Rick Rule: we need to cut G&A fat from the industry so there are fewer, but more solvent players

>>Interview with Rick Rule (MP3)

During a time where the pain of downward pricing has spilled from minerals into the energy sector, Rick Rule, Chairman of Sprott U.S. Holdings was kind enough to share a few comments.

On the recent collapse in oil Rick noted that, “[M]arkets work. The cure for high prices (despite Washington’s consternation last year over high gasoline prices), is precisely that—high prices. The best they can possibly do is nothing. The cure for low prices, simultaneously, is low prices. The truth is that low energy prices will constrain supply over time and stimulate demand.”

When asked about the historical precedence of today’s levels of G&A in resource industry, Rick explained that, “I’ve never seen [corporate] compensation as a percentage of assets or total expenditures come close to this… [it’s] deplorable. The severance payments associated with change in control have been the main reason why you haven’t seen amalgamation in the industry—which the industry needs to survive.”

“Don’t give these guys any more money,” Rick added. “Make them go to company heaven.”

As a final comment to current and prospective speculators in resource markets, Rick noted that, Markets work—but they’re very messy and unpleasant if you get caught on the wrong side of them. That’s the truism that all of our readers need to remember.”

Here are his full interview comments with Sprott Global Resource Investment’s Tekoa Da Silva:

Tekoa Da Silva: Rick, in some of our previous interviews we’ve talked about the fear that’s been in the sector recently, led by Ebola and Burkina Faso. Now the dominating headline seems to be energy. Oil has just collapsed. Is this the next excuse for a person looking to avoid the resource sector at all costs?

Rick Rule: I suspect it is. It might not deter speculators because oil and gas are not as speculative as mining, despite the fact that people have been punished fairly severely in the last 60 days. I don’t think a decline in oil prices would scare too many mining speculators out of the market. Those who are inclined to panic have probably already exited.

It’s worth noting, Tekoa, that a decline in oil prices is temporary to begin with.

When I say temporary, that could mean two or three years. But as we’ve discussed before, markets work. The other thing we should note is that the decline in oil prices is good for the mining industry in a couple of very important ways.

One of the most important marginal costs in production is energy, and a lower energy price has certainly helped energy-intensive businesses like mining.

The second thing is that lower energy prices in effect act as a tax cut. They increase the average worker’s disposable income as a consequence of cutting his or her expenses. It has been estimated in the United States that today’s reduced crude oil prices will save the average motorist $100 a month, which may – I’m not saying it will – stimulate the economy at least in the near term and increase demands for goods. That in turn would increase demand for commodities, and ironically, oil and gas.

TD: Rick, we had some really nice charts here circulated by Jeff Howard recently, showing the collapse in oil from 1985 to 1987 and then again from 2007 to 2009. Both of those collapses showed about a 70% sell-off in the price of oil. If past is prologue, should we expect a similar sell-off in percentage terms?

RR: We could. But it’s really a function of the demand response. I think people mischaracterize the nature of sell-offs. It’s important to talk about what you expect with regards to the duration and extent of the sell-off. A lot of people point to increased American supply but I think that mischaracterizes the nature of the sell-off. I think it’s demand-related.

If the nascent recovery that appears to be occurring in the United States continues, then this sell-off in energy could be remarkably short-lived. Notice that I said ‘if.’ I’m not an economist.

The irony of course is that in the last three or four years, the only private sector in the United States where wages and salaries for the average American worker have been rapidly rising is the oil and gas sector. The wage pressure in the oil and gas sector is probably going to come off as a consequence of lower prices.

The truth is I have absolutely no idea what will be the extent or duration of the sell-off. I only know that markets work. The cure for high prices (despite Washington’s consternation last year over high gasoline prices), is precisely that—high prices. The best they can possibly do is nothing. The cure for low prices, simultaneously, is low prices. The truth is that low energy prices will constrain supply over time and stimulate demand.

Markets work, but they’re very messy and unpleasant if you get caught on the wrong side of them. That’s the truism that all of our readers need to remember.

TD: We’ve had some internal conversation recently regarding ramifications to the energy credit markets as a result of the sell-off. In terms of market size, something over a trillion dollars worth of energy-related debt might now come into question with these lower prices. Can you explain how the process works?

RR: The structure, particularly in the exploration-production part of the business, which we’re mostly concerned with, involves a lending structure called a production credit facility, known as an “evergreen” facility. The way it works is that a company has its production reserves evaluated by a third party, and that third party presents the management team with an evaluation of the net present value of the cash flows from those existing oil and gas reserves.

A lending institution then establishes a borrowing base at about 50% of the net present value of the company’s proved developed producing reserves. These facilities are usually evergreen, meaning that they’re interest only and they roll over from year to year as long as the collateral doesn’t exceed some collateral test.

Now the problem with the situation we’ve just experienced in the market, particularly because it occurred at year-end, is that the net present value of production at $100 per barrel is much higher than the net present value of that same production at $60 per barrel.

