Can you hear them howling? Hecla's hounds are gnawing at the gate to chew apart every investment thesis that does not include a swift and lasting recovery for the trampled shares of Hecla Mining (NYSE: HL ) .
Ever since those unfortunate skeletons emerged from Hecla's closet following the company's fourth-quarter earnings release last February, this 120-year-old company's stock has endured a thorough thrashing of more than 25%. Meanwhile, the iShares Silver Trust (NYSE: SLV ) -- notwithstanding silver's precipitous decline from near $50 per ounce -- gained more than 5% over the corresponding period.
Although Hecla's thrashing began with acknowledging a much larger liability from a decades-old environmental litigation than investors had previously expected, the pain for shareholders did not end there. A tragic mine collapse at the Lucky Friday mine in Idaho halted mining operations there during the ensuing recovery effort, but it's since returned to full operation.
The third source of recent weakness was common to the silver mining sector at large and can perhaps best be described as a pronounced market dislocation that prevailed throughout the latter portion of silver's incredible surge. Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW ) , Great Panther Silver (AMEX: GPL ) , and Coeur d'Alene Mines (NYSE: CDE ) all moved lower, while Hecla shares dove faster still. A 6% decline for the Global X Silver Miners ETF (NYSE: SIL ) , corresponding to that 5% increase in the iShares Silver Trust bullion vehicle, underscores the broad nature of that palpable market dislocation.
Although I believe the dislocation opened up enticing investment opportunities for silver, Hecla Mining presents one of the more glaring examples. On Monday, the company reported first-quarter earnings of $43.2 million -- an improvement of 98% over the prior-year mark -- and operating cash flow of $60.9 million. Hecla continues to post some of the lowest-cost silver production in the industry, and it incurred just $1.03 in cash costs for each of the 2.5 million ounces mined in the quarter. At an average realized sales price of $36.49 per ounce -- itself a remarkable 15% outperformance of the average spot price -- Hecla's low cost structure is padding its balance sheet with ample cash as if in response to the company's needs. After a fresh injection of $38 million, Hecla's cash hoard now stands at $321.7 million.
In closing, I hasten to point out that Hecla's 142 million ounces of silver in reserves carry a present market value of $5.3 billion, without any consideration of Hecla's 757,000 ounces of gold reserves. At an enterprise value beneath $2 billion, Hecla trades at about 38% of its silver-reserve value. I have argued that Silver Wheaton's shares are undervalued on a similar basis, and yet Hecla's cost structure retains a solid advantage over even that fixed-cost silver sensation.
So before you turn away from Hecla Mining just because silver took a whack, remember that the hounds of Hecla can be tamed to your Foolish advantage.