Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Scale invariance in the changing economics of resource extraction

Some simple discussions today that follow from our last exciting episode.

First issue - there is a limit to the size of deposits (given our current state of understanding). For gold, you can't have a hydrothermal flow system with a radius of hundreds of km--the crust is too thin. Also the crust has too many heterogeneities, which can each trap some amount of the gold in a circulating system. So at some point, the probability density for the right tail has to drop off a cliff, instead of declining steadily forever.

There are some interesting ideas about the Witwatersrand invoking means of forming gold deposits which are no longer active that could have formed deposits over scales of hundreds of km.

As an example, I have plotted the size distribution of reported deposits in Nevada (pdf here). It is a graph which should mimic the white hyperbola in the first figure. It might look better if we had a lot more deposits to work from. The smallest deposits on this chart were only about 2,000 ounces--and one of them had already been mined out. I would naturally expect far more accumulations of gold in that size range in Nevada--but for economic reasons, only two have had enough work done on them to define a resource.

Second point is that size isn't everything. There are quality issues to consider as well. For instance, conventional thinking suggests there is little appetite for financing mining operations on gold deposits smaller than 2 million ounces. Anecdotally, however, there is increasing interest in financing small, near-surface oxide deposits because their capex and operating costs are both low, recovery rates are high, and their long-term environmental legacy costs are likely to be low. Similarly, grade affects the economics in a more complex manner than we can capture in the above figures. What might work would be to classify the deposits by grade or type, and create the same type of plot--but that is a project for another day.

Third issue--obviously, the economics of the extraction business don't stay constant. There are technological breakthroughs, making extraction cheaper. Or the commodity price rises. These change the location of the left limb of our hyperbola, making a whole new group of deposits (generally among the smaller of them) economically attractive. But some large, hitherto uneconomic, deposits may become economic as well (I'm not going to name any names).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Scale invariance and the "fat tails" problem

A good deal of the statistical description of populations is based on the normal distribution. I think this is because the first things we tend to notice (the variability of sizes of people and animals) tend to have such a distribution. The height of Canadian men averages about 1.74 m, and the probability of variance typically follows a bell curve such that the probability of a man being 2.1 m tall, for instance, is much lower than the probability of being 2.0 m tall. There are well-established physiographic reasons for why people will not be much taller, (or very much shorter, discounting factors such as amputations), so that we can discount the existence of 3.5 m tall men.

One way of displaying the normal distribution was through a normal probability plot, which is a graph in which the vertical axis is scaled so that cumulative probability (for a normal distribution) will plot as a straight line. There is special graph paper you can use, with an appropriately scaled vertical axis, variably called probability paper, or probability plotting paper (pdf). A description of its use with data appears here (pdf).

If we are looking at natural phenomena with a wide variety, it is likely the distribution will be log-normal.

A normal distribution is described well by a mean and a standard deviation. If we plot probability density, we observe a parabola, with the maximum probability density corresponding to the mean.

The concept of the normal distribution was so powerful that we naturally carried the description to describe other phenomena, for which there are no such limits on size. Landslides, for instance, like the current one in Washington state, or earthquakes. Our current understanding of such events is that they exhibit scale invariance, which means that there are normally many more small events than large events, and the frequency of larger events is related to the frequency of the smaller events through their size on a logarithmic scale. In particular, the size-frequency distribution is a straight line on a logarithmic scale.

As the economic value shapes whether or not an accumulation of mineral is considered a deposit, mineral deposits only show scale invariance over a limited range. The numbers of, say 50-oz accumulations of gold in nature are extremely large, but these are very unlikely to be of economic interest. On the other hand, 50-million-ounce accumulations are much more rare, but are far more likely to be economically viable, and are thus more likely to constitute a "deposit". The size-distribution of deposits is controlled by these two contrasting probabilities, and the resulting distribution is log-hyperbolic. The probability density graph appears to be an hyperbola.

Hyperbola, parabola, what's the difference. Well, the differences are slight over much of the probability density plot, except at the tails. Of course, those tend to be the most memorable events (well, at the large tail).

Perhaps this doesn't look too impressive to you. But the differences in the tails can be extreme, especially for the most extreme events. The reason is that although the magnitudes of the slopes of both curves increases as you move away from the centre, in the case of the hyperbolic distribution, the maximum value of the slope approaches the slopes of the guiding lines (the asymptotes), whereas the slope of the parabola increases without limit. The discrepancy in estimated probabilities for extreme events can be orders of magnitude!

