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Whenever I travel to a new place, I instinctively set out on foot to find the highest hill around and soak in the lay of the land.
Within the wide world of gold miners, Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM ) boasts one of the tallest peaks in the world ... a mountain of gold production that added another 1.3 million ounces in the first quarter of 2010. Newmont dazzled gold investors this week by doubling its adjusted net earnings to $408 million atop a 32% increase in net operating margin for gold production (reaching $626 per ounce of gold on a co-product basis).
Answering, yet again, the familiar call for gold miners to produce long-anticipated cash flow, Newmont recorded a 91% increase in net cash flow from continuing operations with an impressive haul of $728 million. Of course, it doesn't hurt that realized gold prices averaged $1,106 for the period, but Newmont deserves full credit for achieving by-product cash costs of just $241 per ounce for the first quarter. For Fools keeping score, that's well below Goldcorp's (NYSE: GG ) peer-leading 2009 cash cost of $295 per ounce. Key to this remarkable achievement was Newmont's 90 million pounds of copper production at a cost of just $0.78 per pound.
It's almost scary to think how solid this quarter could have been if Newmont's top two operations had not experienced substantial hiccups. Reduced ore grades and mill throughput at the sprawling mining complex in Nevada caused a 16% retreat from prior-year production volume. At Yanacocha, Newmont's prolific joint venture with Buenaventura (NYSE: BVN ) in Peru, mine sequencing issues reduced production by 15%.
The view from the top
When you get to the top of gold mountain, you'll see miners in the valley below producing tidy bundles of cash flow at gold prices that have only recently begun to yield the kind of margin expansion that investors bargained for. Especially for the major miners, that cash flow will have to be put to hard work in order to continue replacing production. Newmont's $3.36 billion in cash and equivalents is bound to fuel the next round of a dramatic consolidation cycle in the industry, with many anticipating a possible bid for Lihir Gold (Nasdaq: LIHR ) as Newmont's next conquest.
If you turn to the north, you may soon see a flurry of activity at Newmont's Hope Bay project in Nunavut, Canada. Following a long freeze in activity there, Newmont this week indicated plans to step up development activity with construction of the decline (ramp) in the second half of 2010. Higher gold prices are thawing the prospects for challenging mine developments in the frozen north, where miners like Agnico-Eagle Mines (NYSE: AEM ) have already built expertise. As gold continues to march to new heights, as I fully expect it to do, Fools can anticipate additional interest in developing projects in frigid northerly climes like Kinross Gold's (NYSE: KGC ) White Gold asset, and NovaGold Resources' (AMEX: NG ) Galore Creek.
With this incredible low-cost quarterly performance, even amid project ramp-ups and operational snags, Newmont has once again proven its position as one of the world's most formidable mountains of gold.