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Life after Munk: Barrick will need to keep cutting

Barrick Gold Corp.'s restless investors are getting what they wanted: change, which comes in the form of Peter Munk's retirement. Now what?

Sources say that Mr. Munk, the founder of the world's biggest (and, lately, most publicly battered) gold company, is about to announce his long-expected departure as chairman, effective at Barrick's annual meeting in the spring. Word is the company will also announce other board changes, and will appoint a chief operating officer.

Mr. Munk's exit and the board overhaul, together with expected changes to the company's much-criticized compensation structure, should significantly soothe investor anger over the company's governance inadequacies.

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As for the chief operating officer, that's where the tougher job lies. Barrick's business challenges will be trickier than a board re-boot – and after some big missteps in the past couple of years, management will have to prove itself before oft-burned investors will become believers again.

The bottom line is Barrick's bottom line: The company needs to convince skeptical investors that it can grow its profits again . And it will be attempting to do so in an environment of declining prices for its gold (as well as its copper and silver) – and in an era when investors can bypass operational risk in a large, complex gold company by simply owning gold exchange-traded funds.

For a massive and mature miner like Barrick, there are three routes to boosting profits. It can get even bigger. It can diversify. Or it can reduce costs.

Barrick has tried to get bigger, by acquiring properties and competitors and ramping up projects. But when you're operating on Barrick's scale, meaningful growth is very expensive. And, as the company's numerous writedowns have shown, it's very risky, too.

Barrick has tried to diversify, by going heavily into copper. But its $7.3-billion (U.S.) purchase of Equinox Minerals Ltd. in 2011 was not only ill-timed, it confused the market, which seemed to understand and like Barrick better as a pure precious-metals play.

Costs are Barrick's best bet – and while the company has already turned considerable focus to becoming increasingly efficient, it has a long way to go. Barrick estimates that each ounce of gold it produces in 2013 will have cost the company $919 (those are the "all-in sustaining costs" of its gold mining business, basically covering everything). With gold prices at $1,200 an ounce and falling, that doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.

That goes a long way to explaining why Barrick's market capitalization is equivalent to just $140 per ounce of proven and probable gold reserves (even less when you take into account its sizable silver and copper reserves, too) – even if you ignore Barrick's other issues that have added risk to the stock.

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Barrick has adopted a mantra of cost reduction, and the board shuffle and new COO are unlikely to change that message. Investors will have to come to grips with the idea that Barrick can grow its bottom line even if it doesn't grow its production and reserves, by narrowing its focus to the most profitable, rather than simply the most. And the company, in the dawn of its post-Munk era, will have to prove that it can stick to the game plan.

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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