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For investors and movie critics alike, much is gained by formulating strong and defensible opinions resulting in a clear thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a given company or cinematic release. Roger Ebert didn't become a household name by awarding movies a thumbs-sideways, but on occasion it's perfectly OK for investors to straddle the fence.
AngloGold Ashanti (NYSE: AU ) provided a timely example by pairing offsetting sets of pros and cons in its first-quarter results. Noting the $1.28 billion stake in the company purchased from Anglo American (Nasdaq: AAUK ) by hedge fund manager John Paulson, I have to think twice before sending my thumb in a different direction from the guy who correctly bet against subprime mortgages in 2007. Then again, Paulson also holds a stake in Kinross Gold (NYSE: KGC ) , which lately has been moving away from this Fool's pack of preferred gold miners.
Adjusted quarterly earnings of $150 million came as a very welcome development following a gut-wrenching $897 million loss for the full year of 2008. Production of 1.1 million ounces at a respectable cost of $445 per ounce marked a 13% sequential decline, but the company reported progress in addressing major operational snags at African mines involving mine safety and mill maintenance. AngloGold Ashanti paused South African operations for three days last quarter as a result of mine fatalities, and sadly reports four more fatalities so far in the second quarter.
Fools will recall that South African miners like Gold Fields (NYSE: GFI ) and Harmony Gold (NYSE: HMY ) were affected in 2008 by a nationwide shortage of electricity. Although the global recession appears to have helped ease the shortfall for now, the nation's utilities regulator anticipates rate hikes of 20% to 25% each year for the next three years to fund a build-out of generating capacity. South Africa's commitment to addressing the inadequate infrastructure is a positive, but the rate hikes could translate into an unwelcome drag on mining margins.
AngloGold Ashanti continues to make headway against its oppressive hedge book covering 5.84 million ounces of future production. 154,000 ounces were surrendered to the effort during the first quarter, and the overall position has now been sliced in half during the past year. Still, with abundant unhedged miners like Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM ) and Goldcorp (NYSE: GG ) to choose from, the remaining book is a major factor pressing this Fool's thumb sideways with respect to AngloGold Ashanti.