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Ariana – tip update: production, rising gold, shares down. What?

By Nigel Somerville, the Deputy Sheriff of AIM | Sunday 16 April 2017

Disclosure: I own shares in one or more of the stocks mentioned. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from ShareProphets). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

I suggested that AIM-listed gold (then) explorer and now producer was a buy a couple of months back as we awaited the commencement of production. At the time the spread was 1.7-1.85p per share and they duly headed north as the final bits of paper arrived and the first pour was announced, only for the shares to fall away again. Meanwhile the gold price has been a one-way ticket north. I’m very puzzled - what is going on? With humble apologies for the performance thus far…I still reckon it is a buy and here is why.

First up the apology: everything I had hoped for – permits and first pour are in the bag and we have had a strong gold price on top. I may delighted to have been Mystic Meg – but I’m left looking a bit of a twit because having been holding out for 2.25p to sell off a bit of my own holding the shares never quite made it before falling away and closing for the Easter break on a spread of 1.65-1.75p. I apologise for the loss (so far). The old stock market saying that it is better to travel than to arrive has rung very true.

The maths was, to me, compelling. The production plant is held in a joint venture which has taken on $33 million of debt, plus some loans from the JV venture partners which are broadly similar. At 20,000 gold-equivalent ounces to be produced per year at a cost of around $600 the joint venture entity would chuck off, at $1233 gold when I first suggested the stock, something of the order of $38 million over three years – more than enough to pay off the $33 million debt. After that the rest is split between the JV partners, Ariana getting 51% - about $6.46 million a year (call that £5 million a year) for at least five years.

The mine life is, officially, still sitting at 8 years but further drilling analysis and noises from the company suggest an upgrade to 11.5 years is not far away, with the hope that eventually a 15-year mine life will be achieved. Do the maths: 8-year life is worth about £25 million to Ariana. At 15 years it would be around £60 million.

But the gold price has moved higher since then. It is not a pleasure to see because the reasons (tensions with North Korea, the Syria air strike) are depressing. But think what you will of the geopolitical situation, the gold price has gained strength. I have always viewed an investment in gold as an insurance policy and investing in a near-producer (now producing) as a leveraged version, albeit with delivery risk.

So on last week’s closing gold price of $1288 3 years of 20,000 gold-equivalent production by Ariana’s JV mine at Kiziltepe will throw off about $41.3 million – enough to repay that $33 million of lending and still hand out around $4 million to Ariana – call that £3.3 million, £1.1 million a year.

After that, on the (current 8 year mine life) Ariana would be set to trouser $7 million a year - £5.6 million - for five years. A mine life of 15 years would see a total of over £70 million coming in (before costs of further exploration etc). With Ariana on a market capitalisation of just £15.3 million those numbers suggest to me that Ariana looks way, way too cheap just on the basis of the Kiziltepe mine alone. Income may be limited for the first three years but surely Mr Market is being far too impatient!

The question is how much cash will Ariana spend on further exploration (and plc overheads, boardroom costs etc) before the big money starts to roll? In other words, is there a placing around the corner?

I am told that the company has no need to raise further cash currently, and that the planned exploration work is already funded. That doesn’t rule out the company pulling in more cash, though!

Ariana is still looking to build up its inventory and so exploration costs will continue. The big question is whether Kiziltepe can be managed so as to provide that cash, or whether further fundraisings lie down the road. I can’t say that I’m reassured by the no “current” need for cash.

On the other hand, chatting to the company before and at the UK Investor Show it seems that there is some flexibility as to future funding. The company could use higher grade ore to bring up the annual production figures. It is also looking at tweaking the plant to process a bit more ore (at what cost I know not, but I gather it would be a simple and relatively inexpensive improvement).

The nearby Tavsan project is still being proved up but plans are afoot to see that moved towards construction and production. By utilising the Kiziltepe plant the capex should be relatively modest: crushing on site then truck down the road to an upgraded (to cope with extra capacity) Kiziltepe. How long that will take, well, who knows. It could be 3 years….or not! But Tavsan is surely is worth a few quid already.

Then there is the Salinbas project, something like 1,000 miles away from the main sphere of activity: that could be proved up a bit more and sold. Unlike Kiziltepe and Tavsan it is 100% owned so the company could try to go it alone and get all the profits, JV it as with the others or just decide it is too distant from current operations and sell it on. There are also a few shares from the sale of the lithium project which might bring in a few coins for the meter. Finally, although there is a timetable of paying off the $33 million of debt owed by the Kiziltepe JV, I gather that there is quite a bit of flexibility in the timing of payments – provided the total is paid down on time.

There are, therefore, some funding options going forward. However I fancy that Kerim Sener, the big cheese, is an ambitious fellow – he would need to be to have got a project from green field to production in Turkey by a very small company on AIM. He’s got one project off the ground and I would imagine he’ll want more so as to grow the company.

Had the share price done what was, in my view, the decent thing and headed north on news that production had commenced and a first gold (and silver) pour taken place I don’t suppose the company would have hung around for long before charging up the coffers on the back of it.

But it hasn’t happened. I wanted to lob out a few shares at 2.25p and that hasn’t happened either. Yet the maths is all the more compelling now than it was a few weeks ago, with production having started (albeit in ramp-up until June) and a higher gold price. Surely the company is worth a good bit more now than it was when the plant wasn’t quite finished, the various final permits not yet secured and with lower prevailing gold and silver prices!

One could speculate that the share price is telling you something - that there is a placing on the way. Or it is telling you that the sell-on-the-news brigade have sold out, causing the share price to drift and a few more have either got bored or had stop-losses triggered and headed for the exit. One could be uber-cynical (moi?) and wonder whether there are some shorts out there hoping to close out their positions by subscribing for a placing. I sincerely hope that last case is just uber-cynicism and that in such circumstances (not that this sort of thing ever happens on the world’s most successful growth market) the company digs its heels in and lets them fry.

In my view the shares are cheap and the company is run by decent people. In fact, some years ago, the company tried its best to get its shareholders the best terms it could to raise cash by offering out free warrants to existing shareholders who simply needed to ask for them. It would have worked but for the financial crisis, stock market crash and the price of gold falling off a cliff. I have great respect for the management of the company trying to get its existing shareholder base the same terms as new money coming in, even though the best of intentions were undone. If the company wants a bit of extra cash I hope it will consider its shareholder base first, rather than going to the bucket shop spivs and trashing the share price.

Meanwhile, we are where we are. I apologise for a tip which hasn’t worked out at all as I’d expected. But I’m a buyer at these levels: I think the price is anomalous. Turkey may not be East Surrey, the plant may still have to demonstrate planned production levels and mines can go wrong. But even discounting future cashflows by a savage annual 15% my maths says the shares have something like 50% upside. And of course, as time goes by and (assuming all goes well the debt is paid down then the current value of future cashflow goes north.

So I still say buy, price target (short term) 2.25p. 

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