A few months ago, Vancouver mining entrepreneurs Greg Thomas and Drew Brass were spending more time twiddling their thumbs than touting their mining ventures. No one was listening.
"In all the years I've been raising money for public companies, this was particularly a tough time," said Mr. Thomas, who heads up a couple of mining start-ups, TAC Gold Corp. and Regal Resources Inc. "In the summer, this was a ghost town… No one bothered going to the office. It was really quite something."
But a few weeks ago, as the price of gold marched relentlessly to record heights, something changed. Suddenly, the popular gathering places along Burrard Street for movers and shakers in Vancouver's mining community became beehives of activity again.
"I had drinks with a friend last week and we noticed there were lots of quote-unquote 'rounder-looking' guys [young aspiring promoters]there, and we saw a bunch yesterday at the Cactus Club - I just knew they were junior gold companies sitting there, they just had that look about them," said Mr. Brass, Mr. Thomas's business partner in the ventures. "There are a lot of guys downtown now trying to make something happen."
And critically, said Mr. Thomas, "The brokers are taking meetings now."
Phones Are Ringing
Financiers and entrepreneurs in this country's mining-investment hot spots - Toronto and Vancouver - say their summer doldrums have given way to a renewed fundraising fervour. Phones have started ringing, restaurants have started filling and investors have started coming out of the woodwork looking to do deals.
And, they say, most of the interest revolves around gold ventures. The record price levels for the metal - which reached a once unimaginable $1,300 (U.S.) an ounce this past week - have focused eyes on opportunities to get in on the golden action, as investors salivate over bullion's bullish outlook combined with still-depressed valuations of gold stocks, particularly at the junior end of the sector.
"The price of gold has affected us," said veteran Toronto mining promoter Wayne Beach, who has seen his business turn increasingly toward gold projects as investor fascination with the gold story rises. "Where it's easier to raise money, you tend to be lured in that direction."
Veterans of the mining-finance game say it's early days, and nothing like the party atmosphere in their community in boom times such as the mid-1990s. Still, they say, gold fever has brought a welcome return of investment cash to a business that lives and dies on its ability to raise capital.
"Investors are coming to us now," said Scott Waldie, president and chief executive officer of North Atlantic Resources Ltd., a junior gold exploration company headquartered on Toronto Street, a narrow two-block strip of offices and restaurants in Toronto's financial district that is one of the world's great hotbeds for mine financing.
"I know a small Canadian gold company who has been approached with a [$5-million]financing from people they've never heard of. … Some of the smart money is picking up juniors at bargain-basement prices, because they know that the future for gold and for commodities in general is very bright."
Kinross' Red Back Acquisition
While mining insiders agree that the headline-attracting gold price has played a big role in revitalizing investor interest, they point to Kinross Gold Corp.'s $7.1-billion (U.S.) takeover deal in August for Red Back Mining Inc. - a gold exploration company with only modest production out of a couple of African mines - as a key catalyst for the sudden buzz on the Street.
"All of a sudden, when Kinross made the play for them, it really made a lot of people stand up and look at the rest of the gold market," Mr. Brass said.
And the junior gold firms have become a focus of attention, largely because their stock valuations look extraordinarily cheap. Mining analyst David Haughton of BMO Nesbitt Burns noted in a recent report that price-to-earnings ratios for "emerging producers" in BMO's coverage universe are at about 12.4 times, based on forecast 2011 earnings, compared with 25 times for intermediate producers and 17.4 times for the sector's biggest names.
"A lot of the juniors are significantly undervalued, given the assets that they have," Mr. Waldie said.
Juniors In Focus
North Atlantic raised nearly $3-million earlier this month - its biggest influx of cash since 2007 - through a private placement of shares and the sale of its stake in an African uranium explorer. But Mr. Waldie said it's still a buyer's market. Investors may be putting their money back on the table, but they expect bargains.
"Cash was available; we needed cash to move things forward. [But]it's still relatively expensive capital - we sold it still at a relatively low price," he said. "We have a group of sophisticated investors who have said, 'They need money … Let's buy these assets now while they're cheap.'"
That mixed reality is keeping an air of caution hanging over the otherwise brightening mood in the bars and eateries along Toronto Street in the east and Burrard Street out west.
"There's no question, people are feeling more buoyant, but they aren't smug," Mr. Beach said. "They've been beaten up so badly, they're still cautious."
"It really is in the early stages," said Mr. Thomas. "It's not that sort of 1996 mania. And thank goodness - because that's a sign that you're close to the end."
Gold's new boom
$1,300 (U.S.): The price for spot gold on Monday, a record high
5.2%: The weighting of gold stocks as a percentage of the overall S&P/TSX composite index as of Dec. 31, 2005
12.9%: The weighting of gold stocks on the S&P/TSX composite as of Aug. 31, 2010
18.4: Overall price-to-earnings ratio for Canadian gold stocks, based on forecast 2011 earnings
25.0: Price-to-earnings ratio for mid-sized Canadian gold producers
12.4: Price-to-earnings for junior Canadian gold producers