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Gold miners' Q2'20 defined by COVID-19, strong prices and M&A activity

A few themes have emerged as June winds down and gold miners prepare to release second-quarter earnings results, including mergers and acquisitions by Chinese companies, strong gold prices, and the impact of COVID-19 on operations.

In the second quarter of 2019, the price of gold largely traded between US$1,300 per ounce and US$1,400 per ounce. But with investors flocking to the metal as a safe haven asset in 2020, gold was selling for over US$1,700 per ounce in the second quarter of 2020 and recently approached US$1,800 per ounce.

Much like the first quarter of 2020, analysts continue to expect miners to reap the benefits of climbing gold pricing.

"From a defensive angle, in a loose monetary policy environment, gold typically screens well from an asset allocation perspective," BMO Capital Markets analysts Colin Hamilton, Alexander Pearce and Edward Sterck wrote in a June 25 research note. "And while our upside from current levels through year-end is less than for other metals, we are still looking at a very strong gold price, and an extremely profitable one for gold companies."

Gold's potential has been a focus for analysts this year, with many boosting price expectations. Goldman Sachs and UBS lifted their near-term forecasts for gold to US$1,800 per ounce in April, citing mounting economic challenges due to the COVID-19 health crisis.

Mining companies have also faced challenges of their own amid restrictions related to the pandemic. Governments in some countries required miners to suspend operations, mostly starting in March, as they grappled with how to curb the spread of the virus, with more stringent shutdown requirements in Quebec as well as in Peru and Mexico.

However, the shutdowns were relatively short-lived. In Mexico, mines starting rebooting in mid-May, while miners in Quebec began to restart operations in mid-April and mining operations in Peru are expected to reach 80% of pre-quarantine levels by the end of June.

Analysts expect the shutdowns to have an impact on production for some miners and precious metal royalty companies, though strong gold prices will help offset decreased output. There may also be moderate cost increases as miners tweak operations to meet new COVID-19 protocols.

"We expect volumes to be down further in Q2, before recovering in 2H/20 as mines ramp back up after lockdowns are lifted," Scotiabank analysts wrote in a June 16 research note.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis anytime here.

The second quarter was also defined by a series of transactions involving a couple of Chinese miners. Zijin Mining Group Co. Ltd. outbid Silvercorp Metals Inc. in a proposed C$323 million takeover of Guyana Goldfields Inc., which owns the Aurora gold mine on care and maintenance in Guyana. Meanwhile, Shandong Gold Mining Co. Ltd. bid for Cardinal Resources Ltd., which has development assets in Ghana, and proposed to take over TMAC Resources Inc., which owns the Hope Bay gold mine in Canada's Nunavut territory.

"With the price of gold at an eight year high of US$1,768 per ounce, up 16% year-to-date, acquisitions in the gold space are starting to pick up," Haywood Securities analyst Kerry Smith wrote in a June 25 note. "Four acquisitions backed by Chinese entities have been announced so far this year, with three of these in the last three months, and totaling 14 acquisitions by Chinese entities since 2017."

The trend has not gone unnoticed by other potential targets. Gold X Mining Corp. CEO Paul Matysek recently told S&P Global Market Intelligence that a key reason the company brought mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland on board as chairman was to tap his contacts with Chinese miners. Friedland is also founder and executive co-chairman of Ivanhoe Mines Ltd.

In Canada, Chinese M&A activity has also come under increased scrutiny amid COVID-19, and frosty relations between Canada and China, with Shandong's TMAC Resources deal headed for additional review.

Beyond the second quarter, merger and acquisition activity could pick up as travel restrictions ease, Franco-Nevada Corp. Chairman David Harquail told Market Intelligence in an email.

"There is a pent-up of activity," Harquail said. "Once everyone can travel and then host their board meetings, there will be more business announced. Give it 1-2 months after the lifting of travel restrictions."