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Playing Volatility in Silver Mining Stocks

Even Mexico's high royalty tax on silver mining offers opportunity...
CHRIS THOMPSON, trained in South Africa and with more than 20 years industry experience as a geologist, specializes in analyzing mid-cap precious metals miners.
Now mining analyst with Raymond James, Chris Thompson received the 2011 Starmine No.1 Stock Picker award for the Canadian Metals and Mining Sector. Here, speaking to The Gold Report's sister title The Mining Report, he explains how investors should embrace the volatility in silver, and how – despite its higher royalty tax – Mexico remains a silver powerhouse for investors...
The Mining Report: Your research reports make it clear that mine operating costs are creeping up. For investors, which should be the bigger concern, lower commodity prices or climbing operating costs?
Chris Thompson: Both are a concern, but right now operating margins are an investor's biggest concern. For producers, volatility in the metal prices has led to rapidly changing operating margins. Companies are demonstrating their ability to reduce costs, but how far they need to reduce these costs will be determined by the commodity price.
TMR: Do you have a threshold for operating margins; a minimum that you want to see?
Chris Thompson: It depends on the metal price forecast, but we're happiest with a 50%+ operating margin on the company's total cash cost.
TMR: What are your gold and silver price forecasts for 2014?
Chris Thompson: We have silver at $25 per ounce. Historically, that is not unrealistic, although it is a significant premium to today's $20 per ounce price. Our gold forecast is $1400 per ounce.
TMR: Do you calculate the correlation of equities to the daily spot price?
Chris Thompson: We calculate correlation coefficients for equity valuations and market valuations relative to metal prices. At the moment, pure play precious metal producers, especially the silvers, correlate very well in many respects with the silver price. 
TMR: Some miners publish cost-per-ton numbers; others don't. How does the average investor calculate cost-per-ton for silver?
Chris Thompson: That's a metric I use a lot because from an operating perspective, it's one of the most relevant metrics in the metals space. It's a metric with a lot of components, including mining costs, processing costs and general and administrative costs – all calculated on a per-ton mill basis. Adding those components together gives you a cost-per-ton milled, which is a pure reflection of mine site operating costs per ton.
TMR: What would be a favorable cost-per-ton in today's market environment for a silver mine and a gold mine?
Chris Thompson: You need to recognize that the operating cost on a per-ton basis is only one part of the story. We need to look at the metal value or the metal that's encased in rock and the company's capacity to beneficiate that metal.
To answer that question, you have to look at grade, as well as metallurgical recoveries. On a cost-per-ton basis, a mine may be a very high cost producer, but it may also be very profitable based on high grade and good metallurgical recoveries.
TMR: Looking at Mexico, what about the new royalty coming into play in the country: a 7.5% flat tax on EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization deductions). How is that affecting Mexican silver producers and how are you factoring it into your calculations?
Chris Thompson: The net effect is marginal for marginal producers operating marginal mines. Unfortunately, for operators that enjoy healthy operating margins, it has a much more significant effect on their ability to generate cash flow. It's very much a leveler.
Furthermore, it is a deterrent on investment in Mexico. Companies have to, and are, thinking twice about exploring for, building and operating mines in Mexico.
TMR: Nonetheless, you have buy ratings on just about every company that you cover there.
Chris Thompson: Our buy ratings are based on our metal price forecast for 2014, and many are driven by multiples to cash flow. Remember, our 2014 silver price forecast is $25 per ounce, a full 25% higher than spot. This is reflected in high target prices relative to current market prices. Our target prices are more a reflection on valuations should silver prices strengthen to ~$25 oz.
TMR: Should investors expect more volatility in precious metals prices in early 2014?
Chris Thompson: Absolutely. The one thing we can expect in 2014 is pretty much what we had this year. We'll be in a very volatile space for quite some time.
My advice to investors is stay with quality; stay with good management teams that have good asset bases in geopolitically secure regions. Stay with companies that can demonstrate what I call "realistic executable organic growth plans."
TMR: In other words, projects already in the pipeline that should be relatively easy to finance and bring into production with high recovery rates and controllable costs.
Chris Thompson: Absolutely. That is the most risk-averse focus a company can offer investors right now. In an environment where money is tight, there's little chance of projects being financed, but if they carry palatable capital costs, are attractive and the company has the right skill set to advance the assets to production, that's what the company needs to do. And it's what investors need to look for.
TMR: That makes sense for midcap or small companies. For the slightly larger players, is there enough confidence in precious metal prices for them to enter a fresh round of mergers and acquisition (M&A) activity?
Chris Thompson: Broadly speaking, there's very little confidence for M&A at the moment. However, within management groups that have in-house expertise to deliver on value, there is a much better appetite for M&A.
TMR: What's one thing investors in the precious metals space can look forward to in 2014?
Chris Thompson: More volatility, I'm afraid, if that's something to look forward to.
You need to play the volatility. This is the time for people to buy stock in solid, high-quality names when the silver metal price is $19-$20 per ounce. If the silver price strengthens to ~$25 per ounce, which we think it might, it will be time to lighten the load or offload names.
Often, the little stories that can deliver on all fronts are the stories that investors should gravitate to, regardless of the metal price. You have to play the volatility and acquire positions in good, solid companies when metal prices are low. At these metals prices, there's more upside potential than downside risk.
TMR: Chris, thank you for your time and your insights.

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