A Winning Fund Manager Makes a Bold Bet on Gold

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Despite a recent rally, shares of gold miners remain well below their highs. During the past three years, Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX) lost 25% annually, according to Morningstar. As the price of gold fell, some stocks dropped 90%.

That has attracted David Iben, portfolio manager of Kopernik Global All-Cap (KGGAX), a mutual fund. "The miners look cheap, even if the price of gold never rises again," says Iben.

A die-hard contrarian, Iben roams around the world looking for stocks others hate. Besides gold, he now has a big stake in uranium producers, which sank after Japan shuttered its nuclear power plants. Iben also likes Russian energy companies that plunged as the Ukraine crisis unfolded.

The positions may seem like long shots, and the Kopernik fund is new. But Iben should not be dismissed lightly. For three decades, he has practiced a bold strategy -- and most often it has succeeded. The most notable stretch came when Iben managed Nuveen Tradewinds Global All-Cap (NWGAX) from 2006 to 2012. During the period, the fund returned 8.8% annually, topping world stock peers by almost 7 percentage points annually.

The contrarian method does not work well when markets rally strongly and investors flock to highflers. Iben lagged during the Internet bubble of 1999, and he also fell behind last year as biotechnology and social network shares soared. But in this year's uneven markets, the fund has returned 3.9%, compared to 1.2% for the average peer.

Under his system, Iben can put up to 25% of the portfolio in one sector. In 2002, he held the maximum position in depressed technology, a move that produced big rewards as the sector recovered. After gold miners collapsed in late 2008, he grabbed shares and rode the subsequent rebound. In recent years, he made a successful move into Europe, betting on French stocks as the European crisis intensified.

Iben now has about 25% of assets in gold miners. At a time when an ounce of gold costs about $1,300, stock investors pay only $200 to own an ounce of reserves, he says. Even if it costs $1,000 to produce the gold, investors stand to profit. One holding is Barrick Gold (ABX), a big Canadian miner. "Barrick has many years worth of reserves," says Iben.

One of the Kopernik fund's biggest holdings is Cameco (CCJ), a uranium producer. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, uranium prices plummeted, falling from a high of $136 an ounce in 2007 to $34 now. Investors figured that Germany and other countries would abandon nuclear power. Stocks of uranium producers sank.

"The conventional wisdom is that this is a dead industry," says Iben. "But this is actually a growing industry."

Iben says that China alone will open 60 new nuclear plants by the end of the decade. Other countries are also building plants, insuring that demand for uranium will increase. While demand will grow, supplies should shrink. Because of the low uranium prices of recent years, companies have stopped opening new mines.

"Three years from now we will likely have shortages of uranium," Iben says.

As recently as three years ago, Iben had a big stake in the U.S. But as the S&P 500 climbed, he trimmed the position. Now he favors emerging markets, such as Brazil and Russia. "Three years ago, people loved China and Russia, and now they hate them," he says.

One holding is China Mobile (CHL), a growing provider that serves 710 million customers. The stock sells for a price-to-earnings ratio of 9.5, compared to 18.6 for the S&P 500. Iben also likes Gazprom (OGZPY), a Russian gas giant, with a P/E of 2.3.

"This is very cheap for a profitable company that has 50 years of natural gas supplies sitting on the edge of Europe," he says.

At the time of publication, Luxenberg had no positions in funds and stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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