This is a possible explanation of the "fat-tails" problem that comes up from time to time in discussing extreme events (recent economic events for instance). IIRC, the failure of Long-term Capital Management had been estimated as extremely unlikely, as the risk model showed a maximum daily loss of $35 million. Losses eventually greatly exceeded the model maximum.

The implications of this distribution is happier for geologists--it means the probability of discovering a large deposit is larger than is frequently assumed.

For instance, this is from what appears to be a Shell-training document (large pdf) on the role of play-based exploration in the decision-making tree (image is on pg 45).

The straight line is the log-normal distribution fit to the observations (squares). The model fit predicts that only 1% of discoveries will be larger than 175.5 million barrels of oil equivalent--but the observed data suggests that about 1.5% of discoveries are greater than about 350 million barrels.

Using the model to estimate the probability of a large discovery probably satisfies the accountants as being nice and conservative, but considering the potential economic importance of individual large discoveries, using the incorrect probability model may create a significant opportunity cost, if it results in an area play being discarded incorrectly.

I know some folks in the oil industry--and they can be a cagey lot, especially about something that influences their business plan. So it wouldn't be unheard of for the above document (as it is publicly available) to be deliberate misinformation. I have made enquiries, but so far no one will admit to knowing what I'm talking about.

Anyway, the play-based exploration idea is something I alluded to last time--but I don't see this entering into the playbook for mining companies until the costs of failure for mining exploration more closely resembles that of petroleum exploration--something that I think is still a few decades away.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Scale invariance of mineral wealth--the exploration conundrum

I was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray.
Part of the reason I started this blog was to work through some ideas. Writing them and seeking comment while they are still forming seems to be an ideal use of interweb pipes.

I have written here and here about scale invariance in gold deposits--mostly on a global scale, using various data sources (pdf), including this one (pdf). What to do with this information?

The most common question is "what is the largest gold deposit left to be discovered?" Unfortunately, the answer is probabilistic. There will be a fairly low probability that the largest gold deposit still to be discovered is larger than the largest found to date. A more meaningful question might be "what is the typical size of a gold deposit that remains to be found?" Nobody seems to be interested in that one. Typical deposits are for other people to find. They are going to find the largest one.

As above, so below. Given sufficient data, the analysis can be repeated for separate structural provinces, or for particular trends. At present, there is limited interest in this approach (pdfs), but it may be because it is not completely clear how to best use the information obtained by the analysis. Mining companies don't really make decisions to investigate a general area on these sort of criteria.

Presently, most mining companies decide to get ground on wholly different criteria. They select a commodity not necessarily based on their expertise, but because the market appears to favour it. They select a locality on the basis of its current popularity (bonus points for recent spectacular discovery), political stability, the ease (or cost) of acquiring properties, their personal interest/familiarity with the region, or the availability of infrastructure. Just check the websites of some junior mining companies.

Oil companies, on the other hand, use this type of data in a process called play-based exploration. "Play" refers to a prospective area, not what the geologists do. The idea is that through studying the distribution of the sizes of known oil deposits within a field, a company will estimate the probability of discovering a pool of oil of a given size, balance that against the probable losses accumulated during exploration, and decide whether or not to proceed. This is entirely different, and separate, from the analysis of any individual prospect within the play.

An analogy within the mining industry would be to estimate the typical size of a gold deposit in a place like Kazakhstan, and using that information to make a decision about whether or not to attempt to look for ground to acquire. The mining industry is not at that point, largely because the costs of failure are nowhere near as high as similar costs in the oil industry.

Oil companies went this route as the costs of dry holes escalated over the past few decades, and they began to lose money on plays, despite having success with individual prospects. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bernic Lake

I tried to be nice about this, but recent information about the unfolding situation at Tanco's Bernic Lake mine have really raised by ire.

Tanco has been mining caesium (pollucite) from under the lake. They had a permit that stipulated that they leave a certain thickness of rock (call it 'x') in support pillars, which hold up the roof of the mine (also the bottom of the lake). Presumably, company executives signed off on the specifications which led to the permit. Unfortunately, much of 'x' was ore, so the company began to extract it, with the result that the pillars are now smaller than originally proposed, and now are in danger of collapse (not my original source).

