For more than a decade, gold and other precious metals have posted spectacular gains, jumping into the limelight and capturing the attention of mainstream investors. But lately, although gold prices remain relatively high by historical measures, many gold mining stocks are lagging behind -- and some gold miners believe the problem may lie in one of the key investment vehicles that made it so easy to invest in the sector in the first place.
Yesterday, Kirkland Lake Gold CEO Brian Hinchcliffe argued that exchange-traded funds are acting as competitors for investor capital. Pointing to nearly $100 billion in mergers and acquisitions over the past two years in the industry, Hinchcliffe criticized his peers for overpaying on takeover bids, squandering their profits and leading ordinary investors to choose bullion-tracking ETFs instead.
Don't bite the hand that feeds you
At first glance, Hinchcliffe's argument certainly appears to have merit. Bullion ETFs have grown to be a huge force in the industry, with SPDR Gold
But one response to blaming ETFs for draining capital is that ETFs' heavy demand for bullion has been key in driving metals prices higher, which in turn has contributed greatly to miners' profits over the years. In other words, if you take away the ETFs, gold prices may never have risen in the first place -- leaving miners with even more to complain about.
The dividend debate
As a solution, Hinchcliffe suggested that miners should increase their dividend payouts. Citing a potential 5% to 8% range, he said that dividends are "the best defense against the ETF."
Gold mining isn't the only industry in which investors wonder whether spare cash wouldn't best be returned to shareholders through dividends. Tech stocks with similarly large cash balances have also spurred debates over whether the growth prospects from reinvesting capital into their businesses would actually produce good returns. Skeptics cite similar concerns about overpaying for acquisitions.
With miners, however, there's a clear case for paying dividends to distinguish productive mining activity from a simple play on bullion prices. Because miners produce and sell precious metals, they have incentives to be as efficient as possible in earning profits -- and shareholders can reap big rewards when companies succeed in improving efficiency even if gold prices don't budge. Although profits alone are valuable to investors, the tangible return of a dividend payout carries more weight.
On the other hand, one reason why bullion ETFs have gotten so popular is that many investors don't want to count on company management to make smart decisions. For instance, investors who are interested in palladium essentially have two choices on U.S. exchanges: Stillwater Mining
Although gold miners obviously depend on high gold prices, investing in mining stocks is very different from buying bullion, either directly or through bullion ETFs. For miners to shine, they have to demonstrate not only that high gold prices will create profits but also that they'll do everything they can to operate efficiently and maximize profits. If that happens, then mining companies won't have to worry about attracting capital -- investors will flood them with it.
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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger loves a good fight. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article, although he does own gold and silver bullion coins. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy will never die.