Barrick Gold Corp. is fighting back against critics of its proposed $7.3-billion takeover of Equinox Minerals Ltd., insisting the company is not losing its focus on gold while it bets big on the promise for copper.
And the world's biggest gold miner showed the financial firepower it has to help pull off the acquisition: a first-quarter profit of $1-billion (U.S.).
Since launching its bid early Monday, Barrick has had to fend off complaints from shareholders and analysts who are concerned the company is paying a rich price for Equinox, a copper producer with properties in Africa and the Middle East. Barrick's bid topped a previously planned offer by China's Minmetals Resources Ltd., which has since bowed out.
Barrick founder and chairman Peter Munk assured shareholders at the company's annual meeting that the big gold producer is not straying from its core expertise.
"Categorically, and hear me loud and clear, this company has been built on creating the greatest gold company ever," Mr. Munk said.
"Who is so idiotic to kill the goose that laid the golden egg?"
Mr. Munk said the Equinox deal is simply acting in Barrick's best interests, noting that it is rare for a producing copper company to become available because many attractive copper assets are tucked into the portfolios of much larger firms.
Barrick chief executive officer Aaron Regent said copper's supply and demand outlook points to long-term strength.
"We believe the copper fundamentals are very positive," Mr. Regent said.
"Barrick has good insight into the mine construction environment," he added, referring to competing projects on the drawing board.
"Our view is that there is a reasonable probability that many of these projects will be delayed," he said, citing examples such as rising permit costs and higher operating costs as mining grades fall.
Still, Mr. Regent stressed that these beliefs do not change the company's gold focus. Asked if he is more bullish on copper than gold, his answer was unequivocal. "No, not at all."
"The outlook for gold and our bullishness on gold hasn't changed."
Despite reaching levels above $1,500 per ounce, gold still has strong prospects, Mr. Munk said. Gold today, he said, is driven by one overriding "irresistible and irreversible trend," which he described as "a fundamental global and growing insecurity" as people lose faith "in everything they were brought up to believe in."
That world ranges from uncertainty about the liquidity of banks and insurance companies to the credibility of rating agencies and sovereign debt. Mr. Munk said the number of people who no longer trust this world has grown exponentially in recent years as the emerging markets have developed and there are many more wealthy investors. These individuals, he said, are no longer worried about creating their wealth and are instead focused on protecting it, which many people believe gold can do.
If he's right, Barrick's profits could swell further. The first-quarter profit of $1-billion, or $1 a share, was up sharply from earnings of $820-million, or 83 cents, a year earlier. The company expects to mine between 7.6 million and eight million ounces of gold in 2011.
However, a steady rise in profits might not boost the company's stock price as favourably as it once did. Investors are worried that Barrick's stock could lose its gold premium, which is the extra value investors typically pay to own gold miners over base metals miners, because the company is increasing its copper exposure.
Mr. Regent said he doesn't expect the current premium to disappear, even though Barrick's non-gold revenues will move from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of its total after acquiring Equinox.
"It's hard for anyone to suggest that we're not a gold company," he said.
After addressing all the concerns, Mr. Munk offered his assurances to those investors who still doubt the takeover story.
"I can only give you my word that we will not let you down, like we have not let you down in the past," he said.