Last year, I lumped gold and silver stocks together to form one list of my top 10 selections for 2011. Frankly, that will no longer do. Even during a year that witnessed death-defying volatility in the price of the precious metal, I believe investors have grown more attuned to silver as a compelling complement or alternative to gold exposure. Given that silver's average price during 2011 soared by 74% over the prior-year average, the gathering attention comes as no surprise. Although I remain staunchly bullish with my long-term outlook for gold, I continue to believe -- as I have for some time -- that silver is where some of the sector's more legendary gains will be realized as the precious-metals bull market matures.
With that in mind, I offer my top 10 silver stocks for 2012, in hopes of providing a valuable starting point from which to evaluate and compare the myriad opportunities in the space. Over the coming weeks, I intend to dive into some of the individual companies with more in-depth analysis, but for purposes of this discussion I attempted to hone my focus on the relevant investment rationale for each stock, and any specific catalysts that stand to drive moves to the upside during 2012. Please note that selections were limited to stocks with a market capitalization above $200 million. We have a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started!
10. Orko Silver (OTC: OKOFF.PK)
Orko has been as quiet as a mouse lately. The company's last press release was back in August, which I believe plays perfectly into the hands of vigilant investors who have not lost sight of what's on tap for 2012. Amid the quiet, Orko's shares have been chopped in half from their 2011 peak. But when Fools check in with Orko's powerful joint-venture partner for the La Preciosa project in Mexico -- Pan American Silver -- they'll find that the major silver producer is anything but quiet about its interest in Orko's flagship project. Pan American can earn a 55% interest in La Preciosa by carrying the project into production. And since Pan American has already incorporated production from the asset into its output projections beginning in 2015, there can be no doubt as to the miner's intentions here.
As a result, I believe that the feasibility study planned for release in 2012 -- and the positive production decision that's destined to follow -- could provide a major catalyst for Orko shares this year. Orko will enjoy the enviable position of letting Pan American build the mine and incur all associated costs, leaving the market to determine fair value based on Orko's retained 45% share of 6.8 million ounces of silver that the mine is expected to produce annually over a 12-year span. Currently, the market has assigned a value of less than $3 for each of the 79 million silver-equivalent ounces attributable to Orko on that 45% basis. And that's without considering the major exploration potential of Orko's district-scale land package surrounding the present resource! I believe the current value disconnect could combine with substantial catalysts in 2012 to produce a meaningful gain.
9. Great Panther Silver (AMEX: GPL )
After descending 510 meters into the belly of the Earth to gain a first-hand glimpse of this miner's long-term potential, I am convinced that Great Panther's holdings in the Guanajuato area will be yielding high-grade silver for a lifetime, and perhaps for generations to come. The company's current total resource of 31.9 million ounces, and the near-term goal to reach 40 million, serve to distract a short-term-oriented marketplace from the likelihood of steady resource expansion over the long haul. The Guanajuato complex has already hosted several centuries of historical silver production, and even the introduction of modern drilling techniques has failed to locate a bottom to this world-class mineralized trend. The deeper they go, the more they find.
Sometimes, however, smaller vein structures offer the path of least resistance to production growth when they occur at shallower depths below the surface. Neighboring miner Endeavour Silver has expertly capitalized on high-grade, near-surface vein structures near the Veta Madre by following successful exploration with fast-tracked underground development and production. This has helped Endeavour to surge past its former rival in terms of production scale, but I believe Great Panther will not be far behind in unlocking the value of its own emerging bounty in the adjacent San Ignacio asset. To that end, Great Panther has also acquired an exciting property nearby (Santa Rosa) that may be geologically contiguous to AuRico Gold's El Cubo mine. Along with targeted production growth of 20% or better, continued exploration success at Guanajuato and San Ignacio during 2012 is likely to draw a map by which the market can visualize Great Panther's needed doubling of output to utilize spare capacity at its high-quality processing plant.
8. Wildcat Silver (OTC: WLDVF.PK)
With the threat of a Europe-triggered credit crunch still looming overhead, I hesitated to include non-producing silver companies like Orko and Wildcat on this list of top stocks for 2012. They had to earn their way onto the list, but I believe that Wildcat has resoundingly earned its keep with the developing Hermosa project in Arizona. The project already boasts a resource of 121 million ounces of silver, for which the stock's puny market capitalization beneath $200 million assigns a remarkably low value. The key catalyst for 2012, I believe, will come early in the year, when the company releases an updated preliminary economic assessment (PEA) and resource estimate for the project. The previous PEA, released in 2010, envisioned 6 million ounces of annual silver production over a robust 18-year mine life (and at negative cash costs). Under that scenario, I would rate these shares as substantially undervalued.
