If a more profitable business exists in the realm of publicly traded companies, I would like to see it. That's right: I'm issuing a challenge, and I'm inviting you to prove me wrong.
I believe that Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW ) may now be the most profitable company in the world. Unless someone out there in Fooldom can pinpoint a greater champion, I propose that we call a spade a spade, and recognize this amazing achievement.
Of course, Silver Wheaton's nominal net profit of $123 million for the fourth quarter of 2010 looks like small potatoes next to a gargantuan haul like ExxonMobil's (NYSE: XOM ) $9.25 billion profit for the period. At $6 billion for its fiscal first quarter 2011, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) gets right to the core of what we might consider monster profits. But if, like me, you are more impressed by the efficiency with which a company garners gains than you are with the headline number, you will understand why Silver Wheaton is the apple of my eye.
Silver Wheaton's lean, essentially fixed-cost business model converted an astounding 82% of sales into net profit. As silver surged to an average realized price of $26.44 per ounce, the silver-stream specialist watched its cash operating margin expand 64% to $22.42 per ounce (or 85% of sales). Thanks to the low overhead of its beautifully simple corporate structure, that minuscule 300 basis-point differential between cash operating margin and net profit margin likewise speaks to the efficiency of this high-octane profit machine.
The spoils of world-class profitability
After expanding the company's cash balance by 87% to $428 million, which together with forward cash flow and an undrawn $400 million credit facility will suffice to fund aggressive acquisition of new silver-stream agreements going forward, Silver Wheaton determined that this is "the ideal time for Silver Wheaton to implement a sustainable long-term dividend policy." As silver continues to track higher for all the reasons cited by fund manager Eric Sprott here, and Silver Wheaton's production volume launches 80% higher over the next five years on the basis of existing silver streams, I view this inaugural $0.03 quarterly dividend as merely a teaser for far more meaningful payouts to come.
For 2010, Silver Wheaton's 37% production growth (reaching 23.9 million silver-equivalent ounces) came principally on the back of Goldcorp's (NYSE: GG ) successful ramp-up of operations at Penasquito. With 3.8 million ounces delivered to Silver Wheaton during 2010, that number is set to expand further to 7 million ounces annually. Helping Fools to cozily bide their time while awaiting silver production from Barrick Gold's (NYSE: ABX ) Pascua Lama project in 2013, Silver Wheaton expects a further 15% increase in silver production for 2011 to reach at least 27 million SEOs. Incredibly, the company sees 2011 operating cash flow more than doubling to $700 million, following a 93% rise in 2010.
Once Pascua Lama's anticipated 9 million ounces of annual (attributable) production kick in, Silver Wheaton expects to yield an eye-opening 43 million ounces of silver by 2015. Investors can have fun plugging their own individual targets for where silver prices might trend over the course of this monumental production growth spurt, and forecast just how profitable this company can be as surging volumes collide with further expansion of net profit margin beyond this already stunning 82% figure.
Back to the profitability challenge
Before I ask each of you to sift through your own personal watchlist of stocks to identify a company with superior profitability to that of Silver Wheaton, let's lay out a couple of ground rules. To keep the comparison current, let's look only to fourth-quarter results or roughly equivalent fiscal periods. We're looking for a net profit margin, calculated as net earnings divided by sales, with a value greater than 82%. To make it sporty, you can even have your pick between using headline earnings or an adjusted figure, provided the adjusted figure is not unduly boosted by some enormous asset sale or similar gain having nothing to do with ongoing operations. And finally, while all documented examples of reported net profit margin by publicly traded corporations are welcome for consideration, I may still reserve the championship title for Silver Wheaton if no U.S.-listed stock with a market capitalization of $500 million or greater is capable of claiming this profitability prize.
I will get you started by providing some examples of companies that can't hold a candle to Silver Wheaton's profitability. ExxonMobil, for all its noteworthy profit-heft, yielded a net profit margin of only 8.8% for the fourth quarter. Apple is renowned for its impressive cost controls throughout its supply chain, but even this tech giant's 22.5% net margin looks paltry next to Silver Wheaton's 82% bonanza. And what of the now-famously profitable miners of gold and silver? Goldcorp and Yamana Gold (NYSE: AUY ) , two of the industries' outstanding low-cost leaders, both recorded net profit margins of about 32% for the fourth quarter (using adjusted earnings). Silver Wheaton's closest U.S.-listed competitor by production scale -- Pan American Silver (Nasdaq: PAAS ) -- recorded an attractive 24.2% margin that still is not even close.
Although I have a feeling you may find yourself out on a wild goose chase searching for a net profit margin to match the incredible efficiency of Silver Wheaton's unique business model, I look forward to reviewing any result that even comes close as you post them in the comments section below (please include a direct link to the relevant earnings press release). I wish you great success in your quest, since I would argue that any company with equal or greater net profit margins is likely worth watching closely.