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A Call to Action
By: Eric Sprott and David Baker
As we approach the end of 2011, the silver spot price has admittedly endured a tougher road than we would have expected. And let’s be honest – what investment firm on earth has pounded the table on silver harder than we have? After the orchestrated silver sell-off in May 2011 (please see June 2011 MAAG article entitled, "Caveat Venditor"), silver promptly rose back to US$40/oz where it consolidated nicely, only to drop back below US$30 within a two week span in late September.1 The September sell-off was partly due to the market’s disappointment over Bernanke’s Operation Twist, which sounded interesting but didn’t involve any real money printing. Like the May sell-off before it, however, it was also exacerbated by a seemingly needless 21% margin rate hike by the CME on September 23rd, followed by a 20% margin hike by the Shanghai Gold Exchange – the CME’s counterpart in China, three days later.
The paper markets still dictate the spot market for physical gold and silver. When we talk about the "paper market", we’re referring to any paper contract that claims to have an underlying link to the price of gold or silver, and we’re referring to contracts that are almost always levered. It’s highly questionable today whether the paper market has any true link to the physical market for gold and silver, and the futures market is the most obvious and influential "paper market" offender. When the futures exchanges like the CME hike margin rates unexpectedly, it’s usually under the pretense of protecting the "integrity of the exchange" by increasing the collateral (money) required to hold a position, both for the long (future buyer) and the short (future seller). When they unexpectedly raise margin requirements two days after silver has already declined by 22%, however, who do you think that margin increase hurts the most? The long buyer, or the short seller? By raising the margin requirement at the very moment the long contracts have already received an initial margin call (because the price of silver has dropped), they end up doubling the longs’ pain – essentially forcing them to sell their contracts. This in turn creates even more downward price pressure, and ends up exacerbating the very risks the margin hikes were allegedly designed to address.
When reviewing the performance of silver this year, it’s important to acknowledge that nothing fundamentally changed in the physical silver market during the sell-offs in May or mid-September. In both instances, the sell-offs were intensified by unexpected margin rate hikes on the heels of an initial price decline. It should also come as no surprise to readers that the "shorts" took advantage of the September sell-off by significantly reducing their silver short positions.2 Should physical silver be priced off these futures contracts? Absolutely not. That they have any relationship at all is somewhat laughable at this point. But futures contracts continue to heavily influence spot prices all the same, and as long as the "longs" settle futures contracts in cash, which they almost always do, the futures market-induced whipsawing will likely continue. It also serves to note that the class action lawsuits launched against two major banks for silver manipulation remain unresolved today, as does the ongoing CFTC investigation into silver manipulation which has yet to bear any discernible results.3
Meanwhile, despite the needless volatility triggered by the paper market, the physical market for silver has never been stronger. If the September sell-off proved anything, it’s the simple fact that PHYSICAL buyers of silver are not frightened by volatility. They view dips as buying opportunities, and they buy in size. During the month of September, the US Mint reported the second highest sales of physical silver coins in its history, with the majority of sales made in the last two weeks of the month.4 Reports from India in early October indicated that physical silver demand had created short-term supply issues for physical delivery due to problems with airline capacity.5 In China, which reportedly imported 264.69 tons (7.7 million oz) of silver in September alone, the volume of silver forward contracts on the Shanghai Gold Exchange was more than six times higher than the same period in 2010.6,7 It was clear to anyone following the silver market that the physical demand for the metal actually increased during the paper price decline. And why shouldn’t it? Have you been following Europe lately? Do the politicians and bureaucrats there give you confidence? Gold and silver are the most rational financial assets to own in this type of environment because they are no one’s liability. They are perfectly designed to protect us during these periods of extreme financial turmoil. And wouldn’t you know it, despite the volatility, gold and silver have continued to do their job in 2011. As we write this, in Canadian dollars, gold is up 23.4% on the year and silver’s up 6.8%. Meanwhile, the S&P/TSX is down -12.3%, the S&P 500 is down -5.1% and the DJIA is up a mere +0.26%.8
So here’s the question: we think we understand the value and great potential in silver today, and we know that the buyers who bought in late September most definitely understand it,… but do silver mining companies appreciate how exciting the prospects for silver are? Do the companies that actually mine the metal out of the ground understand the demand fundamentals driving the price of their underlying product? Perhaps even more importantly, do the miners understand the significant influence they could potentially have on that demand equation if they embraced their product as a currency?
