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The Future of Silver Mining

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In my previous piece to this, I focused upon the definition of a “silver mine”, in order to expose the biggest myth about silver: that having most of the world’s silver produced as a “byproduct” of other mining is a normal state of affairs. What I demonstrated conclusively (through simple arithmetic) is that the only reason that most of the world’s silver production doesn’t come mostly from “primary” silver mines is purely a function of the price of silver (i.e the extremely low price).

More specifically, I pointed out how it was the relentless manipulation of the price of silver – which was kept far below its “fair market value” – that resulted in the “silver mine” becoming an “endangered species”. In this commentary, I intend to build upon that analysis, by explaining the implications of that analysis with respect to the creation of new silver mines.

To start this process, it is first helpful to examine the gold mining industry, given the many and obvious parallels between the two metals. With respect to the gold market, knowledgeable investors are well aware that this metal has also been subjected to decades of price manipulation. While the manipulation of the gold price can be seen as “extreme” relative to the pricing of other metals, the manipulation of silver was “extreme” in relation to the price of gold.

To understand this market-manipulation better, it’s instructive to look at the history surrounding the “bottom” of the gold market. In this respect, there is no better place to start than with the observations made at that time by our good friends at GATA – the Gold Anti-Trust Action committee. On May 25, 1999; Bill Murphy had this to say, in a piece titled “Bottom in, bull market begins”:

Gold continues to make 20-year lows led by the unending barrage of selling in the physical market by Goldman Sachs…Goldman Sachs has been relentless in its selling since right before the Bank of England’s announcement and has not let up since…We told you two weeks ago that the word was out in London that Goldman Sachs has a 1,000-tonne short position on its books…

The “spot” price of gold on that date was $270/ounce, while the price of silver was just over $5/oz. The “announcement” which Bill Murphy alludes to is the infamous decision by future Prime Minister Gordon Brown to dump more than half of the UK’s gold reserves onto the market at the absolute bottom (to bail-out Goldman Sachs?), costing his country billions of pounds.

At this price, the world’s gold-mining industry was decimated. Well over 90% of the world’s gold mines were forced to shut-down, as only the world’s absolute “richest” deposits could even be mined on a break-even basis at that price. Indeed, this reality alone is conclusive proof of that manipulation. What is important to note, however, is that at no time has the world’s gold production ever been produced primarily as a “byproduct”. In other words, that industry was never destroyed to the same degree as silver mining.

In fact, Bill Murphy was slightly premature. The price of gold would actually decline to as low as $253/oz (approximately 6% below his call of a “bottom”), before rocketing upward more than 500% in the nearly 12 years since. My guess is that those investors who bought at $270/oz have forgiven Bill for being a little “early”.

The absolute “bottom” of the silver market occurred much sooner, back in 1992, with the price briefly going as low as $3.65/oz, and it averaged an amazing $3.95 throughout that year. Why is this “amazing”? Because that price represented a 600-year “low” for the silver market.

Here it is important for us to focus on the gold/silver ratio. Regular readers know that in the nearly 5,000 years over which our species has mined and collected gold and silver that the average price ratio is 15:1. At silver’s 600-year low, that ratio had been stretched to more than 80:1, while when gold was hitting its own lows the ratio was at a still-ridiculous level of roughly 60:1.

Put another way, when gold was at its absolute bottom (and 90% of the world’s gold mines had been shut-down from this under-pricing), silver was priced at only ¼ of its predicted value – based on 5,000 years of human history. It is only upon absorbing all of this context that we can understand how ruthlessly the silver market (and silver miners) were wiped-out by this banker-manipulation.

The consequence of that manipulation is that in the 20 years since silver hit its bottom, anywhere from 2/3 to 4/5 of the world’s silver has come as a “byproduct” of other mining, since only a handful of mines (out of 1,000’s) were actually able to break-even with silver priced at that level. With the price of silver now nearly ten-fold higher than that absolute bottom, clearly the “pendulum” is swinging back. However, even at this price-level, the gold/silver price ratio remains in an extremely lop-sided range of more than 40:1.

With any/every reputable gold analyst still adamant that gold is “cheap” (i.e. under-priced) at this level, the question is: at what price-level will silver have to reach before that industry returns to a “healthy” state – i.e. where the vast majority of our silver is produced via primary silver mining, as was the case throughout the remainder of this 5,000-year period, and as is the case with gold?

This is more than just an “academic” question. Few investors understand the significance of silver being produced as a “byproduct” in relation to the fundamentals of supply and demand. In any/every mine where silver is produced as a byproduct, by definition this means that the majority of the revenues of any/every such mine are expected to come from the other metals being mined with silver. This means that the decision to build new mines (which produce silver as a byproduct) would be based upon not the price of silver, but the price(s) of the other metal(s).

