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Is This Canada’s Best Gold Company?

During the latter half of 2013 and in early 2014, many gold companies were plagued by a number of different factors that ultimately led to significant pressure on their share prices. Most importantly, the price of gold continued to slump, falling from a peak of $1,900 per ounce to current levels of just over $1,250. Because of this huge decline, gold mines purchased when the price of gold was much higher suddenly became unprofitable. Many companies were forced to take huge writedowns as a result.

These writedowns hit Barrick Gold (TSX: ABX)(NYSE: ABX) particularly hard, since it was one of the most aggressive acquirers at the top of the market. Over the past four quarters, the company has written off nearly $13 billion in ill-timed acquisitions, and has either cut or eliminated production at nearly half of its facilities around the world. The company has also slashed its capital spending budget significantly and has pledged to cut office expenses to the bone. These are prudent steps as the company attempts to pay down its more than $12 billion in debt.

Fellow producer Goldcorp (TSX: G)(NYSE: GG) has fared much better than Barrick during the recent downturn. It maintained its dividend throughout the crisis, while Barrick was forced to cut its dividend. The company was also hurt by write-offs, but not nearly to the extent that Barrick was.

Most of Goldcorp’s strength can be traced back to its conservative management. The company only has $400 million in net debt, practically nothing for a company with a market cap of $20 billion. It trades only 5% above its book value, and has some of the lowest cost mines in the sector. If gold prices stay at today’s level, Goldcorp can eke out a small operating profit. If the price of gold goes higher, Goldcorp becomes a terrific earner.

But still, both of these companies expose investors to one troubling part of the gold industry — production risk.

This isn’t the case for investors in Franco-Nevada Corporation (TSX: FNV)(NYSE: FNV), a company with a $7.5 billion market cap that doesn’t actually produce an ounce of gold.

Rather than take all the operational risk, Franco-Nevada focuses on finding high-grade gold deposits, and then takes a royalty as other gold miners come in and do all the actual work. It has producing assets in North America, South America, Africa, and Australia.

The company’s balance sheet is outstanding. It doesn’t have any debt, and currently has almost $700 million in cash. It wrote off only $137 million during its house cleaning, a mere fraction of its more aggressive peers. Investors can also feel secure about the company’s dividend, since operating income even at these somewhat depressed levels is enough to cover the 1.75% yield.

Franco-Nevada is also investing in the future, currently testing more than 150 additional mineral sites, mostly for gold. At this point nothing is close to production, but if the company’s track record is any indication, there are some interesting areas in the pipeline.

Perhaps Barrick or Goldcorp would offer a better upside than Franco-Nevada. Those two companies are much more levered to the price of gold. But if I were choosing one stock for exposure to the yellow metal, Franco-Nevada would be my choice. Production just comes with too many question marks.

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Fool contributor Nelson Smith has no position in any stock mentioned in this article. 

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