The original proposal was to drain a portion of the lake, block it off with a coffer dam, extract the remaining ore, fill the hole, and refill the lake. Which to my mind was doable, and a brief review of some of the environmental impact statements from interested parties suggested that this could be managed (aspects of the original proposal may be accessed here).

The trouble is that draining the lake and managing its environmental consequences is potentially costly. So apparently the company is considering a different proposal, which has been described (I have not seen original engineering documents) as continuing the underground mining operations, replacing the supporting rock as it is mined with some engineered structure.

The main difference between the new plan and the original plan is that the new plan is considerably cheaper, but risks the lives of the miners (especially given the company's operating record). But what do the lives of miners mean when almighty dollars are at stake?

No doubt there are subtleties that I have missed as I have not seen the original documents--and if I look at it completely dispassionately, it looks possible. But here we come to the history of the company. Considering how it has operated in the past with respect to engineering plans, I suggest the authorities in Manitoba should tell Tanco to fuck off.


Otto has reminded me that I was remiss not to mention that Cabot Corp. is the parent company of Tanco.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spring is in the air

At least according to Winnie-ther-Pooh.

Unfortunately, those of us north of the Tropic of Cancer have this.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The changing dynamics of generational wealth transfer in the bubble economy

About fifteen years ago I started travelling around various local church sales, buying silver--mostly jewellry, but also spoons, candlesticks, cutlery, whatever could be found. At the time, the stuff was dirt cheap, and there was no competition. That all changed in the following years, and it has been a few years since I last went looking for the stuff.

An acquaintance of mine pointed out that that was the traditional way to accumulate wealth--the young take advantage of the old, buying the things they no longer wanted. It sounds distasteful, but there is a kind of logic to it.

The classic, of course, was property. The archetypical scenario, with the young fellow cajoling the elderly pensioner to sell his house. "Come on, grandpa. You don't really want to keep going to the trouble of maintaining this place, do you? I'll give you a good price for it."

In older times, I don't think we thought of our homes as having value--other than the value of a place to live. With this mindset, the value of a house changes constantly throughout your life--having greater value when you are young, as its value becomes the net present value of all your future years living in it minus the costs of maintaining it. As you age, that value declines. So if the owner is elderly, we have a situation where the value of the house is much higher to the (presumably young) interested buyer than it does to the seller.

That discrepancy in value creates the opportunity for a really good deal for both sides. The pensioner can receive a sum of money much greater than the house is worth to him, while the buyer pays less than his perception of the house's value.

Since the fall in interest rates that began in 1980, house prices rose so much, creating a "wealth effect" that enriched the majority of homeowners, and changed their perception of the value of a house. Now the value of a house is "objectively" determined by other sales in the area--and not by an individual's life circumstances. It's no longer a purely personal decision either--a homeowner's choice to sell at a lower price will affect the prices of other houses in the neighbourhood, and would be looked upon as a betrayal by the seller's former neighbours.

The new perception of a house as objectively definable wealth now seems to be ubiquitous, but is a recent state of the human condition. The old dynamic, a form of inter-generational wealth transfer, has disappeared in the depersonalization of financial affairs.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The PDAC experience, part three

My son was playing around with the various pens I brought back from various companies. I use PDAC to stock up.

Clearly I need to start doing more due diligence.

My son got all of the pens to work except one: Detour Gold. So, naturally we took it apart to have a look.
Nice looking pen!

So far, so good.

Aha! No pen tip, no ink reservoir--just an empty shell.

You may insert your own punch line here.

I currently have no position in Detour, although I admit I did very well on it in the past.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Just noticed the Fraser Institute has its latest publication on mining jurisdictions, but haven't had time to go through it yet. pdf here.

Too bad they didn't ask me for an opinion on Sierra Leone.

PDAC, part deux

Now that the beer fog has cleared somewhat, here are some other observations.

Compared to previous years, the place was dead. Sure, there were people shuffling around. But I had broken a toe on Saturday in an unrelated event, and was a little nervous about getting it stepped on in the crowds (which would have been a given in any of the last three years). But I had no problems on Tuesday--in fact I hardly needed to exercise any vigilance at all, because the aisles seemed quite a bit wider than usual (fewer booths by far), and there were several booths missing at the ends of the crossways, so they were wider too. And there just weren't that many people there.

