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The Enigmatic Silver Miners

Articles & Blogs - Silver Commentary

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In my most recent commentary, I wrote about the gold miners, specifically how the “junior miners” had greatly out-performed the large producers, and represented superior investments in virtually every respect. I also pointed out how the silver miners were so different from the gold miners that they required their own, separate analysis.

 

While silver (like gold) has roughly quintupled from its trough of a decade ago to its (interim) peak during this long “bull market”, the silver miners have not been able to replicate the performance of the gold miners – especially with respect to their performance over the last couple of years. Part of this decoupling in performance is due to the fickle nature of markets: silver miners are simply being valued much more poorly for assets of similar value.

 

However, there are also many fundamental factors which have prevented the silver miners from delivering better returns to shareholders. Most of these factors directly or indirectly relate to the fact that silver is grossly undervalued – and even grossly undervalued versus gold. Regular readers and sophisticated silver investors are very familiar with the current and long-term history of the gold/silver price ratio, but I will repeat a few points for the benefit of newer readers.

 

Silver is roughly 17 times as plentiful as gold, as an element in the Earth's crust. Thus, it is no surprise that over the course of nearly 5,000 years, the gold/silver ratio has averaged approximately 15:1. What is surprising is how this ratio has been so thoroughly perverted by the manipulations of the anti-gold cabal – to sit at one of its most lop-sided extremes in history: currently greater than 60:1.

 

Under any circumstances, this ratio is obviously unsustainable. However, with the “industrial” usages of silver literally causing the vast majority of the world's silver stockpiles to be “consumed”, there is less silver in the world today (relative to gold) than at any time in more than 4,000 years. Thus, at a time when the gold/silver ratio should be at its lowest level in history, it hovers at the opposite extreme – arguably the greatest disconnection between price and fundamentals in the history of markets.

 

The fact that silver is so obviously and so grossly undervalued has subtle implications for the world's silver miners too – beyond the obvious fact that these miners aren't even being paid close to a fair price for the precious commodity they produce. One of these “subtle implications” is that there aren't many silver miners. Despite the fact that silver is so vitally necessary in countless industrial applications and is the second-best “money” our species has ever devised and exists in greater supply than gold; there simply aren't many “silver” miners in the world.

 

Experts” will tell you that “most silver is produced as a byproduct of other mining”. Sadly, no effort has been made to analyze this peculiarity of the silver market. In fact, the reason that there are not many “silver miners” in the world is simply and directly tied to the fact that silver is the most-undervalued commodity in the history of markets.

 

While some mineral deposits in the world are relatively “pure” (irrespective of which metal we refer to), it is more common for these ore deposits to contain a mixture of various metals. When the ore is eventually mined and processed, the miner is classified based upon the revenues of the various ores contained. In the case of silver, the most-common metallic “partners” for silver in ore deposits are lead and zinc. Thus, if a lead/zinc/silver deposit produced revenues of 40% for lead 30% for zinc and 30% for silver, the miner would either be referred to as a “lead miner” or a “lead/zinc miner”.

 

This principle applies just as equally to gold. Indeed, one of the primary “problems” I identified for the senior gold-producers is that most of the (relatively) “pure” gold deposits are already mined and gone forever. As a result, these companies have been forced to move to “polymetallic deposits” where the cash-value of the gold (relative to other metals), continues to shrink (despite the soaring gold price).

 

What no one seems to have considered with respect to the major price-discrepancy between gold and silver miners is that it has resulted in silver miners being artificially valued at a tiny fraction of their true worth. To illustrate this point, let's pretend that the gold/silver ratio of today is equal to its 5,000-year average: 15:1. However, instead of raising the price of silver to this level (which is what should happen), I will lower the price of gold.

 

With silver currently at about $18/oz (US), at a 15:1 ratio that implies a price of gold of $270/oz. Let's forget about the fact that at that price 95% of the world's gold mines would be forced to shut-down – because they coudn't even break-even. Instead, we will look at how this would effect the valuations of a gold miner. Forget about profitability (for the purposes of argument), and focus upon the relative revenues of “gold miners” who mine polymetallic deposits.

 

Let's take a hypothetical gold miner with a very simple, and very common copper/gold ore deposit. We will assume that at $1200/oz for gold (and $3/lb for copper), the miner produces (by revenue) 75% gold and 25% copper. This makes this company obviously a “gold miner” - and it receives a better valuation by the market, simply based upon that fact.

 

However, if we suddenly revert to a 15:1 gold/silver ratio – and lower the price of gold to $270/oz, what happens to our “gold miner”? Assuming the price of copper to remain constant, this miner would now get only a little more than 40% of its revenues from gold, and nearly 60% from copper – and suddenly this “gold miner” is now a “copper miner”.

 

What this means is this mining company would experience a “double-whammy” from gold being so ridiculously under-priced: it would be far less profitable (if it was even able to make a profit) and it would receive a far less-generous valuation by the market – as a “base metals miner” rather than a gold miner. Of course, in the real world, it isn't gold which is going to plummet to only a tiny fraction of its current price, but rather silver which is going to explode to many multiples of its current price.