This, in turn, means that throughout most (if not all) the years since silver hit its absolute bottom, the rising price of silver has done virtually nothing to “stimulate” higher silver production. This is something unheard of in the history of markets. A “commodity” rockets upward nearly 1000% in price, while producing virtually zero stimulative effect on supply.

This explains another extreme anomaly in the silver market: the price has rocketed upward by nearly 1000% while inventories continue to plummet. From 1990 to 2005, silver inventories plummeted by 90% while the price roughly tripled. At that point there was less available silver in the world than at any time in centuries (i.e. when humanity first acquired the technical savvy to mine it in large quantities).

Since 2005, we no longer have accurate numbers with which we can refer. As I have documented in several previous commentaries, the quasi-official “record-keepers” for the gold and silver mining industry (and very close chums of the banking community) have blatantly falsified and obfuscated the numbers to the point where they are totally meaningless. However, all empirical and anecdotal evidence is that silver inventories have never been as “tight” as they are today. An enlightening interview with the eminent fund-manager Eric Sprott establishes this clearly.

This suggests that despite the nearly ten-fold increase in the price of silver that as of yet there has not been the expected “response” in terms of supply – i.e. ramping-up production to service a market suddenly prepared to pay much higher prices for silver. Indeed, despite the near-1000% rise in the price of silver, mine production has been anemic, at best.

For the nine years from 2000 through 2009, The Silver Institute reports that mine supply rose from 591 million ounces to 709.6 million ounces, a mere 20% (or an average of about 2%/year). The CPM Group reports that mine production rose to 741.5 million ounces in 2010 (an increase of just over 4%), and predicts that 2011 mine production will total 769.8 million ounces (an increase of less than 4%).

In other words, as of yet this 1000% rise in the price of silver has not produced any significant response from the silver mining industry – precisely what we would expect, since silver is still produced primarily as a byproduct. As long as most of the world’s silver continues to be produced as a byproduct, exploding prices and collapsing inventories will continue to produce only a very muted response on the supply-side.

As I alluded to in a previous commentary, this provides investors with the rarest of investment opportunities: the “one-way trade” – where (over the long-term) the only possible direction for prices is higher. Inventories are gone at the same time demand is spiking. Indeed, just over the last five years, China has gone from being a net-exporter of roughly 100 million ounces of silver per year to a net-importer of 100 million ounces – a 200 million ounce per year surge in Chinese demand. This amounts to more than the total increase in mine-supply from 2000 right through the predicted increase in supply for this year.

Thus, looking at just this one nation, we see there is less silver available (in relative terms) today than there was in 2000 – and that is before we add-in any of the surge in industrial demand, and the even greater explosion in investor demand (excluding China). And with most silver produced as a byproduct, there is still no sign at all of this trend ending.

We are still several years away from reaching a stage  where (like nearly all other commodities) the price of silver directly drives the production of silver. Until that happens, the only possible way to reduce demand to the point where severely-stressed inventories can merely remain in balance is much higher silver prices.

For those investing in silver miners, we are clearly in a Golden Age (“Silver Age”?). Any and every new silver miner to emerge (as this industry slowly rises from the dead) represents purely an investment opportunity, with no possibility over the foreseeable future that these “new producers” could over-supply this banker-starved market.

The typical “mine cycle” is close to ten years: the time it takes from beginning to explore (and drill-out) a deposit until mine-production actually begins. Thus a full response from the silver mining industry will not occur until as much as ten years after the silver market is finally being driven by “primary” mine production – which has still not occurred.

However, as mentioned before, there are literally thousands of old, closed silver mines – many of which still have sufficient ore remaining to re-commence production (once those mines are rehabilitated and modernized). The companies engaged in these reclamation projects represent not only a “short-cut” toward higher silver production, but wonderful investment opportunities.

Instead of the 10-year cycle to go from first exploration to production, some of these new miners can be in production only one to two years after first being listed on our exchanges. This means there is the potential for a more rapid response to demand than the expected near-decade. However, in even the most bearish assessment of these parameters, investors are assured of several more years of unparallelled growth for those investing in these companies. As always, we remind investors that the vast majority of “opportunities” (and the vast majority of gains) will occur with the “junior miners”: small producers, who are generally producing less than 3 million ounces of silver per year.

Where could this market go? John Williams of Shadowstats.com is on record as saying that if real numbers were used for U.S. inflation since gold hit its previous, nominal high in 1980 that the price of gold would have to reach roughly $7,500/ounce – simply to equal that price in inflation-adjusted terms. With gold at that price, if silver merely equaled its long-term price ratio with gold that implies a silver price of $500/oz.

