2023’s junior mining winners: which stocks brought the greatest returns?

You hear the same investment advice from the world’s top brokers over and over again: make slow, informed decisions; do your own research; it’s a marathon, not a sprint; don’t invest more than you can afford to lose; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

And they give this advice for a reason: investing in the stock market is risky business, and if you’re putting your livelihood on the line, you better make sure you’re doing it in the safest way possible. 

Alas, you likely also have a friend of a friend or some distant relative who threw everything they had a stock they heard about at the pub and just so happened to strike gold and multiply their investment ten times over. 

Research? None. Luck? Plenty. Timing? Perfect. Intelligence? Minimal. Annoying? Positively. 

Every year, there seems to be a handful of golden stocks that could seemingly do no wrong. Even over 2023, a notoriously tough year for juniors in the mining space, there are some explorers and up-and-coming producers that would have delivered stellar returns if you’d put your trust in them in January. 

To perhaps no one’s surprise, the hottest commodities also brought about the hottest gains: the world won’t stop talking about lithium and critical minerals, but it’s clear in this case that investors were keen to put their money where their mouths were.

Whether you want to bask in the glory of your investment wins or lament a future that could have been, let’s take a look at 2023’s top performers across the mining and exploration space. 

5. TG Metals (ASX:TG6)

Coming in at fifth place — which, I should remind you, is an impressive feat — is Western Australia-based battery metals explorer TG Metals. 

TG’s story is somewhat unique given that for the first 10 months of 2023, its share price barely moved. 

From January until the end of October, TG Metals shares floated between $0.09 and $0.12, briefly closing at $0.13 in March.

Then, on 30 October, the company announced it had struck high-grade lithium at its Lake Johnston Lithium-Nickel-Gold Project in Western Australia. 

TG Metals reported grades of up to 2.26% lithium, with an average assay of 1.46% lithium, from drilling at the Burmeister lithium soil anomaly in the project area, and the company’s stock price exploded in response. 

Within 7 days, TG Metals shares soared from $0.11 to $0.79 — an increase of some 600%. By the time TG recommenced drilling at Burmeister on November 8, shares were trading well over $1. 

TG made the most of its new valuation and tapped investors for a neat $10 million through a share placement on 27 November, with new shares offered at $0.75 each.

Even in the weeks thereafter, the company’s share price has remained relatively stable, with TG6 Metals trading at $0.77 as of 8 December 2023. 

4. Viridis Mining and Minerals (ASX:VMM) 

Viridis Mining and Minerals has a similar albeit more staged story of share price explosion. It seems fitting that Virdis’ success stems from rare earth elements, which have soared in popularity over 2023 to steal some of lithium’s spotlight. 

The catalyst for the company’s share price boom was the purchase of the Colossus Rare Earth Project in Minas Gerais, Brazil, at the start of August — an asset Viridis touted as a potentially ‘world-class’ ionic adsorption clay (IAC) rare earth element (REE) project.

The project had already produced some ‘remarkable’ REE results from a handful of shallow auger holes under its previous owners, including 3m @ 2,003 parts per million (ppm) total rare earth oxide (TREO) from surface (22% MREO), ending in mineralisation, and 3m @ 1,997ppm TREO from surface (22% MREO), ending in mineralisation. 

Investors seemed to like the Viridis move, and company shares nearly doubled from $0.25 to $0.48 on the day of the acquisition announcement.

Over the following month, Viridis would expand its purchase area by 34.5km-square, bolster its executive team, post encouraging early metallurgical results on grab samples from the area, and formally complete the acquisition of the Colossus Project. 

This meant that soon after the company started its maiden drilling work on its new asset, shares once again spiked to $1.05. 

A fourfold increase in share value would already be a story to tell, but Viridis wasn’t done yet. Following the start of exploration, the company topped up its balance sheet with a $3.1 million placement, posted some early-stage exploration results, and continued to strategically expand its Brazilian landholding. 

This all culminated in yet another significant spike on November 20 when Viridis published its first assay results from auger and diamond drilling at the Colossus project, with results including a 46m hit grading 3,285 ppm TREO from surface. 

