Metal Streaming Deals and Mining Companies: The Dark Side

Overall, mining analysts and other investors have been in support of streaming deals. However some observers have raised their concerns to be alarmed. They are raising the point that miners give away a ton of future upside as soon as metal prices improve.

In September, Robert Quartermain did something highly unusual for a mining executive — he signed a streaming deal with an early exit strategy.

Quartermain, the CEO of Vancouver-based Pretium Resources Inc., was alarmed at how much value miners are giving away in gold and silver stream sales, in which future output is sold at below-market prices in exchange for an instant cash infusion.

So when he sold a US$150-million stream on Pretium’s Brucejack project in British Columbia, he insisted that the deal include buyback options for Pretium in 2018 and 2019, and that it cap the number of gold and silver ounces that can be sold.

“When you start putting in higher levels of streaming, and the stream lasts forever, then the potential upside starts going to streaming holders and (away from) your existing shareholders,” Quartermain said in an interview.

This will go down as the biggest year ever for metal streaming deals, and it’s not even close. Since the streaming metal is typically sold at fixed prices far below the market price, the streamers get all the benefit when market prices go up.

To take an extreme example, Silver Wheaton was buying silver from some mining companies at less than US$4 an ounce in 2011, when silver prices rose to almost US$50. It was a massive transfer of wealth from mining companies to a streaming company.

Another concern is that streams can eliminate the exploration upside from a mine. If a miner has agreed to sell a fixed percentage of gold or silver production from a mine to a streamer, it will have to sell more metal if it makes a new discovery on the property and boosts production.

When companies are between a rock and a hard place, they often sell what’s good because they can’t sell what’s bad

When companies are between a rock and a hard place, they often sell what’s good because they can’t sell what’s bad

John Ing, president and gold analyst at Maison Placements Canada, said streaming is reminiscent of hedging, in which metal is sold in fixed-price contracts. It is almost nonexistent today.

“It wasn’t until the price of gold went up that everybody realized what Barrick was leaving on the table,” Ing said.

“The same thing is going to happen (to streaming) when the price of gold goes up again. Not until then will people focus on the dark side of the streams.”

For investors that don’t like streaming, the good news is that miners are starting to preserve more upside for themselves in these transactions.

For example, Barrick struck a US$610-million stream sale with Royal Gold last August that guarantees higher sale prices down the road. For the first 550,000 gold ounces and 23.1 million silver ounces that Barrick delivers to Royal Gold, it receives 30 per cent of the prevailing spot prices. For every ounce after that, it receives 60 per cent of the spot prices. So if silver prices go up, Barrick stands to benefit.

Traditional streaming companies like Silver Wheaton and Royal Gold are looking to buy streams that will last for decades, so Pretium’s deal is not for them. Instead, Pretium sold the stream to two private equity firms, Orion Resource Partners and Blackstone Group.

These companies are just looking for a good return and are not bothered by the idea of having their stream re-purchased in a few years. That is a relatively new concept in streaming, and it could be a game-changer if more private equity firms and other players decide to compete with traditional streamers.

Quartermain said his deal is proof that miners have alternatives to conventional streaming.