High cost gold miners hit

With bullion prices again skidding lower, all eyes are on gold producers' cost structures

A shutdown in the US Government, a looming argument over raising the debt ceiling and the continuation of America's massive stimulus program.

If there ever was to be a confluence of events that should spark a flight to safety, to seek comfort in gold bullion, there could be no more compelling combination.

Instead, gold prices tanked overnight, dropping almost 3% to well below $1,300 an ounce, smashing through support levels after a large sell order went through in late US trading.

Once again, that has put domestic gold stocks under pressure and focused attention on costs. Australian gold stocks largely missed the boat during the boom in gold prices, failing to capitalise on the price spike as they squandered cash on high cost development and takeovers.

Newcrest (NCM), the biggest Australian producer, was the worst offender with its hugely inflated bid for Lihir.

All the major gold players were under pressure this morning: Perseus (PRU) was off 6.5%, Resolute (RSG) and Kingsgate (KCN) were close behind, Silver Lake (SLR) and St Barbara (SMB) were in the top six declines on the ASX, and Newcrest with a 4% decline was inside the top 10.

With bullion below $US1,300, Perseus would appear to be unprofitable while Newcrest's margins are extremely tight.

Trying to determine the costs of extracting the yellow metal by individual miners at individual projects has always been confusing.

Recent changes to reporting rules have attempted to lift standards to make it easier for investors although given there now are three tiers of cost structures, it can be difficult to get a definitive answer on the subject (see Tim Treadgold's Cost changes raise the gold bar).

As miners shut down high cost operations, constricting supply, stability should return to the market. But unless there is a serious break-out in inflation as a result of America's massive Quantitative Easing policy, better known as money printing, there appears little scope for any major shift back towards the elevated levels of recent times.