When it comes to mining these days, there's not a whole like to like. Commodity prices have tumbled and remain moribund, profits have been falling, finances are stretched, and companies are going under. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Silver Wheaton Corp. (USA) (WPM -1.72%), Alliance Resource Partners, L.P. (ARLP 0.59%), and BHP Billiton Limited (USA) (BHP -0.70%) are three of the best stocks in mining (OK, one is a limited partnership, but you get the point).
OK, It's not a miner
Silver Wheaton is not really a miner. Technically speaking, the company is in the business of streaming. It provides upfront financing for miners in exchange for the right to buy silver and gold at reduced prices once a mine is up and running. While that kind of delves into the specialty finance arena, the fact is that the company is still dealing in the precious metals.
So Silver Wheaton doesn't get its hands dirty, but it does "produce" silver and gold, which it then sells on the open market. About 60% of its revenues come from silver and the rest gold. However, it's the costs at which the company is able to produce these metals that are so important: Silver Wheaton pays roughly $4 an ounce for silver and $400 for an ounce of gold. That's well below recent lows in both metals.
That's why you should like Silver Wheaton. While its top and bottom lines have sagged along with the prices of its core commodities, the company remains profitable -- something most other gold and silver miners haven't managed. And that has to do with the company's huge operating margins. In 2014, a relatively bad one for the industry, Silver Wheaton's operating margin was nearly 44%. In 2011, a high point for commodities, operating margin was over 75%. There's clearly a lot room for adversity in that number.
There's a problem?
Alliance Resource Partners is a miner that's bucking the trends in the industry, only its focus is coal. Yes, coal, the dirty fuel that's increasingly under the microscope for the harm it causes to the environment. While there's no denying coal is a dirty option, it also happens to be an important fuel source in the United States and around the world. That's not going to change anytime soon.
And in the U.S. market, one coal region is performing better than the others: the Illinois Basin. This coal basin has seen demand increase by stealing market share from regions with more expensive and less desirable coal. The Illinois basin just happens to be the region in which Alliance is focused.
So while other miners have been cutting production on top of dealing with low coal prices, Alliance has been able to increase production to offset price declines. And in turn, its top line has been growing while competitors have seen sales sag deeply. That's not likely to happen with Alliance, which has been using the downturn to pick up assets from weaker players, creating an avenue for future growth.
Moreover, the limited partnership has rewarded investors with annual distribution increases for more than a decade. These aren't the signs of a weak company in a struggling market. If you like contrarian investing, Alliance might be right for you.
Try a little diversification
If being focused in on specific markets isn't your speed, you might want to consider a more diversified miner such as BHP Billiton. This giant miner's main focus is on iron ore, copper, metallurgical coal, and oil and natural gas. It also has a large potash project it's developing. That said, iron ore is the biggest piece of the puzzle, accounting for more than 40% of sales and an even larger percentage of profits.
While that makes iron ore demand and the steel industry key drivers here, BHP's other businesses provide a counterbalance. Or at least that's the goal, because right now that's not happening. But BHP has solid assets and is known for running a lean operation. In other words, it's not thriving right now, but it's not struggling as badly as many of its competitors. Moreover, like most miners, BHP is using the downturn to refocus on cost cutting.
So it not only looks like BHP will be a survivor, but it will also probably come out stronger when commodity markets turn higher. Perhaps most telling, however, is the company's commitment to its dividend, which has increased annually for over a decade. In other words, despite the woes of the commodity industry, management appears pretty confident in its ability to thrive in the longer term.
Castoffs and outcasts
It's tough buying when everyone else is selling. And that's exactly the situation in the mining industry today, with commodities weak and many industry players struggling. But that big picture misses the pockets of silver that are hiding in the dark clouds. If you're willing to zig while others zag, Silver Wheaton, Alliance Resource Partners, and BHP Billiton are three of the best miners around.