The results, according to the company, position Colossus to potentially become the highest-grace ionic clay rare earths deposit on the planet. 

Shares in Viridis spiked to $2.15 and, even after a small retreat, still trade at around $1.45 as of 8 December, marking an increase of more than 770% from the start of January. 

3. Meteoric Resources (ASX:MEI)

Now, if we’re being nitpicky, Meteoric Resources — another Brazilian rare earths explorer — has not experienced gains as significant as some others on this list over 2023. 

But that’s only because its share price surge started towards the end of 2022. 

Throughout most of August, September, and October last year, Meteoric shares were trading at $0.01. As of 8 December 2023, shares are trading at $0.22. 

Who doesn’t like a neat 2,000% increase?

There are some glaring similarities between Meteoric’s and Viridis’ stories: Meteoric’s share price journey began in December 2022 with the purchase of a ‘potential world-class ionic clay REE project’ in Minas Gerais, Brazil. 

The project in question, Caldeira, had already returned ‘ultra-high-grade’ REE results from drilling under its previous owners. 

In the weeks and months that followed, Meteoric would expand its purchase area, bolster its executive team, and raise $25 million through a share placement, all while its shares continued to climb. 

Sound familiar?

Of course, given Meteoric was the early to the party, the company has taken its exploration slightly further, with the delivery of a maiden mineral resource for the Caldeira Project of 409 million tonnes (Mt) @ 2,626 ppm TREO using a 1,000ppm cut-off at the start of Ma

From here, Meteoric has reported ‘remarkable’ results from outside of and beneath this resource area, further expanded its Caldeira area, and even signed a cooperation agreement for the development of the project with the government of Minas Gerais. 

The company has also further supported its balance sheet with the sale of some non-core assets, and investors have continued to reap the rewards. 

Clearly, rare earths in Brazil have been ingredients in the recipe for success over 2023. What could the future hold for this sector and these metals? 

2. Azure Minerals (ASX:AZS)

Higher investment gains typically come from riskier investments in the junior space, while steady, consistent gains come from the big caps. 

In the case of Azure Minerals, the company’s price movements over 2023 have seen it move from a junior to a market cap of nearly $2 billion in the space of 12 months. 

Over the first half of 2023, Azure continued to tick boxes and surpass milestones one would hope from a late-stage exploration company. 

Following the announcement of a staged $20 million investment from global lithium producer Sociedad Quimica y Minr de Chile (NYSE:SQM), which would see the New York-listed giant take a 19.99% stake in Azure, the company then announced ‘outstanding’ lithium grades from drilling at its flagship Andover Nickel Project in Western Australia.

Weeks later, Azure announced a 28% increase in the nickel resource of the Ridgeline Deposit within the Andover Project.

The months thereafter were filled with further lithium exploration results from the area, and Azure shares climbed from $0.22 to $0.63 between 3 January and 9 June. This feat would be impressive in and of itself, but it was only the beginning for Azure. 

On 13 June, Azure announced some of the best lithium hits yet at Andover, including a result of 105m @ 1.26% lithium, including 22.8m @ 3.57% lithium.

It seemed that from here, Azure would every month announce a new string of broad lithium hits from the area, culminating in an Andover Exploration Target on 7 August of 100 to 240 million tonnes grading between 1% and 1.5% Li2O. 

With ongoing strong lithium results helping secure commitments for a $120 million placement in late August, Azure has continued its exploration drive in Western Australia. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that while Azure steadily progressed its exploration plans, billionaires were having their own battle for a slice of the Azure lithium pie. 

It started with a takeover offer from SQM Australia, a subsidiary of Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile for full control of Azure. 

SQM offered $3.52 per share in an all-cash deal for control of Azure, with a contingency plan for an off-market takeover at $3.50 per share if the original scheme fail.

It turns out the off-market safety plan would be a prudent move when mining mogul Gina Rinehart built up an 18.3% stake in Azure — a move seen as a potential play to block the SQM takeover. For reference, SQM’s on-market offer was conditional on no other shareholder acquiring an interest of more than 19% in Azure. 