Because when the “pendulum” swings in markets it tends to swing too far, the vast majority of knowledgeable silver commentators are expecting the silver price to exceed that long-term price ratio. Because “fundamentals” for gold are much, much, much more bullish than in 1980, none of these numbers should be seen as an absolute “ceiling” for either gold or silver.

In fact, as the out-of-control money-printing of Western bankers continues to accelerate (with no end in sight) our economies become more and more irrevocably doomed to “hyperinflation” – where the prices of gold, silver, and many other hard assets will literally surge to infinite price levels, as expressed in the bankers’ worthless paper.

Sadly (for all of us), the future of silver looks much too bright.

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Brian Boutilier
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written by Brian Boutilier, February 21, 2011
Bullionaire, I started up a Calaise Resources thread for you in the bulletin boards, and referenced material for you that should give you a feel for the grades of silver. Hope that gets the ball rolling.
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, February 21, 2011
Yes Subscriber, that summarizes it succinctly.

For those interested, the latest addition to Savoie's work is now due about the end of the month (according to the author, himself), and here's a separate link for those materials, for those who have not yet begun to absorb this information:

http://silverstealers.net/tss.html
0
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written by subscriber, February 21, 2011
Jeff wrote:
It is now my position that the bankers have DELIBERATELY "destroyed" the world's silver supply


Yes, I agree with you. Too many of us have been intimidated by the label "conspiracy theorist". It is one thing to imagine a speculative conspiracy based on little evidence. It is another to simply review the facts and deduce that when silver was relentlessly driven out of circulation in one country after another over a long period of time, it was done deliberately, by men who stood to profit.

Charles Savoie has detailed the history of this demonetization and the men and organizations behind it in great length on Dave Morgan's Silver Investor site. The record is pretty plain.

The covering lie provided for the foolish to believe is that this somehow just happened of itself without any coordinated effort. That in turn is based on the false assumption that our current debt money system is somehow better than gold and silver money, and so just naturally displaced coined money without any real planned effort. I think the coming years will clearly demonstrate the poverty of debt money.
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, February 21, 2011
Yes, Bullionaire, I would certainly consider Calais "high grade". With my own (limited) understanding of the silver miners, I would classify those with an AVERAGE grade above 200 grams/ton as "high grade" - though it's certainly possible that others would have a different definition.
Bullionaire
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written by Bullionaire, February 20, 2011
Hi Jeff,

Calais (CAAUF) has been getting a lot of notice lately...would you consider it a high-grade deposit?

Cheers,

Charlie
sczech
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written by sczech, February 20, 2011
Hi Jeff,

thanks for your quick response to my questions. I must apologize for stating a wrong figure (3 to 5 billion tons) for the total amount of silver ever to be mined. The correct figure is 3 to 4 million tons of silver. That figure arises out of the silver/gold ratio of 15 in the crust of the earth. Multiplying 15 by the estimated total amount of gold mined in the past (160 thousand tons) or in the future (40 to 100 thousand tons) I arrive at 3 to 4 million tons of silver which will ever be mined (in the past or in the future).

To sum up, I think the problem is not so much the evil intentions of bankers as much as the inability of most people to understand the fact that the earth is finite. People learned that fact in school, but in real life they do not believe it. The short positions in silver are easily to justify once we believe that there is an infinite amount of silver in the ground.
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, February 20, 2011
Sczech, those are certainly challenging questions. Part of the problem is that while our species started mining gold and silver close to 5,000 years ago, we only have (relatively) GOOD records for the last 200 years or so.

I have not heard the specific numbers you quoted regarding total, available gold; however the numbers certainly sound plausible. While unlike silver, most of that mined gold IS still in quantities which can be collected/recovered, on a PRACTICAL basis, a large percentage of that gold will NEVER be available: it is contained in antiques and other collectibles, along with "national treasures" of tremendous cultural importance.

I'm not aware of ANY attempts to identify how much such gold is "off limits" to any kind of investment or consumption.

Regarding recovering/recycling the silver which has been consumed, again to the best of my knowledge no one has done any significant research on this point. I believe this is DELIBERATE. It is now my position that the bankers have DELIBERATELY "destroyed" the world's silver supply - so they had absolutely ZERO interest in researching how that silver could be recovered (and re-circulated).

Regarding Jon Nadler's claim about cash-costs, as with everything that emanates from Nadler, expect it to be a "half-truth". Understand that when it comes to all of the silver produced as a byproduct (roughly still 2/3), we don't KNOW the precise "cash costs" of that silver.

When it comes to "byproducts", those metals are usually only considered "credits" toward the cash-costs of the PRIMARY metals being produced. So there are NO numbers available on what MOST silver costs to be produced.