In other good news, somebody out of the blue asked me to do some work for them. I hadn't planned to look for any work, figuring it was probably pointless, at least among the companies that did show up.

There was a rumour that about 100 companies that had registered to have booths at the investor's exchange didn't bother coming.

These points seem to suggest we are close to a bottom in psychology--and the few financings that have occurred, and someone asking me if I could do some work for them, both point to an improving market. Unfortunately, my gut tells me that not enough bad companies died during the downturn.

One last point of interest--I was talking to a mining securities lawyer acquaintance of mine in one of the hospitality suites and I got to discussing one of my favourite topics--the manner in which NI 43-101 regulations skew the market in favour of larger interests, particularly institutional investors (to the detriment of the retail investor). It didn't surprise me that he agreed with me. It was the way he agreed with me. "Well, duh!". He did suggest that if the retail investor wants to front-run the market like a bank, then let him hire his own team of geos.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My day at PDAC

Truth to tell, the only incident I remember was being accosted by some kid in front of the Barkerville booth. He shoved a pamphlet at me, boasting that "the company had just started operating its mill yesterday." Furthermore they were going to produce some amount of gold which I've had too much beer to remember, and am too lazy in any case to look up or even direct you to the website.

So I asked him, "What do I get to do to you if the company doesn't deliver?" He looked slightly alarmed and confused. He asked what I meant. "Well, suppose I buy shares in this company on your recommendation, but the company fails to deliver on these promises, and I lose money. What do I get to do to you?" He took a couple of steps back, and started looking wildly around, possibly for Security. "Are you implying that all I can do is sell my shares?" He was like a drowning man thrown a lifeline. "Yes! You can sell your shares!"

"That won't be cathartic enough," I told him.

Over lunch I thought about what sorts of remedies there should be for disgruntled shareholders. It's unlikely they'd ever be allowed to physically injure anybody, but one idea that occurred to me was that for each board lot should entitle you to one sledge-hammer blow on the CEO's car. Now, it's true that after 50 or so such blows, the car would be a write-off, and the next 14,950 or so shareholder hammer-blows would technically be wasted, but may be cathartic. So that will be my next recommendation to the compliance officer at the OSC.

Monday, March 3, 2014

More about bubbles

Today we revisit a ratio I last looked at late last year--a simple comparison of the S&P500 vs gold, based on monthly closing prices, going back to the late '70s. In keeping with the theme of this blog, it has been presented in phase space. One way of studying complex systems is to attempt to illustrate the space of vectors that drive its evolution through time by observing the trajectory traced out in phase space. The time-delay phase space plot is one approach.

The S&P500-gold function is obtained by subtracting the gold price from the S&P 500 index price and dividing the result by the lesser of the gold price and the S&P 500 index. I did it in order to balance the size of the two bubblicious lobes that appear in the diagram.

The present value of the function is plotted on the vertical axis; whereas the 18-month lagged value plots on the horizontal axis. As the trajectory is placed out by the succession of points on the graph, when the trajectory is rising, the S&P 500 is outperforming gold; and when falling, gold is outperforming the S&P 500.

The downward bubble represents the rise and fall of the gold price in the late '70s to the early '80s, and lasted eight years. The upward bubble traces the rise and fall of the S&P 500 through the late '90s until 2009, and represents about 14 years. Together, the two bubbles constitute 22 years, which is more than half of the time represented by the plot.

Much of the time is spent close to the origin, meaning much of the time, gold and the S&P 500 index don't blow up with respect to one another. They still represent differences in performance of a few percentage points, and totalled over the 40 years of the graph, such differences will still be material. You might also notice that August 2011 plots just below and to the right of the origin, while December 2013 plots just above and to the left of the origin. Although not far apart on this graph, that did represent a pretty painful time for goldbugs.

Once a generation there appears to be a tremendous opportunity to make money. But the money is only made if you are able to keep it. It isn't enough to ride the bubble to the top--you need to take profits near the peak and there are opportunities during its deflation.

As we are again near the origin, there is no sign of a bubble in either of these parameters with respect to one another. If there is to be another vast bubble, we can't yet see which one is going to be inflated. But if we're taking turns, then it's gold's turn.