Next TFSA investment – First Uranium

Following the success of getting out of Harvest Energy debentures, I had a lot of cash in my TFSA, especially after the January 2010 contribution of $5,000. There was only one debenture candidate left on my radar that appeared to have a good risk/reward characteristic. Although it wasn’t great, it was good enough and I executed a trade on it.

Continuing with my less than diversified strategy, I have placed the sum of the TFSA into the debentures of First Uranium (FIU.DB). The debentures give a 4.25% coupon, maturing in June 2012. They are convertible into equity at $16.42/share, but this is unlikely to be a factor in the valuation. The total issue was for CAD$150M. They went as low as 41 cents in the debenture crash of early 2009.

The price I received was 74.5 cents on January 11, which is a 5.7% current yield and an implied annualized capital gain of 13.0%. Assuming a 1.2% (short term interest rate) reinvestment of coupon, this is a realized return of about 16.8%, which is (barely) above my investment threshold. The previous Harvest Energy investment was above 30% at the time and price I made it, but the spring of 2009 was a very special investment climate where buying anything would give you massive returns. Today, things are much different and you really have to pull out a high powered microscope since anything with a high return has a lot of baggage you have to sift through. First Uranium is no exception.

First Uranium is a Toronto corporation, but with operations primarily in a South African mine with uranium and gold reserves. The name is misleading in that the bulk (~85%) of the company’s revenues are expected to be from gold sales. The foreign nature of their operations introduces a risk, but South African mining operations have been able to operate sustainably in other circumstances. Although I have my geopolitical concerns about South Africa in the medium term (10 years out), I have discounted such concerns in the 2.4 year timeframe of this present investment. It is also likely that coming closer to maturity that the investment may be liquidated sooner than later, or when the yield shrinks to my sell target (around 95 cents presently).

Most of the operations have been financed by equity – the last financing was done in June 1, 2009 at CAD$7/share. Today the common shares are at $2.66/share with 167M shares outstanding – a market capitalization of about $444M. Some portion of the gold reserves have been hedged off at below-market rates for up-front financing. In addition, the mining operations are still at the end of the initial capital injection phase before they can start producing sustainable positive cash flow, which is expected in the March 2010 to March 2011 fiscal year.

In terms of management and ownership risk, this is an interesting story. Simmer and Jack, another (larger than junior) South African mining company, owns 37% of the company as of September 2009. There has been a recent management and board struggle dealing with the Simmer and Jack management, who have moved over to First Uranium after they were kicked out of the Simmer and Jack board. The kicked-out CEO and Chairman, Gordon Miller, owns 1.66% of Simmer and Jack and roughly 0.1% of First Uranium. Although this struggle has an indirect impact on the value of the debentures (mainly that I am concerned about being paid off rather than owning the company), it is worthy to note that some deal must have been cut with the existing Simmer and Jack board such that he be allowed to run First Uranium since the 37% minority ownership of Simmer and Jack would likely be able to prevent him from doing so if they did so voluntarily.

There is a complex relationship here with respect to the debentures – Simmer and Jack is highly incentivized to make sure the debenture holders don’t take over the company so they can realize value of their equity stake. Gordon Miller likely wants to make a ton of money out of the deal and try to get some sort of revenge against Simmer and Jack and try to wrestle control away from the company. Either way, the debentures will have to be paid and it seems likely at this point it will be done by a simple equity swap – the current market capitalization is sufficient to pay off the debentures with about 25% dilution to existing shareholders.

On the balance sheet, First Uranium has US$60M in cash at the end of September and they have poured in about US$563M into their mining operations. Their only significant liabilities are a $22M loan from Simmer and Jack, and the CAD$150 of debentures. The income side is ugly when one looks back, but the corporation should start to generate cash through mining operations in the upcoming year and slow down capital expenditures – and perhaps even pay some common share dividends sometime in the second half of 2011 if things really go well and the refinancing of the debentures are in the bag.

The risks otherwise are typical of a mining firm – commodity pricing (gold and uranium) and realization of “proven” reserves into actual output. There is also some currency risk – they report in US dollars and their equity and debentures are denominated in Canadian dollars. Reading the technical report on the main mine and getting a feel for the operation is also essential (and rather dry) reading.

Although this investment is not the most ideal, I do believe that the company will be able to pay off the debentures, whether by refinancing, equitizing the debt or generating cash flow before the June 2012 maturity. There is enough of a margin of error to feel comfortable, but not “home free”, which is why the market value is trading significantly below at present. Assuming their story turns out, the equity side is also a compelling story, but it contains a high degree of risk that I am not willing to take – especially concerning the future of gold prices. That said, I expect these debentures will be made whole and will be a positive decision in terms of my risk-reward profile and being able to avoid income tax and capital gains tax by virtue of it being in the TFSA.

I also prefer short duration plays simply because when interest rates rise again, cash might be a more attractive option.

(Subsequent note: Operational risks include adverse news releases after hitting the “publish” button, although I do not think this one is too severe to my underlying investment thesis.)

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