The Silver Lining

The price of gold hit new all-time highs once again Monday, continuing a steady uptrend that really gained traction during the credit crisis. Investors in search of a hard asset in which to allocate capital have found solace in gold ETFs, such as the SPDR Gold Shares (NYSE: GLD), buying shares in gold miners, and many even collecting the physical asset itself.

Perhaps less subtly noted by Bill Fleckenstein of Fleckenstein Capital: "There is a bid for stores of value as people try and protect themselves against the depreciating worthless confetti that we call money. None of these currencies are worth anything. We have printed money like drunken sailors and that leads to inflation."

Gold is certainly a popular investment for hedge fund honchos such as Fleckenstein and John Paulson; however, another precious metal that doesn't get as much media coverage is significantly outperforming the yellow metal. With a gain in value of roughly 23% percent this year, silver is significantly outpacing gold's 16% climb.

While silver is sought after by investors as a safe haven from financial turmoil and currency depreciating, unlike its ritzier sibling, it has more practical uses beyond jewelry to please their sweetheart. Perhaps a television, car, washing machine, or solar panel would be more to their liking; silver is an important part in the production of all of these goods. Those industrial uses should provide some downside protection in case the world's ills are cured and the safe haven trade goes away.       

Investors can play the appreciation of silver through ETFs such as iShares Silver Trust (NYSE: SLV) or ETF Securities Silver Trust (NYSE: SIVR), but I recommend investors in search of silver exposure look to silver miners and companies that purchase streams of silver. This gives investors additional upside premium for strong businesses that maintain strong balance sheets and acquisition potential in a consolidating industry. Let's look at a few silver miners that fit this mold.

Hecla Mining (NYSE: HL  )
The Idaho-based miner is one of the oldest in the United States with one of the lowest costs of production. Hecla has a negative cash cost for silver production, which gives the miner a large cost advantage over similar competitors such as Silver Standard Resources and Coeur d'Alene Mines (NYSE: CDE), both of which are production-cost positive. With a P/E around 19, the miner also trades at a significant discount to many of its peers.

Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW  )
One Fool's top stock pick for 2010 was up more than 145% in 2009 and has already tacked on an additional 65% this year. The "silver miner" has a unique way of generating profits as it is not itself a miner of the metal.  Silver Wheaton purchases the right to buy streams of silver at a low fixed cost. In fact, the company has locked in a price of about $4 per an ounce of silver. With silver trading at more than $20 an ounce, it is easy to see why the company's stock has been performing so well. As prices continue to appreciate Silver Wheaton's margins should only grow larger.

Pan American Silver (Nasdaq: PAAS  )
In 2008, Pan American Silver's management team proved it was willing to take drastic measures in order to achieve the highest possible return for the company's shareholders. During the financial crisis as just about every asset in the world was decreasing in value, management decreased their own salaries, laid off workers, and cut spending significantly until prices turned around. In 2009, as prices rebounded, the company was able to ramp up production to 23 million ounces at a cost of only $5.53 an ounce. Investors can feel confident in this management team's ability to maintain strong margins in a volatile precious metals market.

The Foolish bottom line
In times of economic uncertainty and enhanced market volatility it is important for investors to maintain a diversified portfolio with exposure to precious metals. While gold and its advocates get all the headlines, be sure to dig a little deeper and take a look at silver too.

Do you think buying the silver miners is a good play on the price appreciation of silver? Let us know in the comment box below.

Andrew Bond owns no shares in the companies listed. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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