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Profitability among silver miners has exploded this year amid a meaningful surge in the price of the underlying metal, though I continue to encourage Fools to view the present chapter as merely a taste of windfall profits to come. Already, my silverminer CAPS pick for Global X Silver Miners ETF (NYSE: SIL ) has achieved a 54% outperformance of the S&P 500 (INDEX: ^GSPC ) on its way toward what I consider a conservative target of a 200% outperformance by mid-2015.
The top U.S.-listed holding for that ETF -- silver stream specialist Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW ) -- offered a timely reminder this week of the gathering cash-flow surge that is bound to make silver producers some of the greatest investment opportunities of our time. The company saw its adjusted earnings nearly double from the prior-year mark, reaching $135 million for the third quarter. Shipment delays from operations such as Glencore's Yualiyacu mine in Peru helped quarterly sales lag attributable production by a full 1 million ounces (16% of production volume). Easing that very temporary pain, Silver Wheaton enjoyed a cash margin of $32.11 for every ounce sold! It's no small wonder, then, that this remains one of the world's most profitable companies on the basis of net margin.
Silver Wheaton will share its silver bonanza
Of course, that expanding profitability yields a corresponding trend in operating cash flow, and Silver Wheaton announced that it will share more of its emerging bonanza with shareholders by linking its dividend structure to quarterly operating cash flow. The company will distribute 20% of that cash flow directly to shareholders, and the first application of this formula will yield a tripling of the previous quarterly dividend. The rush to ramp-up dividends has emerged as a core trend among precious-metal producers, with Hecla Mining (NYSE: HL ) adopting a similarly progressive policy by linking its distribution to the prevailing price of silver. As Silver Wheaton sees its production volume skyrocket more than 70% -- from just over 25 million silver equivalent ounces in 2011 to 43 million by 2015 -- the company's essentially fixed-cost structure will yield phenomenal increases in operating cash flow even if silver were to remain frozen at present prices.
But when you consider the potential for silver to continue exploding higher, moving ever closer to my next interim target of $100 per ounce, the outlook for Silver Wheaton's resulting cash flows grows rather astronomical. While we remain here in a corrective pause within silver's unbroken long-term bull market, I strongly encourage readers to consider grabbing a slice of that likely cash flow explosion here at the onset of the company's innovative dividend policy. I maintain that Silver Wheaton's shares themselves are headed to $100 and beyond, so this emerging income component only renders the prospect that much sweeter. As it has already done convincingly since the stock struck a multiyear low of $2.51 back in November of 2008, I believe Silver Wheaton will continue to dazzle the world.
This bonanza is bigger than any one company
Silver Wheaton may be the most recognizable name in silver today, but I believe investors would be thoroughly remiss to ignore the similarly explosive profit-growth potential from the array of quality producers in the industry. My recent tour of Endeavour Silver's (NYSE: EXK ) mining operations in Mexico's Guanajuato silver district gave mefirsthand confirmation of the high standard of excellence I perceived in the company's management when I urged Fools to position themselves for a major growth spurt back in mid-2010. Endeavour saw its third-quarter adjusted earnings increase by 85% year over year, and I continue to see profitable growth ahead. The following chart tracks the percentage gains from several quality silver producers over the trailing three-year period.
Even after recording some epic multibagger performances over the past three years, this Fool continues to view the stocks of most quality silver producers as fundamentally undervalued within the present price environment. As further dramatic increases in the price of silver are factored into the outlook, I believe these and other stocks could prove hedge fund manager Eric Sprott correct in his contention that "silver will be the investment of this decade."
Now that the company has convincingly overcome a concerted attack by anonymous short sellers (based on unsubstantiated allegations that I considered baseless from the start), Silvercorp Metals (NYSE: SVM ) has gone back to doing what it does best ... producing blowout earnings from its prolific silver mines in China. The miner rode an incredible 77% gross profit margin to an adjusted profit of $23.6 million for the third quarter and announced a further 25% increase to its quarterly dividend. As I reported earlier this week, Coeur d'Alene Mines (NYSE: CDE ) saw its operating cash flow quintuple from the prior-year mark, and the resurgent miner hinted strongly at a forthcoming dividend program.
First Majestic Silver (NYSE: AG ) yielded another majestic performance, with a 146% increase in earnings per share (net profit of $27.8 million). Fortuna Silver Mines (NYSE: FSM ) enjoyed first commercial production from its brand new San Jose mine in Mexico to deliver a cozy $10.3 million in net earnings. Fortuna's production volume surged 39% and managed a remarkably low production cost of $1.45 per ounce net of by-product credits. Both First Majestic and Fortuna Silver Mines appear well positioned for meaningful production growth and are deserving of careful attention from discerning silver investors.
When an entire industry appears this favorably poised to yield myriad multibagger performances over the remainder of silver's powerful bull-market cycle, selecting the ideal investment vehicle for the ride may play second fiddle to the critical decision to garner some silver exposure in the first place. I have made the same point regarding gold exposure repeatedly. To be sure, selecting the right stocks presents another key opportunity to generate outstanding returns, but my primary objective is to encourage as many investors as I can to initiate some measure of exposure before the next major breakout commences for the miners of silver and gold. For further assistance and encouragement in selecting the ideal vehicles within this promising space, I urge Fools to turn to their fellow investors at Motley Fool CAPS. Simply peruse the CAPS blogs for one or more of the daily conversations regarding gold and silver stocks, and pose your questions to the group. You can always find me at my own blog here. You'll find this a warm and welcoming community where the power of the many makes us each better investors.