But Wildcat believes the imminent PEA and resource estimate may double the existing resource, which would imply a total resource some 240 million ounces of silver! Accordingly, Wildcat envisions a possible doubling of the project's annual production estimate, which implies potential to produce 12 million ounces of silver per year. Normally, I might be inclined to balk at such dramatic claims of impending project expansion. But Wildcat's executive chairman, Richard Warke, founded Ventana Gold and presided over that company's $1.5 billion buyout last year. A look back over the phenomenal exploration results reported since the 2010 PEA confirms significant new discoveries that I would indeed expect to drive a meaningful resource expansion. I recently speculated that Hecla Mining will be forced into acquisitive growth to ward off the array of challengers nipping at its heels. But I erred in my suggestion of potential targets, since I now believe Wildcat Silver presents the neatest fit. With or without an advance from growth-starved Hecla, any semblance of the success Wildcat itself foresees for its updated PEA and resource estimates at the Hermosa project is bound to drive one of the more exciting advances among silver stocks in 2012.
7. First Majestic Silver (NYSE: AG )
After delivering one of the silver sector's more majestic share-price advances from mid-2010 into mid-2011, First Majestic has dipped its way deep into bargain territory to offer investors a second chance to climb aboard for its sustained growth trajectory. From 2011 production of 7.56 million ounces of silver, First Majestic is eyeing 10 million ounces for 2012 on its way to a kingly sum of 15 million ounces by 2014! The company has proved its knack for timely execution thus far, and I consider the targeted growth spurt quite attainable once the new Del Toro mine enters production during the third quarter of 2012. With an enterprise value that equates to just $5.82 for each silver resource ounce ($4.84 per ounce of silver-equivalent), and an asset portfolio brimming with organic growth potential, I view First Majestic as a stellar long-term vehicle for silver exposure during 2012 and beyond.
6. Alexco Resource (AMEX: AXU )
I've noticed that the equity market has a very hard time adapting share valuations to two categories of resources in particular: the first being resources that are implied by successful drilling but not yet codified into official 43-101-compliant resources, and the second being the back-of-the envelope upside potential from untested or underexplored portions of a project or district. Wildcat Silver appears to have plenty of the former, while Great Panther Silver exemplifies the latter. Alexco Resource, meanwhile, has them both in spades.
I could see how Alexco might look expensive to the untrained eye, with an enterprise value that equates to $9.36 per ounce of silver resource. That is the highest such multiple among the stocks that will fill out this top-10 list. But any Fool who takes a moment become familiar with the astonishing prospects for further resource expansion within the Keno Hill district of Canada's Yukon will no doubt draw another conclusion entirely. I have said it before, but it bears repeating that royalty holder Silver Wheaton perceives "immense exploration potential and future production upside" from this recently revived historical silver district. Meaningful exploration success during 2011, including bonanza silver grades like the 31.5 ounces of silver per ton over 6.04 meters encountered at the emerging Flame & Moth deposit, holds the promise of resource expansion during 2012. As the company proceeds from 2 million ounces of silver production expected for 2011 to 5 million ounces by 2014, I fully expect expanding exploration budgets to demonstrate the area's potential in a way that the market can more readily digest.
There you have it, Fools. Following a marathon of research and deliberation, I offer these stocks as the first half of my list of the top 10 silver stocks for 2012. Please stay tuned for Part 2 to discover which silver stocks earned their way into the top 5. To catch those top picks, and all my ongoing coverage of the precious-metal miners, please be sure to bookmark my article list, or follow me on Twitter. Naturally, I have issued bullish calls for each of the CAPS-ratable stocks on this list within my Motley Fool CAPS portfolio, and I invite each of you out there to consider following suit.
Looking for more ideas? Download The Motley Fool's special free report "The Tiny Gold Stock Digging Up Massive Profits." Our analysts have uncovered a little-known gold miner that we believe is poised for greatness; find out which company it is and why we strongly believe in its future -- for free!