Big gold miners see muted M&A as bullion's rise limits bargains

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - The world’s biggest gold miners will stay shy of big acquisitions, top executives said this week, noting that a jump in the price of bullion has made potential purchases pricey, and memories of failed deals linger.

The need for financial discipline was the dominant theme at the Denver Gold Forum this week, an annual conference for top miners, as the sector emerges from a deep, four-year slump.

Executives met as the spot gold price surged by 30 percent in the first seven months of the year to as high as $1,374 an ounce. It has since slid to $1,326, still up 25 percent.

Had the industry experienced lower gold prices for longer this year, there would likely have been more mergers and acquisitions, said Gary Goldberg, Chief Executive of Newmont Mining Corp, the biggest gold miner by market value.

“Folks who may have been knocking on our door have gone the other direction now that prices have come up,” he said in an interview at the event in Colorado Springs.

Globally, gold miners have completed acquisitions worth just $4.6 billion this year in 142 deals, according to Thomson Reuters data. That is down 23 percent on the $6 billion worth of deals in the same period last year and far from the $37 billion worth in 2010.

“We look. We will continue to look, but most importantly we will stay disciplined,” Kinross Gold CEO Paul Rollinson said.

Memories of a disastrous six-year acquisition spree as miners chased new gold reserves between 2006 and 2011 are still fresh for both executives and investors. Many of those overpriced deals ended in multibillion-dollar writedowns.

“That was a failed experiment,” Barrick Gold Corp President Kelvin Dushnisky said, repeating the Canadian miner’s mantra of “value over volume”.

Executives did acknowledge growth will be a challenge without acquisitions. Global gold mine production is expected to fall nearly 9 percent between 2015, its peak year, and 2018 to 2,903 tonnes, according to Thomson Reuters GFMS.

For now the industry is likely to resist calls to grow through deals and instead employ “self-help” strategies to curb falling production, BMO Capital Markets analyst Andrew Kaip said in a Sept. 18 note.

That includes expanding existing operations and, for the lucky few who have them, developing robust, new projects into mines. [nL1N1B51EY]

Big miners will continue to try to sell smaller, non-core operations to cut high debt levels, said Michelle Grant, BC mining and metals transaction advisory service leader for EY.

The trend could generate a few large transactions before year end, including Barrick’s sale of its 50 percent stake in Australia’s Kalgoorlie mine, which some analysts expect to fetch $1 billion. [nL1N1AD2AZ]

The industry’s caution is unlikely to last, based on miners’ actions in previous commodity upturns, said Rob McEwen, an industry veteran who is chairman of McEwen Mining Inc. He said miners will eventually return to a mindset that they must expand to appeal to the broader market.

“It happens every time but it’s probably four to five years away,” McEwen said.

Editing by David Gregorio