So borrowing bases will be reduced as a result of write-downs over the next 2-3 years. In some of the credit arrangements, what was an interest-only evergreen facility will become a four or five-year term facility with no room for additional credit. In fact, the requirement to pay down the existing credit may mean some companies will have no expansion capital.

If a company has been drilling shale wells with very high initial production rates but then rapidly declining production, your production and hence your cash flow falls off very, very quickly.

So this is a situation which, if you’re as old as I am, you have observed two or three times before. The problem that some of the smaller overleveraged producers will have is that they’re going to have to sell some properties in competition with other small producers who are similarly overleveraged in a market that is cash-constrained because there isn’t much credit available for acquisitions either.

Now for Sprott, this will be a wonderful set of circumstances. We have 25 years experience in the mezzanine lending business, and in this sort of situation if you’re Sprott, you go to the senior bank and you say, “Term out this loan. We will add the capital to the company to do the development drilling to support your facility. Agree in a creditor agreement with us that you won’t foreclose for five years. In other words we aren’t contributing money to pay down your debt.”

So the bank will then term out a facility at prime plus 1.5%, we’ll put in a mezzanine structure behind their 1.5% credit at prime plus 8.5% or prime plus 9.5%. The shareholders of the company get a chance to live. The senior bank doesn’t have to provision for their loan and we make an extremely attractive rate of return on low risk development drilling. So your view of the upcoming credit contraction in oil and gas really depends on who you are.

It’s worth noting that Sprott makes a substantial number of energy credits available from its own balance sheet. So Sprott shareholders are automatically indirect participants in this business right now.

I need to say one more thing. In terms of the solvency of the banking system in general in the United States, this decline in energy prices is a very good thing. As painful as it may be for the exploration and production business in the United States, it’s pretty good for the refining and marketing business. Their crude costs fall and it’s wonderful for energy-intensive businesses like chemical producers, trucking companies, airlines, etc.

So while on one hand the sell-off weakens the credits behind $1.6 trillion in credit facilities in the United States, it probably strengthens another $6 trillion of corporate loans in the United States. So on balance, declining energy prices are good.

TD: In that type of lending activity Rick, what’s the biggest risk in your mind?

RR: The biggest risk is the manager (me or the rest of the Sprott team), making a mistake in evaluating the credit. We try to ameliorate that risk by knowing our borrowers fairly well and by not putting all our eggs in one basket.

But the truth is that this is hybrid debt equity. You’re taking a subordinated position to the senior lender and if you make a mistake, you get hurt. Our track record with regards to not making mistakes over time in the credit business is pretty good. But certainly somebody needs to know that the biggest risk is manager mistakes.

TD: Rick, I had a conversation with one of our in-house geologists, Andy Jackson, the other day, and we talked about reserves and resources on some companies still being valued at higher gold and silver prices. Where are we in terms of getting the sector written down to today’s prices?

RR: We’re lagging substantially. In the minerals business, there have been a lot of 43-101s (which are thumbnail economic evaluations of projects) that have been written at much higher commodity prices. The one in question was written I think at $1350 gold and something like $30 silver, numbers that are substantially higher than the numbers that prevail today.

One of the things that’s important for us as analysts (and it’s important for individual investors to do the same), when they look at the headline number on a 43-101 or a preliminary economic assessment or a feasibility study, is to pay close attention to the assumptions. The idea that you can look at the executive summary, the final number and be happy with the process is certainly a mistake. You have some companies that are reporting gold project assumptions at $1000 gold. You have other companies reporting gold projects at $1350 gold.

So this is not comparing apples to apples. This is comparing apples to oranges and the problems don’t stop there. You have some companies talking about mining costs at $4 a ton. Other companies are talking about mining costs at $1.50 a ton, with each mining very similar projects. You will have other companies talking about 95% recovery rates—this is fiction. It’s important for investors who look at these third party or internal evaluations, to not just look at the final number. Pay real attention to the assumptions.

TD: Rick, would you say that industry-wide write-downs and a resetting of assumptions are essential for the sector to find a bottom?

RR: I think it’s part of the process. I think what’s more important is for individual and institutional investors to have a much more jaundiced view of the industry generally.

The fictional nature of some of the economic data is one manifestation of a financial services industry and an investor base that has been way too tolerant of management misfeasance and malfeasance.

The levels of general and administrative expense in the mining industry (in particular the junior exploration industry) relative to capital employed, return on capital employed, and exploration expenditures is deplorable. There’s too much G&A.

The salaries have been too high, particularly in periods of time like the last three years when the industry can’t afford them at all.

The severance payments associated with change in control have been the main reason why you haven’t seen amalgamation in the industry, which the industry needs to survive.

So a focus by the investor on the upside and the downside is what will allow the industry to thrive. As an example, in the TSXV, there are probably 400 or 500 surplus companies in Canada. As my friend Otto Rock says, please don’t feed the animals. Don’t give these guys any more money. Make them go to company heaven. Thank and excuse.

Think about it—500 companies at maybe $700,000 a year in general and administrative expenses including listing fees and auditing fees. That’s an enormous amount of money and every dime of it’s wasted. We need to cut this out of the industry so that there are fewer, better, more solvent players.

