Gold Miners in Flux (ABX, GG, NEM, KGC, AUY, FCX)

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Gold has been trading in a fairly narrow range between $1,600-$1,700/ounce for the past two months after ending 2011 at around $1,525/ounce. Gold prices spiked to near $1,800/ounce in February, but none of this has helped gold mining stocks which are down anywhere from -20% to around -45% for the past 12 months.

Barrick Gold Corp. (NYSE: ABX), which reported quarterly results this morning, is just the latest casualty in the gold mining business. Goldcorp Inc. (NYSE: GG) missed estimates by a modest amount, and Newmont Mining Co. (NYSE: NEM) reported a modest beat for the quarter. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE: FCX) beat EPS estimates by nearly 12%, the best showing of the bunch so far. Yamana Gold Inc. (NYSE: AUY) missed estimates yesterday, and Kinross Gold Corp. (NYSE: KGC) won’t report first quarter results until next week.

Demand for bullion, from central banks and investment instruments like the SPDR Gold Shares ETF (AMEX: GLD) are driving the price of gold, but not driving it to great new highs. Equity markets have been strong in the first quarter of the year, and investors have been chasing returns rather than seeking the safe haven of gold.

For the miners themselves, costs are the constraint. Barrick, for example, realized an average gold price of $1,691/ounce in the first quarter, up from $1,389/ounce in the same period a year ago, an increase of more than 21%. Cash costs rose from $437/ounce a year ago to $545/ounce in the first quarter, more than 24%. Total production costs rose from $595 to $737 per ounce, a jump of nearly 24%.

Barrick reported total cash margin on gold of $1,146/ounce, while Goldcorp reported total cash margin of $1,456/ounce. Labor and regulatory issues contribute to higher costs, as do less productive ores. Then there are the rising costs of new exploration and development.

If investors continue to flock to equity markets, only central banks and jewelry makers are left to push demand for gold. That’s not a good position for the miners to be in.

Barrick’s announced a 33% increase in its quarterly dividend this morning, to $0.20/share. Goldcorp raised its quarterly dividend to $0.35/share earlier. Neither move will boost the dividend yield above 2% though — and even if it did, it probably wouldn’t be enough to lift the share prices much.

Barrick stock is down about -1.6% in the pre-market, at $39.80 in a 52-week range of $38.46-$55.95.

Paul Ausick