Mineral Resources’ (ASX:MIN) Chris Ellison then muscled his way into the Azure battle, with MinRes declaring a 12.29% stake in Azure in early November. Soon after, this stake would be upped to 13.6%.

However, despite the big billionaire moves putting the potential SQM deal on tenterhooks, it seems it’s business as usual for Azure and the Chilean giant for now; Azure and SQM filed the official paperwork for the deal on 5 December, suggesting it’s still set to go ahead despite the kerfuffle. 

While the big caps are playing their own billion-dollar game, Azure shareholders are happily reaping the rewards. As of 8 December 2023, Azure shares are trading at $3.57 — an increase of more than 1,500% from January this year.

And your winner is: Wildcat Resources (ASX:WC8) 

The story of Wildcat Resources (ASX:WC8) over 2023 is truly the explorer’s — and, of course, the investor’s — dream. 

And it’s only fitting that it all revolves around lithium. 

Much like the others on this list, Wildcat shares were sitting stagnant at between $0.02 and $0.03 for the first 5 months of the year, with the company’s exploration focus primarily on its Mt Adrah Gold Project in New South Wales.

This would all change when the company on May 17 announced the purchase of the Tabba Tabba Tantalum Mine and Lithium-Tantalum Project near Port Hedland in Western Australia.

The subsequent 67% rise in share price already started to show what the market thought of such a deal.

At the time of the purchase, Wildcat said historical exploration at Tabba Tabba had already defined a ‘very high-grade’, pegmatite-hosted tantalum deposit, but there had been no prior focus on the project’s potential for lithium. Given Tabba Tabba’s proximity to some of the world’s largest hard-rock lithium mines, Wildcat was about to change this.

The purchase would see Wildcat complete a $7 million share placement, with new shares priced at $0.035, and add a ‘range of major shareholders’ to its register. 

Wildcat kicked off fieldwork at its new project by the end of May, and by early July, the company had identified new pegmatites in the area. 

Shares were now trading at $0.18 — 500% higher than before the acquisition. 

Drilling was underway by July 14, and by mid-August, Wildcat had two reverse circulation (RC) rigs spinning across the project area, and shares were steadily climbing. 

Following the appointment of mining engineer Ajanth Saverimutto as a new non-executive director and a ‘major’ lithium discovery at Tabba Tabba — including an 85m hit at @ 1.1% Li2O from surface, including 59m @ 1.5% Li2O from surface — in September, Wildcat shares were now above $0.40.

On 6 November, Wildcat announced a 180m intersection grading 1.1% Li20 from 206m at Tabba Tabba’s Central Cluster zone. This result saw shares spike yet again to a 2023 high of $0.92.

Remember, Wildcat shares were at $0.02 at the start of January, meaning in 11 months, investors had seen a 4,500% increase. If you’d purchased $1000 worth of shares in January, your Wildcat holding would have been worth $46,000 in early November. 

Wildcat made the most of its gains with a $100 million share placement on 10 November, with new shares priced at $0.76. 

Shares have since retreated towards this placement price, but even at $0.75 as of 8 December, Wildcat is still up 3,650% year-to-date. 

So, there you have it. With higher risk can come greater rewards, and these 5 listed juniors are a perfect example of why the exploration space remains such an enticing sector for investors around the world. 

One should remember, of course, that for every Wildcat, for every Azure, for every Meteoric, there are dozens — if not hundreds — of juniors whose share prices aren’t budging. 

Sometimes, with enough research, you can tell when a share price is about to pop. Sometimes a pivot in strategy sets up sharemarket success. Sometimes the reputation of an executive team can herald a company’s potential. 

And, well, sometimes, it’s just pure dumb luck. 

Write to Joshua Smith at Mining.com.au

Images: TG Metals, Viridis Mining and Minerals, Meteoric Resources, Azure Minerals, and Wildcat Resources
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Written By Joshua Smith
Joshua Smith has years of experience in the media sector, having worked as a markets reporter, features writer, and editor since completing a Communications and Journalism degree and a Creative Writing degree. Josh is an avid board game fan and a self-professed coffee snob.