TD: Rick, recently as a group we studied the subject of G&A expenditures.

I remember asking you in that meeting and I’d like to ask you here again—at previous market bottoms, have you ever seen this outsized level of compensation offered to executives and directors, where in many instances their corporate share prices are down 70% to 90% over the last two to three years?

RR: I’ve never seen compensation as a percentage of assets or total expenditures that come close to this. This industry was obnoxiously overcapitalized in the period of 2004 to 2011 and most of that capital went to capital heaven—a substantial amount of it as a function of G&A.

We’ve done some work internally here that talks about compensation as a percentage of book assets and as a percentage of expenditures on the TSXV. The preliminary work we did showed that TSXV companies in the sub $50-million market cap range, represented by a statistical sample of 75 companies, spent more than half of total expenditures on G&A.

We need to true up that study over five years and expand the scope to determine the accuracy. The other scary thing we’ve seen is the severance liabilities these companies have, in the event of amalgamation or change of control.

A company was pointed out to us by a customer that had an $8 million market cap and a $7.8 million change of control obligation. It’s pretty obvious that no merger would take place, because if that happened, there would be what–$200,000 or $300,000 left for the shareholders? The managers would get the rest of it. This is scandalous. The industry and we gatekeepers in the financial services industry need to address it. We need to address the issue right now at market bottom because greed will prevent us from being able to do it at the top. At a market top, nobody will care.

TD: Rick, I’ve thought about the word “entrepreneur” in the past and what it means. In the relationships you’ve had over the years with the great entrepreneurs of the sector—the Ross Beatys, Lucas Lundins, Bob Quartermains—how would you define the entrepreneur? Is he usually the guy who “eats last,” metaphorically speaking?

RR: Well, certainly the entrepreneur is driven, and the great entrepreneurs eat fine anyway. But in my experience, the great entrepreneurs have been much more focused on building value than making money. As a consequence of that, they’ve made a lot of money.

There are people who engage in an activity with the point of view that it will yield them a nicer house or a Lamborghini. Those aren’t entrepreneurs, they’re hustlers, and there’s nothing wrong with a hustler. But a hustler isn’t necessarily somebody who’s going to make you any money.

A Ross Beatty or a Lucas Lundin looks at a task and focuses on the task itself. It’s the project that is the motivation. That isn’t to say those people don’t want to make money. But they make money by generating lots and lots of utility.

So I would say the qualitative differentiation between an entrepreneur and some other primary economic actor would be that the entrepreneur sees a way to create value in society and just can’t help him or herself. They have to attack that problem, and they see the solution to the problem as being far more important than the timing or even the extent of the compensation that they get in return for solving the problem.

The consequence is that more often than not, they manage to solve the problem and by not worrying about making money, they make lots of it.

TD: Rick, in winding down, is there anything you think we may have missed here?

RR: Well the thing I want to come back to again for our clients and our readers—is that markets work. The oil business demonstrated that very well. We had four years of extraordinary oil prices and extraordinary margin. The consequence was that the incentive to innovate and produce more was very strong and there was capital available to do it.

At the same time, the utility of oil at $105-$115 was lower and the consequence was that people began doing things like buying fuel-efficient cars or develop fabrication or manufacturing technologies that conserved energy.

A situation where we have increasing supply and declining demand means that you’re going to have lower prices eventually. And guess what? We had them. Now, people are looking for an excuse to justify low prices and they’re acting as though low prices are going to be here to stay. Equally silly. Low prices eliminate conservation. There’s no particular incentive to save when you aren’t saving much as a consequence of that effort and when there are lower financial incentives to produce.

I’m not trying to say that this market will change immediately. The market can take a long time to work. We discussed in one of our prior interviews the idea that stranded capital in the oil and gas business generated an awful lot of money in the last 10 years, particularly in the last five years.

They can cannibalize that capital for a while. They can produce below the cost of production for a long time. But the truth is that $60 a barrel is not a price at which the oil industry can earn its cost of capital.

At the same time that prices will have to rise, prices will be able to rise because $60 is a price that generates spectacular utility. If you think about the energy available in oil and gas per unit of matter and the transportability of that form of energy (liquid hydrocarbons), it’s extremely high. The utility that society gets from a $60 barrel of oil is extraordinary.

If the price of something can rise, and must rise, it will rise. I just can’t tell you when, and of course, markets are very messy. This decline in oil prices has been inconvenient for some people, and inconvenient for me. But that doesn’t matter. Markets aren’t organized around my convenience or anyone else’s, nor should they be.

TD: You bring up a pretty good point there Rick. After seeing the sell-off in oil and the reducing cost of gasoline at the local gas station—I feel like going for a joyride here, down the coast of San Diego, California. Thank you for sharing your comments with us.

RR: Always a pleasure Tekoa. Thank you.

For questions or comments regarding this article, or on investing in the precious metals & resource space, you can reach the author, Tekoa Da Silva, by phone 800-477-7853 or email [email protected].

By: Tekoa Da Silva