Before I set out to issue my top gold stock recommendations for 2013, I believe it's my duty to inform you that I lost money with gold in 2012. Yes, it's true: Even in the midst of a powerful secular bull market like the one that's still in place for gold, it's entirely possible to have down years in which the gold miners at large fail to deliver market-beating returns.
The previous year had not been entirely kind to gold stock investors either, but at least in 2011 the price of gold managed to outperform the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) to help contain the damage. In 2012, however, gold's meager advance -- as reflected in the 5.7% advance year to date for bullion proxy SPDR Gold Trust (NYSEMKT:GLD) -- has fallen far short of the substantial 12.7% gain for the S&P 500.
For the miners -- plagued as they have been by severe cost inflation, widespread operational setbacks, and a range of other issues -- their repeated failure to deliver the investment gains that could reasonably be expected in this elevated price environment remains a sharp thorn in the side for gold investors like myself. Evy Hambro, who manages the $12 billion World Mining Fund at BlackRock, is entirely justified in condemning the mining industry's "appalling track record of value destruction" over the past several years. Year-to-date, the Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT:GDX) has suffered a major 12% retreat, while the smaller-cap benchmark Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT:GDXJ) is down nearly 17%!
Ultimately, how you judge my performance as a stock picker in the gold mining industry during 2012 will depend upon your preferred measuring stick. My top 10 picks for 2012, which I presented to investors in this two-part series last December, look poised to close the year with a slight loss that currently comes in at (2.2%) for an equal-weighted average. While of course I am relieved that I outperformed the relevant industry benchmark ETFs, I am deeply dissatisfied with my failure to outperform both the gold price itself and the S&P 500. After all, for all the inherent risk associated with exposure to miners, there must be a commensurate reward to justify the risk. Unfortunately, in 2012, that just wasn't the case. Let's take a look at some of my individual picks to see if we can discern what went wrong.
I was a one-hit wonder in 2012
I know Thanksgiving is behind us, but this year I have particular cause to be thankful for Primero Mining (NYSE:PPP). I selected Primero as my No. 1 stock pick for 2012 after dubbing this "The Greatest Gold Stock in the World" a few months earlier. I perceived ultra-deep value in the shares as a series of key challenges remained to be overcome, and over the course of 2012 Primero positively triumphed in every way imaginable. My bullish thesis relied upon the successful resolution of that troublesome tax issue relating to silver delivered to stream holder Silver Wheaton (NYSE:SLW), timely confirmation of the substantial resource potential at the San Dimas mine, and meaningful progress toward expansion of that operation. On all three counts, Primero came through to power the gold industry's premier stock performance. At its 2012 peak, Primero logged a 148% advance, while presently the stock retains a gain of 93%.
After Primero, the second-best performer among my top picks is Paramount Gold & Silver (NYSEMKT:PZG), with just a 5% gain year to date. Clearly, without that standout performance from Primero, my collective results would have fared far worse! Just as I was a year ago, I am at a loss to explain why the market continues to turn a blind eye to the meaningful shareholder value that Paramount has consistently generated through highly successful exploration activity at its two main properties in Nevada and Mexico. I urge Fools to review the company's phenomenal record of exploration successes during 2012, and consider whether this single-digit showing for the stock adequately reflects the corresponding expansion of Paramount's high-quality resource base.
Two shades of disappointment
Perusing the remaining eight stocks from my list that have each lost ground during 2012, they are each clearly a disappointment relative to the expectations I had going into 2012. But not all disappointments are created equal. In the case of AuRico Gold (UNKNOWN:AUQ.DL), for example, my dissatisfaction is directed squarely at management's glaring missteps that culminated with the inexcusable sale of the company's former flagship Ocampo mine.
Meanwhile, on the complete other end of that spectrum, the 41% drubbing inflicted upon the shares of Sabina Gold & Silver (NASDAQOTH:SGSVF) year to date appears astonishingly at odds with the company's continued progress in advancing the high-grade Back River project toward the important pre-feasibility study due in early 2013. Accordingly, I have reiterated my bullish stance toward Sabina despite the profound retreat, and I continue to view this as one of the industry's best-kept secrets.
Somewhere in the middle, major miner Kinross Gold (NYSE:KGC) continues to suffer the legacy of prior management's infamous value destruction, even though new management has made convincing strides to turn over a new leaf. Ultimately, turning over a new leaf is precisely what the entire industry must accomplish if gold investors are to finally reap their just rewards for exposing their hard-earned capital to these inherently risky stocks. Although I believe the rampant cost escalation that has so challenged the miners' ability to convert gold price advances into meaningful profit growth is finally set to ease up a bit, investors must take extra care to select those operators that exhibit the strongest commitment to enhancing shareholder value through highly disciplined capital investment, stringent cost controls, organic resource and production growth, etc.
Even after back-to-back years during which investors seeking market-beating gains in the shares of gold miners have been subjected to widespread disappointment -- and notwithstanding my own personal sense of frustration with these stocks' collective failure to launch -- I remain steadfast in my contention that the well-selected stocks in this industry will ultimately deliver substantial long-term outperformance of every relevant benchmark as well as the broader equity markets. Accordingly, it is with an appropriate sense of humility and redoubled determination that I will soon finalize my list of top gold stock recommendations for 2013.
Fool contributor Christopher Barker owns shares of Goldcorp (USA), Paramount Gold & Silver, Primero Mining, Sabina Gold & Silver, and Silver Wheaton (USA). The Motley Fool owns shares of Primero Mining. 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 Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.