Although gold and silver have been used as stores of value and inflation hedges, silver just doesn't get the same respect as gold. Don't let that dissuade you from taking a deep dive into Silver Wheaton (NYSE:SLW) or Tiffany & Co. (NYSE:TIF), though. While neither one of them actually mines the metal, they both touch it in ways that add material value for investors.
Don't get dirty
Mining is a dirty, labor intensive business. It's also a very costly one, since constructing and running a mine is expensive. That's where Silver Wheaton comes in. It isn't a miner; it helps to provide funding to those who do mine for the metal. But it doesn't get repaid in dollars, it gets repaid in future silver and gold production.
This is called streaming. Essentially, as miners look to raise cash for investments they can tap the capital markets, banks, or sell some of their future production to a partner for an upfront payment. Silver Wheaton is just such a partner. What it gets in return for construction cash is the ability to buy silver, or gold, from the mine at a set price.
And as you might guess, that price is usually below market prices. Silver Wheaton's average silver cost is around $4 an ounce (its average gold cost is around $400 an ounce). Silver, which makes up roughly 60% of the company's revenues, is currently trading hands in the mid-teens (gold at over $1,000 an ounce). More importantly, Silver Wheaton doesn't have to keep putting more cash in to maintain a mine like a miner would. So, this stream of metal just keeps going with no extra costs to Silver Wheaton. That said, the company does have to keep financing new mines to keep production growing, but there's no cost to "maintaining" a currently producing mine.
How does this work out for Silver Wheaton? While results have tailed off since 2011, along with the prices of most commodities, silver included, the company has been profitable in each of the last 10 years. That's a record that most gold and silver miners haven't been able to match.
Part of that success is the business model, which provides Silver Wheaton with huge margins even when silver is cheap. For example, in 2014 the company's operating margin was almost 44%. That's impressive, but it's down from nearly 77% in 2011 when silver was trading hands at over $40 an ounce. The takeaway is that Silver Wheaton's business model leaves plenty of room for profits even when silver prices decline more than 60%.
It's a Tiffany ...
But this isn't the only way to look at silver, a pretty metal that gets used frequently in jewelry. That's an aftermarket, but one that is vital to the silver trade. And if you are thinking about silver jewelry, one name stands out among all others: Tiffany & Co.
This iconic brand clearly branches off into retailing, but Tiffany's signature products are its silver offerings (and that little blue box with a white ribbon that is so adored). The fascinating thing here is that Tiffany has managed to charge premium prices for its silver rings, earrings, and necklaces by wrapping them in the Tiffany image. And that's why a silver investor should consider taking a look at the jewelry chain.
Tiffany's revenues dipped during the 2007 to 2009 recession, but have been heading higher each year since bottoming in 2010. Earnings have been more volatile as the company remains in expansion mode. For example, over the last decade the store count has increased from 151 to 295, with another 15 stores planned for this year. Looking forward, the company has exposure and expansion opportunities across the globe, not just in the domestic market.
Tiffany is a different way to look at silver, but one that takes you out of the ups and downs of the mining space. While that puts you in the cross hairs of economic swings, over 150 year old Tiffany & Co. has proven it can stand the test of time. So, if you are looking at silver, you should take a moment to examine the prospects of a company that's made its name selling the stuff.
That said, when looking at Tiffany & Co., you'll want to pay particular attention to sales, profit margins, and the broader retail environment. Worth particular note is same store sales growth, which looks at how the retailer's existing store base performed without the added revenues from new store openings. Also, new stores are what drive long-term growth, so you'll also want to ensure that management lives up to its store expansion plans. These are vastly different factors than you'll find in mining, but all vitally important for a retailer like Tiffany.
Forget the mines
Sure, you could buy a miner like Rio Tinto that has silver operations, but why bother? Especially when you can add a company like Silver Wheaton to your portfolio that makes money off precious metals without getting its hands dirty. And if you are really anti-mine, you can move further down the product life cycle and examine Tiffany, which has managed to turn silver jewelry into a prestige item. Either way, I think you'll find that silver can be just as enticing as gold.