The Queen of England gifted an unusual item to the President of Mexico at the G20 summit in London … more fascinating even than President Obama's gift to her of an iPod loaded with Broadway show tunes. The monarch gave President Calderon a copy of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Silver, while abundant in Calderon's homeland, remains precious in a world flooded with paper assets. Still, with headlines heaping greater attention upon gold as a safe haven, silver is like the downtrodden prole eking out a meager existence under the shadow of its gilded big brother. In truth, silver has every bit the precious pedigree of gold, with its monetary use dating back to ancient Sumeria. The countless industrial applications for silver further enhance the metal's allure.
The Earth's crust contains about 15 ounces of silver for every one ounce of gold, and the long-term relationship between the values of the two metals echoed that geological truism for many centuries. Today, however, one can obtain 70 ounces of silver for the price of an ounce of gold. This huge disconnect from the historical ratio forms an important foundation for this Fool's contention that silver could deliver greater upside than gold as the mother of all currency crises plays out on the world stage.
The slingshot effect
I find it helpful for investors looking at silver for the first time to visualize the slingshot effect. Picture gold and silver tethered together by a long rubber band. When gold moves in either direction, silver often lags gold's movements while potential energy is stored, but ultimately makes larger-percentage moves. Given this phenomenon, Fools seeking a safe haven from mounting stagflationary inputs could find refuge in gold's little brother.
Please note: Understanding the silver market, and especially the mining sector, requires substantial research and diligence, and the correlative danger of the slingshot effect is that it applies to downward movements in gold as well. Nonetheless, I believe that long-term upward pressures upon the gold price are mounting considerably. When gold makes its next big move, silver may enjoy a most precious bounce.
Selecting silver bullets
Physical bullion is the most straightforward vehicle for silver exposure, but most investors opt for some form of bullion proxy. While the iShares Silver Trust (NYSE: SLV ) provides one option, I prefer the Central Fund of Canada (AMEX: CEF ) for its longer track-record and fairly even split between gold and silver bullion holdings.
My top pick among silver miners conducts no mining at all. Instead, Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW ) purchases silver streams -- contractual rights to purchase silver -- in exchange for up-front capital which miners use to develop their operations. The shares have come a very long way from their multiyear low, struck on Nov. 25, 2008. After reporting this week that attributable reserves grew in 2008 by 24% to 429.7 million ounces, due mainly to exploration success at Goldcorp's (NYSE: GG ) massive Penasquito mine, Silver Wheaton continues to look significantly undervalued. In fact, I find shares trading at the equivalent of about $3.30 per ounce of silver in the ground. With a stable all-in cost of production of about $5.89 per ounce, the margins for Silver Wheaton at today's price near $13 remain extremely robust.
This has been quite a week for silver miners. Just weeks after commissioning the new Manantial Espejo mine in Argentina, Pan American Silver (Nasdaq: PAAS ) completed its expansion of the San Vicente project in Bolivia. Expecting 1.9 million ounces from that upgraded operation, the company now forecasts 21.5 million ounces of silver production at an average cost of $6.28 per ounce for 2009. Alongside prudent adaptations executed during the worst levels of the lingering silver correction, Pan American sustained its strategic growth initiatives while maintaining a debt-free balance sheet, and looks to have only grown stronger during this painful period of weakness.
Coeur d'Alene Mines (NYSE: CDE ) knows a thing or two about weakness. Weak silver prices, a string of operational setbacks, deeply entrenched short positions, and liquidity concerns all combined to send shares of this 80-year-old mining company to an incredible multi-year low of $0.36 last November. Coeur d'Alene Mines initiated production last week at the world-class Palmarejo mine in Mexico, just as production is ramping up at San Bartolome in Bolivia, permitting the company to target 20 million ounces of silver production in 2009. Both Coeur and similarly downtrodden Hecla Mining (NYSE: HL ) have begun to show serious signs of life in recent weeks, but neither stock is fit for the faint of heart.
Silver, in fact, is not for the faint of heart. With that slingshot effect, it is capable of gut-wrenching movements that will test the will of investors. Without staking any claims regarding short-term movements, I stand by my long-held assertion that the multi-year secular bull market for silver remains fully intact.