×

Why Aussie miners shrug off gold's slide

Spot gold's tumble to a half-decade low may have injected fear into the hearts of many gold miners but not in Australia, where the lower local dollar is cushioning the impact of the fall.

"We are benefiting from a lower Australian dollar. Whereas the U.S. currency gold price is lower, Australian gold prices are at a good level," explained Ian Murray, executive chairman at Gold Road Resources.

Speaking to CNBC on the sidelines of the annual Diggers and Dealers mining forum in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, Murray is one of several Australian gold explorers breathing easy amid an ongoing commodity rout.

Read MoreHow miners plan to dig themselves out of a deep hole

"If you bought an ounce of gold every day over the past five years, your average cost would be A$1435 an ounce. The gold price today is A$1500 per ounce. U.S. gold prices have declined, but we've had the Australian dollar also decline and that's more than offset the U.S. price decline."

Indeed, the Australian dollar is nearly 11 percent lower year-to-date, compared with an 8 percent gain for the U.S. dollar index. Meanwhile, spot gold in U.S. dollars crashed 8 percent during the same period.

Many Australian gold miners pay operating costs in local currency, so a depreciating Aussie acts as a saving grace for them and helps overcome the flood of new supply.

Revenues aren't the sole performance indicator for gold miners; margins are also key, making any form of cost-saving a huge benefit, explained Greg Foulis, CEO of Kingsgate Consolidated .

gold_bars_140.jpg
Stockbyte

"At A$1500 an ounce, that is a good price historically and we will be able to make a good margin on that price so we're fortunate to have that currency benefit," Murray added.

Low-cost gold producer Saracen Mineral Holdings echoed that view.

"With the cost environment in Western Australia, particularly with iron ore down in the past 12 months, the [Australian] exchange rate has been a real bonus. We're seeing an environment where margins are expanding despite U.S. gold prices coming off," said managing director Raleigh Finlayson.

‘Sweet spot’ for Australian gold

For years, miners Down Under were plagued with high labor costs, an Australian dollar above parity with the greenback, and spiking oil prices, but the stars are now aligning for the sector.

Aside from a cheaper Australian dollar, lower input costs on the back of sliding energy prices are also boosting miners. With Brent crude back below $50 a barrel, miners benefit from lower shipping and engineering expenses. Energy typically accounts for 10-15 percent of the overall costs for miners.

Read MoreThe real message of plunging commodities

"Five years ago we were in a boom town, we couldn't get labor, everything was expensive, margins were small even though commodity prices were higher at the time. Even with lower commodity prices now, input costs are lower and margins are actually better," Murray said.

However, Kingsgate's Foulis warns that the current good times may not last.

"It's a cycle. We had a 10-year cycle with 10 percent per annum cost inflation in terms of both capital and operating costs. We're coming out on the other side of that now. But if you go back to the late 1990s, costs as a function of input costs as well as currencies, we saw a 20-30 drop in unit cost of production. So, there is a bigger equation, there is a down cycle."

To be sure, it's not just Australia.

"There's been tremendous cost relief we've seen from currencies like South Africa's rand and the Canadian dollar. Across the mining world, currencies have provided a benefit to miners," noted Foulis.

Commodity-exporting economies like South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have been hard hit by the current sell-off in energy and metals prices, resulting in each of their respective currencies trading near six-year lows.

Best practices

External factors aside, there are other ways for miners can maintain a competitive edge.

Finding deposits that have an economy of scale and provide firms with low costs and operative flexibility to survive amid volatile commodity prices is essential, Murray warned.

"We have been targeting world-class deposits, i.e. a million ounces plus, which gives us a long mine life."