The junior gold miners’ stocks have spent much of the past year grinding sideways near lows, sapping confidence and breeding widespread bearishness.  The entire precious-metals sector has been left for dead, eclipsed by the dazzling taxphoria stock-market rally. But traders need to keep their eyes on the fundamental ball so herd sentiment doesn’t mislead them. The juniors’ recent Q4 results proved quite strong.

Four times a year publicly-traded companies release treasure troves of valuable information in the form of quarterly reports. Required by securities regulators, these quarterly results are exceedingly important for investors and speculators. They dispel all the sentimental distortions surrounding prevailing stock-price levels, revealing the underlying hard fundamental realities. That serves to re-anchor perceptions.

Normally quarterlies are due 45 calendar days after quarter-ends, in the form of 10-Qs required by the SEC for American companies. But after the final quarter of fiscal years, which are calendar years for most gold miners, that deadline extends out up to 90 days depending on company size. The 10-K annual reports required once a year are bigger, more complex, and need fully-audited numbers, unlike 10-Qs.

So it takes companies more time to prepare full-year financials and then get them audited by CPAs right in the heart of their busy season. The additional delay in releasing Q4 results is certainly frustrating, as that data is getting stale approaching the end of Q1. Compounding the irritation, some gold miners don’t actually break out Q4 separately. Instead, they only report full-year results, lumping in and obscuring Q4.

I always wonder what gold miners that don’t report full Q4 results are trying to hide. Some Q4 numbers can be inferred by comparing full-year results to the prior three quarterlies, but others aren’t knowable if not specifically disclosed. While most gold miners report their Q4 and/or full-year results by 7 to 9 weeks after year-ends, some drag their feet and push that 13-week limit. That’s very disrespectful to investors.

All this, unfortunately, makes Q4 results the hardest to analyze out of all quarterlies.  But delving into them is still well worth the challenge. There’s no better fundamental data available to gold-stock investors and speculators than quarterly results, so they can’t be ignored. They offer a very valuable true snapshot of what’s really going on, shattering all the misconceptions bred by the ever-shifting winds of sentiment.

The definitive list of elite junior gold stocks to analyze comes from the world’s most-popular junior-gold-stock investment vehicle. This week the GDXJ VanEck Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF reported $4.5b in net assets.  Among all gold-stock ETFs, that was second only to GDX’s $7.9b. That is GDXJ’s big-brother ETF that includes larger major gold miners. GDXJ’s popularity testifies to the great allure of juniors.

Unfortunately, this fame created major problems for GDXJ over the past couple years, severely hobbling its usefulness to investors. This ETF is quite literally the victim of its own success. GDXJ grew so large in the first half of 2016 as gold stocks soared in a massive upleg that it risked running afoul of Canadian securities laws. And most of the world’s smaller gold miners and explorers trade on Canadian stock exchanges.

Since Canada is the center of the junior-gold universe, any ETF seeking to own this sector will have to be heavily invested there. But once any investor including an ETF buys up a 20%+ stake in any Canadian stock, it is legally deemed to be a takeover offer that must be extended to all shareholders! As capital flooded into GDXJ in 2016 to gain junior-gold exposure, its ownership in smaller components soared near 20%.

Obviously, hundreds of thousands of investors buying shares in an ETF have no intention of taking over gold-mining companies, no matter how big their collective stakes. That’s a totally different scenario than a single corporate investor buying 20%+. GDXJ’s managers should’ve lobbied Canadian regulators and lawmakers to exempt ETFs from that 20% takeover rule.  But instead, they chose an inferior, easier solution.

Since GDXJ’s issuer controls the junior-gold-stock index underlying its ETF, it simply chose to unilaterally redefine what junior gold miners are. It rejiggered its index to fill GDXJ’s ranks with larger intermediate gold miners, while greatly demoting true smaller junior gold miners in terms of their ETF weightings. This controversial move defying many decades of convention was done stealthily behind the scenes to avoid outrage.

There’s no formal definition of a junior gold miner, which gives cover to GDXJ’s managers pushing the limits. Major gold miners are generally those that produce over 1m ounces of gold annually. For decades juniors were considered to be sub-200k-ounce producers. So 300k ounces per year is a very-generous threshold. Anything between 300k to 1m ounces annually is in the mid-tier realm, where GDXJ now traffics.

That high 300k-ounce-per-year junior cutoff translates into 75k ounces per quarter. Following the end of the gold miners’ Q4’17 earnings season in late March, I dug into the top 34 GDXJ components. That’s just an arbitrary number that fits neatly into the tables below. Although GDXJ included a staggering 73 component stocks in late March, the top 34 accounted for a commanding 80.5% of its total weighting.

Out of these top-34 GDXJ companies, only 4 primary gold miners met that sub-75k-ounces-per-quarter qualification to be a junior gold miner! Their quarterly production is highlighted in blue below, and they collectively accounted for just 8.1% of GDXJ’s total weighting. But even that is really overstated, as half of these are long-time traditional major silver miners that have started diversifying into gold in recent years.

GDXJ is inarguably now a pure mid-tier gold-miner ETF.  That would be great if GDXJ was advertised as such. But it’s very misleading if investors still believe this dominant “Junior Gold Miners ETF” still gives exposure to junior gold miners. I suspect the vast majority of GDXJ shareholders have no idea just how radically its holdings have changed since early 2016, and how much it has strayed from its original mission.

I’ve been doing these deep quarterly dives into GDXJ’s top components for years now.  In Q4’17, fully 31 of the top-34 GDXJ components were also GDX components! These ETFs are separate, a “Gold Miners ETF” and a “Junior Gold Miners ETF”. So there’s no reason for them to own many of the same companies. In the tables below I highlighted the rare GDXJ components not also in GDX in yellow in the weightings column.

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