from January 2010 to September 2017, a timeframe in which the US dollar gold price fell by 20%, the VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX) [which tracks the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index] returned a negative 45%. Shareholder returns in the junior mining sector were even worse, with the VanEck Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF (GDXJ)[which tracks the MVIS Global Junior Gold Miners Index] down by 58% over that time-frame.
Even more worryingly, total shareholder returns from 13 large publicly listed gold companies over the January 2010 to September 2017 period was an average negative 65%.
However between 2010 and 2016, CEO pay in these same 13 leading gold mining companies was a combined US$ 550 million.
These 13 companies were Eldorado, Newcrest, Newmont, Gold Fields, Barrick, GoldCorp, Yamana, Kinross, AlgloGold, Agnico, Polymetal, Randgold, Iamgold. All of these companies are members of the World Gold Council except for South African miners Gold Fields and Randgold and the Russian miner Polymetal. Notably, Randgold and Polymetal bucked the trend with relatively healthy shareholder return since 2010 of 35% and 20%, respectively, as well as the highest return on capital (RoC).
Additionally, over the 2010 – 2017 period, the gold mining industry had, according to Paulson and Co “written off $85 billion due to overpaying for acquisitions and massive cost overruns on mine builds“. Gold mining shareholders, said Kim, have no one to blame but themselves, as they had little engagement with company boards, chose not to engage in shareholder activism, but all the while continued to rubber stamp CEO pay, board appointments and mergers and acquisitions. Gold mining shareholders were in short, “like sheep being led to slaughter”.
Paulson’s Call to Action
The solution, according to Paulson & Co, is shareholder representation on company boards, investor rights agreements with company boards, company accountability to shareholders, the sacking of poor performing CEOs and board members, and the alignment of CEO compensation with share price performance. As all of these tactics are typical activist hedge fund tactics, it’s not really surprising that Paulson, as an activist hedge fund firm, would make these suggestions.
However, it is in the modus operandus and implementation of the scheme that there is arguably a more radical departure, since this is where the Shareholders Gold Council (SGC) comes in, with Paulson calling for a Council comprising a broad base of major (institutional) gold mining equity holders to come together and make recommendations on board appointments, CEO pay, company takeovers, as well as to make recommendations on annual general meeting (AGM) and extraordinary general meeting (EGM) voting decisions.
But still, is this really a new departure? In one way it is not, because there are perfectly good proxy advisory firms, such as Institutional Shareholder Services(ISS) and Glass, Lewis and Co which between them provide the same type of corporate governance and proxy voting research that Paulson’s Shareholders Gold Council is envisioning, and that are specialists in doing so for every major listed company in the world including every major exchange listed gold mining company.