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Still Bullish on Silver

What the surge in private investment demand means for silver...

NOW WITH 12 years' experience in precious metals and mining, Maria Smirnova joined Sprott Asset Management as a research associate in May 2005, and was appointed associate portfolio manager in February 2010.

Co-managing the Sprott Silver Equities Class today with Eric Sprott and Charles Oliver, Maria Smirnova is also responsible for supporting the portfolio management team in the precious metals and mining space. Here she speaks to The Gold Report about silver investing, and the silver miner stocks.

The Gold Report: Maria, in April Eric Sprott sold more than $45 million worth of units in the Sprott Silver Physical Trust. A spokesperson told Canada's Globe and Mail that the sale was needed to cover charitable obligations and to buy shares in silver mining companies because Mr. Sprott believes silver equities will outperform the metal in the next rally. Can you fill in the details on that thesis?

Maria Smirnova: We believe in the equities – for any commodity – for several reasons. Equities represent a leverage play on the underlying commodity. To use a simple example: Assume Company X can earn $5 when the silver price is $25 per ounce. If the silver price increases 20% to $30, that extra $5 goes directly to the bottom line. This doubles the company's profits from $5 to $10. The silver price increases 20%; the profits rise nearly 100% – that is what I call leverage.

In addition, mining companies benefit from production growth through exploration or acquisition. We look for companies that can find millions of ounces of silver or gold.

TGR: Precious metals have certainly had their detractors of late. Why does Sprott Asset Management remain committed to precious metals?

Maria Smirnova: Governments are trying many maneuvers to fix the economic situation, printing money, for example. None of their actions are actually fixing the underlying economic issues. We remain committed to the precious metals because they are hard assets.

In addition, the financial market has become disconnected from the physical market. Especially since April's two-day selloff in silver and gold, purchases of the physical metals have surged.

For example, sales of the US Mint's silver coins jumped 57% year-to-date compared to last year (as of April). Sales increased 169% in April alone. We have heard stories of people lining up to buy silver in Canada and Australia. Demand is up in China as well. Chinese jewelry sales grew 72% in April compared to 2012.

If you look at the exchange-traded funds, silver ETFs have not had a large selloff. The buyers are there, the physical demand is there, but the price is just not reflecting that. It is a bit frustrating, but from my perspective, it is comforting to see the numbers show that people want to own silver and are buying more of it.

TGR: What silver price do you use in your models?

Maria Smirnova: I usually just use the spot price to evaluate all companies. For me, it is a relative-standing game. I do not project the silver price going forward. If today's price is $24 per ounce, I will use $24; that allows me to evaluate all companies on a fair ground.

TGR: Do you have a time frame for when the market might begin to favor precious metals again?

Maria Smirnova: That is hard to predict. A lot of what is taking place right now does not make sense. It is very difficult to predict when things will turn. We take a long-term view.

TGR: A number of the companies we have talked about have operations in Mexico. There has been some talk of increased royalties and some quiet forms of nationalization. Is that a concern at all?

Maria Smirnova: Nationalization is not a concern at all. Regarding royalties, the proposal appears to be for a net profits royalty tax of about 5%. That would equate to a 2% top-line net smelter royalty, lower than what people expected. This is not atypical and it is not a windfall tax. Therefore, in my mind, it will not have a huge impact on these companies.

The removal of the uncertainty about the tax is probably good for the mining industry in Mexico. We will move on and live our lives.

TGR: How do you view the silver space and what is your outlook for small-cap silver miners?

Maria Smirnova: I think you have to remain optimistic that the prices of the commodities, especially silver and gold, turn around. I do not even want to call them commodities, to be honest. I would call them currencies, especially gold. Silver is a hybrid because it also has industrial applications.

Once the turn happens, these stocks could explode in a good sense and completely revalue to the upside. Today, they are at depressed valuations.

TGR: Is there an across-the-board percentage recovery you would predict?

Maria Smirnova: Some stocks are down 50-60%; they could double or triple.

TGR: To what do you attribute the two-day fall in mid-April? Was it manipulation?

Maria Smirnova: Yes, I would agree with that characterization. It is very difficult to believe that something could fall that much in just two days. A whopping 1.8 billion ounces of silver was traded on the Comex silver futures exchange on April 12 and 15 – that's in a 1 billion ounce market!

TGR: And what are the reasons behind the more general mining equity slump?

Maria Smirnova: A lot of people believe we are fixing our economic problems and things are getting better. People are going to the US Dollar and to other assets and other sectors.

There have also been disappointments in the mining sector with companies not meeting their guidance and costs coming in higher. This too has put a damper on investor sentiment.

TGR: Can you leave us with a positive thought about the space in general?

Maria Smirnova: It is very comforting to see retail buyers choosing in droves to own the physical metal. We hope that leads to higher market prices for gold and silver, and in turn to a rally in the stocks.

TGR: Maria, thank you for your time and your insights.

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