According to the CPM Group, the total silver supply in 2011, including mine supply and secondary supply (scrap, recycling, etc.), will total 1.03 billion ounces.9 Of that, mine supply is expected to represent approximately 767 million ounces.10 Multiplied against the current spot price of US$31/oz, we’re talking about a total silver supply of roughly US$32 billion in value today. To put this number in perspective, it’s less than the cost of JP Morgan’s WaMu mortgage write downs in 2008.11
According to the Silver Institute, 777.4 million ounces of silver were used up in industrial applications, photography, jewelry and silverware in 2010.12 If we assume, given a weaker global economy, that this number drops to a flat 700 million ounces in 2011, it implies a surplus of roughly 300 million ounces of silver available for investment demand this year. At today’s silver spot price – we’re talking about roughly US$9 billion in value. This is where the miners can make an impact. If the largest pure play silver producers simply adopted the practice of holding 25% of their 2011 cash reserves in physical silver, they would account for almost 10% of that US$9 billion. If this practice we’re applied to the expected 2012 free cash flow of the same companies, the proportion of investable silver taken out of circulation could potentially be enormous.
Expressed another way, consider that the majority of silver miners today can mine silver for less than US$15 per ounce in operating costs. At US$30 silver, most companies will earn a pre-tax profit of at least US$15 per ounce this year. If we broadly assume an average tax rate of 33%, we’re looking at roughly US$10 of after-tax profit per ounce across the industry. If GFMS’s mining supply forecast proves accurate, it will mean that silver mine production will account for roughly 74% of the total silver supply this year. If silver miners were therefore to reinvest 25% of their 2011 earnings back into physical silver, they could potentially account for 21% of the approximate 300 million ounces (~$9 billion) available for investment in 2011. If they were to reinvest all their earnings back into silver, it would shrink available 2011 investment supply by 82%. This is a purely hypothetical exercise of course, but can you imagine the impact this practice would have on silver prices?
Silver miners need to acknowledge that investors buy their shares because they believe the price of silver is going higher. We certainly do, and we are extremely active in the silver equity space. We would never buy these stocks if we didn’t. Nothing would please us more than to see these companies begin to hold a portion of their cash reserves in the very metal they produce. Silver is just another form of currency today, after all, and a superior one at that.
To take this idea further, instead of selling all their silver for cash and depositing that cash in a levered bank, silver miners should seriously consider storing a portion of their reserves in physical silver OUTSIDE OF THE BANKING SYSTEM. Why take on all the risks of the bank when you can hold hard cash through the very metal that you mine? Given the current environment, we see much greater risk holding cash in a bank than we do in holding precious metals. And it serves to remember that thanks to 0% interest rates, banks don’t pay their customers to take on those risks today.
None of this should seem far-fetched. One of the key reasons investors have purchased physical gold and silver is to store some of their wealth outside of a financial system that looks increasingly broken. The European banking system is a living model of that breakdown. Recent reports have revealed that more than €80-billion was pulled out of Italian banks in August and September alone. In Greece, depositors have taken almost €50-billion out their banks since the beginning of 2010.13 Greek banks are now completely reliant on ECB funding to stay afloat. The situation has deteriorated to the point where over two thirds of the roughly 500 billion euros that banks have borrowed from the ECB are now being deposited back at the central bank.14 Why? Because they don’t trust other banks to stay afloat long enough to get their money back.
Silver miners shouldn’t feel any safer banking in the United States. Fitch Ratings recently warned that the US banks may face severe losses from their exposures to European debt if the contagion escalates.15 There’s very little at this point to suggest that it won’t. The roots of the 2008 meltdown live on in today’s crisis. We are still facing the same problems imposed by over-leverage in the financial system, and by postponing the proper solutions we’ve only increased those risks. We don’t expect the silver miners to corner the physical silver market, and we know the paper games will probably continue, but the silver miners must make a better effort to understand the inherent value of their product. Gold and silver are not traditional commodities, they are money. Their value lies in their ability to retain wealth in environments marked by negative real interest rates (), government intervention (), severe economic uncertainty () and vulnerable banking institutions (). Silver’s demand profile is heightened by its use in industrial applications, but it is the metal’s investment demand that will drive its future performance. The risk of keeping all of one’s excess cash in a bank is, in our opinion, considerably more than holding it in the more enduring form of money that silver represents. It’s time for silver producers to embrace their product in the same manner their shareholders already have.
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