 

In other words, instead of the gold miners facing a future where their revenues will plummet, and many of them would actually lose their status as “gold miners”, we know that the exact opposite dynamic will take place: the profitability of companies mining silver is going to explode higher and many companies which are currently deemed to be “lead/zinc” miners will magically be transformed into “silver miners” - because once silver is fairly priced hundreds of mines around the world will instantly become “silver mines”.

 

This shouldn't surprise anyone. There was never any “reason” for there to be so few silver miners in the world – other than the direct and less-direct implications of silver being so ridiculously under-priced. Indeed, to the long list of reasons which proves that silver is undervalued, we can add the paucity of “silver mines.” As I have just demonstrated, if silver were not so ridiculously undervalued versus all other metals, then the world would have the same proportion of “silver mines” (roughly speaking) as it has for all the other major metals of our industrialized society.

 

When we put all these factors together, what we are looking at in the future is a triple re-valuation of all the world's silver miners. First of all, they are going to become immensely more profitable as silver corrects to a rational value. Secondly, market-sheep who currently value these companies at (at most) half of their current value, will gradually stop discounting these companies due to their own ignorance of this market. And lastly, dozens of mining companies around the world which are currently classified as “base metals miners” or “mixed” silver producers will soon be clearly elevated to the status of “silver miners”.

 

Does this mean that savvy precious metals investors should immediately begin dumping their gold miners in order to fully capitalize on the pending explosion of the silver mining sector? Definitely not. As the saying goes, in markets “timing is everything”. Those investors who figured out where gold was heading at $300/oz are obviously profiting much more than those who didn't figure this out until the price of gold passed the $1000/oz-mark.

 

On the other hand, it is also very possible in markets to be too far “ahead of the curve”. For those investors (like myself), who have held these silver miners faithfully – and received little reward (so far), it is small consolation to know we're “ahead” of other investors. While “value investing” will always remain a sound, long-term strategy, as investors we simply cannot afford to overlook other market dynamics: notably “sentiment” or “momentum”.

 

Over the last year, I have been much more active with my gold miners than my silver miners – because that's where almost all of my large gains have materialized. I won't sell my shares of silver miners, and essentially “throw them away” at pennies on the dollar. On the other hand, I have nearly stopped accumulating more shares, since there is no indication that the “bright future” for silver miners is going to start tomorrow.

 

Obviously, the correct decision for each individual investor will depend on the current structure of their portfolio. For those who have ignored the silver miners until now, you should start buying today. Sentiment can (literally) change overnight – and thus these once-in-a-lifetime prices for silver miners could start to disappear tomorrow.

 

For those investors who already have a small silver mining component in their portfolios, it would probably be wise to keep “nibbling” on your favorite picks, while for those (like myself) who already hold a “basket” of these miners, there is certainly no rush to add to our holdings. Even if the silver mining sector were to explode tomorrow, experienced investors understand that's it's much easier to add to existing positions – compared to a new investor trying to “chase” this sector.

 

In more general terms, many of the same arguments I made about the gold miners also apply to the silver miners. The “juniors” offer the best growth-profiles and are less likely to surprise investors with the balance-sheet “time-bombs” known as derivatives. As with gold, the large “pure” silver deposits have generally all been found and mined – so most of the larger-cap silver miners (a very small group) will face the same challenges as large-cap gold miners: difficulty in increasing production and maintaining reserves, while more and more “dilution” takes place due to more base metals “credits” in their overall production.

 

At the same time, unlike the large gold-producers, the “senior” silver producers will directly benefit from the same “triple re-valuation” which the silver-juniors will experience. This will definitely have a large, positive impact with these miners. However, there still remains the worry that some of those gains will be “clawed-back” by the self-destructive hedges/derivatives which still appear to be prevalent in the precious metals sector.

 

While true “hedging” appears to be rapidly unwinding, there has been no indication that these larger companies have had the sense to “wean themselves” off of the complex derivatives in their financing agreements (for new capital projects). Obviously if the banksters are capable of scamming (supposedly) “sophisticated” players in financial markets like AIG, sovereign governments, and mega-institutions like Harvard (while run by “banking genius” Larry Summers), then the totally unsophisticated mining companies are easy targets for these “sharks”.

 

While smaller miners will inevitably represent greater volatility to investors, and (somewhat) greater risk than their larger peers, the much better growth-profiles, and much more “transparent” business models of these companies make silver juniors not only more potentially lucrative, but also more prudent investments (when held in a “basket”). As always, investors can find a large collection of these companies in our own, mining database.

 

Volatility for the silver sector over the shorter-term is more than balanced by the certainty of where this market must eventually go. Increasingly desperate attempts to disguise the depletion of global, silver inventories and stockpiles is ultimately counter-productive. The basic dynamic of economics is relentless: the more under-priced that silver is, and the longer it remains so, the faster that dwindling inventories will be totally depleted.

