Silver Miners’ Q4’18 Fundamentals

The major silver miners have rallied higher on balance in recent months, enjoying a young upleg. That’s a welcome change after they suffered a miserable 2018. Times are tough for silver miners since silver’s prices have languished near extreme lows relative to gold. That has forced many traditional silver miners to increasingly diversify into gold. The major silver miners’ recently-released Q4’18 results illuminate their struggles.

Four times a year publicly-traded companies release treasure troves of valuable information in the form of quarterly reports. Required by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, these 10-Qs and 10-Ks contain the best fundamental data available to traders. They dispel all the sentiment distortions inevitably surrounding prevailing stock-price levels, revealing corporations’ underlying hard fundamental realities.

While 10-Qs with filing deadlines of 40 days after quarter-ends are required for normal quarters, 10-K annual reports are instead mandated after quarters ending fiscal years. Most silver miners logically run their accounting on calendar years, so they issue 10-Ks after Q4s. Since these annual reports are larger and must be audited by independent CPAs, their filing deadlines are extended to 60 days after quarter-ends.

The definitive list of major silver-mining stocks to analyze comes from the world’s most-popular silver-stock investment vehicle, the SIL Global X Silver Miners ETF. Launched way back in April 2010, it has maintained a big first-mover advantage. SIL’s net assets were running $362m in mid-March near the end of Q4’s earnings season, 6.1x greater than its next-biggest competitor’s. SIL is the leading silver-stock benchmark.

In mid-March, SIL included 21 component stocks, which are weighted somewhat proportionally to their market capitalizations. This list includes the world’s largest silver miners, including the biggest primary ones. Every quarter I dive into the latest operating and financial results from SIL’s top 17 companies. That’s simply an arbitrary number that fits neatly into the table below, but still a commanding sample.

As of mid-March, these major silver miners accounted for fully 97.7% of SIL’s total weighting. In Q4’18 they collectively mined 75.5m ounces of silver. The latest comprehensive data available for global silver supply and demand came from the Silver Institute in April 2018. That covered 2017, when world silver mine production totaled 852.1m ounces. That equates to a run rate around 213.0m ounces per quarter.

Assuming that mining pace persisted to Q4’18, SIL’s top 17 silver miners were responsible for about 35% of world production. That’s relatively high considering just 28% of 2017’s global silver output came from primary silver mines!36% came from lead/zinc mines, 23% from copper, and 12% from gold. 7/10ths of all silver produced is merely an other-metals-mining byproduct. Primary silver mines and miners are fairly rare.

Scarce silver-heavy deposits are required to support primary silver mines, where over half their revenue comes from silver. They are increasingly difficult to discover and ever-more expensive to develop. And silver’s challenging economics of recent years argue against miners even pursuing it. So even traditional major silver miners have shifted their investment focus into actively diversifying into far-more-profitable gold.

Silver price levels are best measured relative to prevailing gold prices, which overwhelmingly drive silver price action. Q4’18 saw the worst Silver/Gold Ratio witnessed in nearly a quarter century! The SGR collapsed to 86.3x in late November, an extreme 23.8-year secular low. The raw silver price fell under $14 in mid-November, a major 2.8-year low. With such a rotten silver environment, silver miners had to struggle.

The largest primary silver miners dominating SIL’s ranks are scattered around the world. 11 of the top 17 mainly trade in US stock markets, 3 in the United Kingdom, and 1 each in South Korea, Mexico, and Peru. SIL’s geopolitical diversity is good for investors but makes it difficult to analyze and compare the biggest silver miners’ results. Financial-reporting requirements vary considerably from country to country.

In the UK companies report in half-year increments instead of quarterly. Some silver miners still publish quarterly updates, but their data is limited. In cases where half-year data is all that was made available, I split it in half for a Q4 approximation. Canada has quarterly reporting, but the deadlines are looser than in the States. Some Canadian miners trading in the US really drag their feet in getting quarterly results out.

The big silver companies in South Korea, Mexico, and Peru present other problems. Their reporting is naturally done in their own languages, which I can’t read. Some release limited information in English, but even those translations can be difficult to interpret due to differing accounting standards and focuses. It’s definitely challenging bringing all the quarterly data together for the diverse SIL-top-17 silver miners.

But analyzing them in the aggregate is essential to understand how they are faring. So each quarter I wade through all available operational and financial reports and dump the data into a big spreadsheet for analysis. Some highlights make it into this table. Blank fields mean a company hadn’t reported that data by mid-March, as Q4’s earnings season wound down. Some of SIL’s components report in gold-centric terms.

The first couple columns of this table show each SIL component’s symbol and weighting within this ETF as of mid-March. While most of these stocks trade on US exchanges, some symbols are listings from companies’ primary foreign stock exchanges. That’s followed by each miner’s Q4’18 silver production in ounces, along with its absolute year-over-year change. Next comes this same quarter’s gold production.

Nearly all the major silver miners in SIL also produce significant-to-large amounts of gold! That’s truly a double-edged sword. While gold really stabilizes and boosts silver miners’ cash flows, it also retards their stocks’ sensitivity to silver itself. So the next column reveals how pure these elite silver miners are, approximating their percentages of Q4’18 revenues actually derived from silver. This is calculated one of two ways.

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