The gold industry's growth binge is over, and mining companies have sobered up.
After a dismal year in which bullion and mining stocks dropped sharply in value, gold companies are slowly regaining their footing and learning to live with the lower precious metal price.
Canadian gold companies, from heavyweights Barrick Gold Corp., Goldcorp Inc. and Kinross Gold Corp. to the smaller Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd., slashed their bullion reserves and collectively recorded $17-billion (U.S.) in impairment charges in 2013.
Barrick chief executive Jamie Sokalsky, who closed the book Thursday on a $10.4-billion net loss for the year, called it the most difficult year in the company's 30-year old history and said it has gone through a "sea change." The world's biggest gold producer epitomized the industry's mantra of "growth, growth, growth, growth" during the commodity boom. But in the past few months it has overhauled its board, sold expensive mines, put the brakes on a key project and paid down some of its debt while trying to calm shareholders irate with how the company was governed.
With no real clarity on whether gold will climb above $1,300 an ounce, companies have eliminated production that costs more than the spot price and hacked away at expenses to conserve cash.
"It's a culture of not just chasing ounces and producing ounces for the sake of it," Mr. Sokalsky said in an interview. "It's a shift in culture in the mining industry in general, not just at Barrick."
Barrick took $11.5-billion in impairment charges last year, including about $6-billion related to its South American Pascua Lama project, which has been suspended indefinitely because of ballooning costs and delays.
The company has written down a total of $15.4-billion in assets since Mr. Sokalsky took over as chief executive in a management shakeup in the summer of 2012.
Barrick nearly destroyed its balance sheet by borrowing more than $6-billion in 2011 to buy copper company Equinox Minerals Ltd., most of which has been written down.
The company has since raised $3-billion in equity, lowering its net debt by 21 per cent. Its long-term debt in the fourth quarter fell to $12.9-billion from $14.6-billion in the previous period.
Miners must watch their cash position or risk a damaging credit downgrade. Barrick, Goldcorp and Kinross are ranked among the lowest investment grade ratings at Moody's Investors Service.
"Cash is king in the gold space. Companies without it are having to cut their dividend. Meanwhile, companies with improving cash flows, such as Barrick, are outperforming," said Pawel Rajszel, analyst with Veritas Investment Research.
In the clearest sign yet that Barrick has abandoned its growth strategy, the miner said it would produce between six and 6.5 million ounces of gold this year. That is below the 7.16 million produced last year and markedly lower than the nine million ounces the company once aimed to produce. The miner forecast higher costs to produce an ounce of gold of between $920 and $980 this year, compared with its average of $915 last year.
That puts its closet rival, U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp., within its range with production of five million ounces.
Barrick's Mr. Sokalsky said he was okay with his company's shrinking size. "That doesn't bother me," he said. "If we reduce our production but it's a more leaner and more profitable company, then so be it."
The company slashed its stockpile of unmined gold by 26 per cent to 104 million ounces from 140 million last year after using a very low gold price assumption to calculate reserves. The new figure represents the amount of gold the company estimates would be profitable.
Goldcorp, based in Vancouver, cut reserves by 15 per cent and swung to a $1-billion loss on charges. Kinross, which reduced its pile of reserves last year after using one of the most conservative price assumptions, lobbed off another 33 per cent this year. Agnico Eagle cut its dividend, recorded a loss and got rid of unprofitable unmined ounces.
Investors, which drove down the global gold index nearly 50 per cent last year, appeared to like the results despite the negative headline numbers.
"We are encouraged by the earnings because we are seeing progress," said Robert Gill, vice-president and portfolio manager at Lincluden Investment Management, which holds $3.3-billion in assets including Goldcorp, Barrick and smaller gold companies. "Investors don't want to see gold companies producing gold at high costs," he said.
Gold stocks rose 4 per cent on Thursday with Barrick, Goldcorp and Agnico Eagle making gains. Kinross fell.