 

The physics analogy which is often used is pushing down on a spring: the more force exerted upon the spring, the greater the build-up of potential energy, and the more powerful the upward “explosion”, when the pressure finally collapses – and the potential energy is instantly converted into kinetic energy. The basic arithmetic of economics is just as certain as the laws of physics.

 

Markets can distort and delay such inevitable trends. However, as I just explained, there is a “price” to such distortion/delay: the failure of such manipulation must produce a much more powerful counter-reaction than what could ever possibly be seen in a market allowed to evolve according to the principles of “free markets”.

 

While silver has been “second fiddle” to gold throughout this entire bull market, to date; over the course of the next decade silver will clearly exert “supremacy” in the returns it produces for investors. Those investors who do best in gauging the shifting profitability between the two sectors will be very well-rewarded for their success.

 

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Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, August 05, 2010
Hi Charlie.

No, these companies are the exact OPPOSITES of the predatory bankers. Whether they are purchasing a "royalty interest" or actually buying a "stream of production" like Silver Wheaton, these companies HELP miners by providing cash up front - in return for a "piece of the pie" when the ore is mined.

Indeed, Jim Sinclair, who has led the discussion on this issue, specifically suggested "royalty agreements" as being a VASTLY superior way for miners to obtain financing, versus "hedging" and those toxic, derivatives contracts.
Bullionaire
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written by Bullionaire, August 05, 2010
Hi Jeff,

Regarding your discussion of "sharks" peddling hedging contracts to mining companies, do you consider Silver Wheaton, Franco Nevada or Royal Gold to belong to this category?

Cheers, Charlie
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, July 28, 2010
I defer to your practical experience. I would also agree with you that Canada (in particular) is a very likely place for more "primary" deposits to be discovered.

We have the combination of vast amounts of favorable geology, and the world's lowest population-density. Consider China, which has a country almost exactly equal to Canada in total area, but has FORTY TIMES as many people.

While there are still mountainous areas of China which remain "unexplored" (and where mining would likely never be practical), most of that country is NOW "explored", and China is close to a world-leader (or the leader) in most categories of metals production. Certainly Canada has equal potential.

I am curious about one point, however. Why do you believe that ("old-fashioned") prospecting is required, in this age of "magnetic-image" photography from the sky?

I am NOT a geology expert (by any stretch of the imagination), but my understanding is that mining companies do all their "prospecting" of unexplored terrain from the sky now...?
Galearis
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written by Galearis, July 28, 2010
Nope, I'm not that much of a dinosaur,,,my discussion was only about primary producers. The best mines are those with huge reserves but low uniform grade. I also suspect that there are more primary mines out there to be found in both gold and silver. These have to be found on foot and there really hasn't been very effective exploration (in Canada, for example). After all look how long it took for Canada to become a diamond producer. I have done some prospecting in my time,,,,and we were very few indeed on the ground....And if you've ever tried this in our great Canadian northern forests, you will appreciate how much is missed.
FWIW,

L. (Galearis)
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, July 28, 2010
Galearis, thanks for the comment, but are you sure that your analysis of gold mining is up-to-date? It sounds to me to be more of a model of gold-mining of a century ago - before the era of high-tech mining began.

Older gold mines were more often "pure" gold, or gold/silver deposits. However, there are probably more gold/copper mines in the world today than gold/silver.

If you've got some data (which is current) and contradicts that, please pass it along - as I'm always happy to be corrected, when in error.

P.S. I'm NOT an expert on placer-mining - although I have picked-up bits and pieces. Placer-mining and conventional mining are so totally different that I don't think you can really compare their operations.
Galearis
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written by Galearis, July 28, 2010
I liked your latest article and would like to add some information to it. Most primary gold mines mine native gold (free metal, visible gold, V.G.) with high grade being anything that is visible. Most of this gold is alloyed with other interesting elements, the most common of which is silver,,,but may also include platinum and tellurium. Most of this gold is about 92% pure gold (22 k) but these percentages can vary. Placer gold from the California gold rush, for example, only ran around 85% - with approximately 15% silver….Klondyke gold liked to alloy up with platinum and platinum placers were present there too. This is important to know if one invests in gold miners – as primary producers as their production of silver is also significant and may make investing in these forms of derivatives somewhat more attractive. However, I never recommend investing in gold stocks. Buy the metal, not the paper should be the play. There is little to no risk in buying metal and the stocks are under-performing the metal anyway. I do not expect the miners to be exempt from the conflagration that is looming ahead.
Best regards,

Galearis
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, July 27, 2010
I don't know which part of that comment I like more: all the nice things you wrote about our site, or all the nice things you're saying about us to other people.

Both are much appreciated.
redrob25
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written by redrob25, July 27, 2010
Jeff,

I have to commend you on your pieces. You offer the best overall depth on precious metals investing of anyone I read. And I read all over the place. Your site deserves much recognition. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

I am a silver uber-bull and have been singing the praises to everyone I know. Out of ten I tell, only one will have a passing interest and everyone else laughs.

Of course it will change when the price of silver goes vertical very quickly. I guess the minority of us that researches precious metals and believes in them will reap the great rewards at the end of the day.

You have been a great part of that in my own investing. Thank you!

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