Investors look for Barrick’s ‘Plan B’ as gold prices tank – by Pav Jordan (Globe and Mail – April 22, 2013)

Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Peter Munk could not have anticipated what lay before his company when he publicly berated the management team at Barrick Gold Corp.’s annual meeting last May for failing to boost the company’s share price, despite six years of record profits.

Fast-forward a year and shareholders might have their own harsh words at this year’s meeting on Wednesday for Mr. Munk and for Barrick, the Toronto-based company he built into the world’s largest gold miner.

The past 12 months have been some of the hardest in Barrick’s 30-year history. The company has changed CEOs, shuffled its board and been hit with project delays and multibillion-dollar cost overruns and writedowns. It’s also facing some anger by institutional shareholders over its decision to pay an $11.9-million (U.S.) signing bonus to co-chairman John Thornton, a former Goldman Sachs executive.

Just as the company looked to be getting its finances under control, it has been whacked by a tectonic shift in the gold price, which last week dropped as low as $1,361 an ounce from highs of $1,900 in 2011.

Analysts are now asking how the Toronto-based miner would cope if the outlook worsened further.

“They have to give comfort that they have considered what happens at lower prices,” said George Topping, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus in Toronto who will attend the annual meeting, even though he normally prefers not to.

“What is their ‘Plan B’ in the event that gold prices stay low? That might look at stripping out costs through budget cuts, department cuts, as well as exploration and projects … taking out marginal ounces.”

Barrick stock is trading at its lowest level in at least 20 years, closing at $18.65 (Canadian) on Friday, compared to $38.80 a share on the day of the last annual shareholders meeting, shortly before Mr. Munk replaced Aaron Regent as chief executive officer with long-time executive Jamie Sokalsky.

The price of gold saw its sharpest reversals in nearly three decades last week as major banks slashed price forecasts and fears mounted that European central banks could sell bullion to bolster reserves.

Even as gold bulls said the fall was exaggerated, Canadian banks sharply reduced their outlooks for the year. RBC Dominion Securities cut its outlook for the year by 15 per cent, and slashed its outlook for major gold producers by 26 per cent.

Barrick’s balance sheet is considered safe in the meantime, and the company has said that at $1,400 (U.S.) an ounce, its mines continue to generate substantial operating cash flow.

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