Thus the number Nadler quoted would represent the cash costs of the (few) LARGE, primary silver producers in the world - whose deposits were so RICH that they could be mined back when silver was under $10/oz. They are NOT representative of the REAL cash costs for most/all of the NEW producers starting to come on line.

While I don't have any precise figures available, I would expect most of these smaller/newer producers to be producing their silver at between $6/oz and $10/oz.

However, even THAT doesn't express the PRICE which is necessary just for this industry to SURVIVE over the long-term, since it doesn't include all the funding necessary for the INDUSTRY as a whole to fund ALL exploration, capital costs, acquisition costs, and some other miscellaneous expenditures which are not captured in any "cash cost" analysis.

Indeed, I plan on doing a piece on the gold miners (fairly soon) arguing that the current price of gold is NOT high enough merely to keep the industry "healthy" enough to replace reserves they are mining over the longer term.

I agree with your general point about increasing, relative scarcity - and when coupled with the previous question about enough energy to PRODUCE these metals, it's all the more reason to favor HIGH-GRADE deposits when evaluating these companies. The "premium" such companies are likely to command should compensate for the fact they don't naturally provide the same degree of "leverage" as lower grade/higher cost producers.

sczech
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written by sczech, February 20, 2011
i Jeff,

thanks for this interesting article. I have a couple of questions which you can perhaps help answering.

We heard repeatedly that there are roughly 160 thousand tons of gold above ground. Recent estimates by various people and institutions (USGS) say that there are still roughly 40 thousand tons of gold left to be mined. This means that most of the gold is already mined and that the ultimate amount of gold to be ever mined is somewhere between 200 and 300 thousand tons.

Now, we also hear repeatedly that for every ounce of gold there are roughly 15 ounces of silver in the earth. If that is correct, then the ultimate amount of silver which has already been mined or will be mined in the future is roughly 3 to 5 billion tons of silver.

My first question is: Are there any estimates known about the total amount of silver mined in the past (up to today)?

More than a trillion barrels of oil was pumped out of the earth during the past century. Most of that oil was burned. A little exists in form of petrochemicals (plastics etc). Oil is a commodity which we pump out of the ground in order to burn it. The laws of thermodynamics say that once oil is burned, it can not be recycled. Gold on the other hand, because of its chemical inertia (gold can not be burned), it is easy to recycle. This means that almost all gold ever mined is still around.

Since silver is a precious metal, it has similar characteristics as gold. This means that most of the silver ever mined must be still around even, as you say, most of it is located in landfills. My second question is: At what price of silver would it be profitable to recycle that silver out of the landfills?

A guy at Kitco (I believe his name is Nadler) claims that the cost of mining one ounce of silver is around 5 Dollars. My question is: If correct does this figure take into account that silver is a byproduct of base metal mining? If yes, what is the cost of mining one ounce of silver in a pure silver mine?

According to USGS, at present mining rates, there are roughly 20 years of known silver reserves left in the ground. Such an estimate depends of course on the assumed price of silver. If silver rises in price by a factor of 10, then the reserve life index must increase as well since many uneconomical ores become economical at sufficiently high prices. My last question is: What is the reserve life index for silver if one ounce of silver is valued at 100 Dollars?

Let me close with a general remark: We are running out of all metals. In case of copper and precious metals, we may run out because of geological scarcity. In case of iron and aluminum we are not at risk of running out of minerals in the ground, but we at risk of running out of the energy necessary to mine and to refine these ores. All metals will therefore be much more valuable in the future than in the past.

Thanks again.
Jeff Nielson
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written by Jeff Nielson, February 20, 2011
Good question, Steve.

First of all, yes, I do support the "peak oil" concept - but as expressed by Chris Martenson in his "Crash Course":

http://www.bullionbullscanada.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=55&Itemid=125

This is "must see" material for anyone who hasn't already been through the entire presentation - as it is MUCH more sophisticated than any other "peak oil" argument I've seen.

As far as the impact on mining GENERALLY, it means "grades are king". In a world with limited oil the mining industry (and the rest of our economy) will have "energy efficiency" FORCED upon them. This means that smaller, high-grade deposits will begin to assume primacy over the larger-but-low-grade deposits we increasingly rely upon today. This will generally tend to depress global production.

In the PARTICULAR case of silver, it's going to make the "ramping-up" process I discuss MUCH slower and more difficult. In that respect, it's one more reason to believe that the silver shortage, and silver bull market will persist longer rather than shorter than we currently expect.
steve555
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written by steve555, February 20, 2011
Hi Jeff,
Whats your opinion on Peak Oil and what effect will the rising oil prices have on the silver mining industry?

Thanks.

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