With gold prices soaring and precious metal miners finally beginning to rebuild large chunks of that monster correction endured by investors last year, Fools have the luxury of demanding the highest purity when it comes to selecting miners with the golden touch.
AngloGold Ashanti's (NYSE: AU ) fourth-quarter results revealed just enough sources for concern to place this major producer near the back of the gold pack. The company lost an adjusted $17 million in the fourth quarter and a staggering $897 million for the full year 2008 because of efforts to buy back a massive portfolio of gold hedges in anticipation of higher gold prices.
While I view the 47% reduction of the hedge book to about six million ounces of gold as a positive step, the company is well behind the times compared to major unhedged producers like Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM ) and Goldcorp (NYSE: GG ) . In addition to this financial hemorrhage, AngloGold Ashanti also recorded a whopping $1.25 billion in asset impairments during the fourth quarter.
Fortunately, AngloGold Ashanti's operations do indeed possess the golden touch. The miner produced 1.27 million ounces of gold in the fourth quarter at a cash cost of $422 per ounce. The 13% cost reduction compared to the previous quarter further corroborates the anticipated industry-wide trend and mirrors recent results from Randgold Resources (Nasdaq: GOLD ) . The company forecasts up to five million ounces of production for 2009 at a cost of $435-$450 per ounce.
AngloGold Ashanti was on the losing end of the gold purchase heard around the world. To be sure, the $1 billion sale price for its stake in the world-class Boddington mine in Australia to rival Newmont Mining will go a long way to alleviate some of the debt concerns faced by AngloGold Ashanti. Shareholders, however, may pay an opportunity cost for some time as the company fails to participate in one of the most promising gold mines in the world. As consolation, consider that AngloGold Ashanti retains gold reserves of 68.2 million ounces even after the sale, which dwarfs the reserves of intermediate miners like Yamana Gold (NYSE: AUY ) and Agnico-Eagle Mines (NYSE: AEM ) .
Stepping back to view AngloGold Ashanti from various angles, I see a gold miner with solid operations offset by unacceptable losses of money, asset values, and opportunities. From this Fool's angle, every other miner named above offers a more enticing vehicle for exposure to gold.