Silver Wheaton: The Ultimate Streaming Service

Frank Holmes, CEO and Chief Investment Officer for U.S. Global Investors expounds on the methodology employed by streaming company, Silver Wheaton, which he views as one of the lowest risk ways of investing in the upturn in precious metals stocks:

Silver Wheaton CEO Randy Smallwood (right) with USGI portfolio manager Ralph Aldis

“There’s a healthy appetite for streams right now.”

That’s according to Randy Smallwood, CEO of Silver Wheaton, who stopped by our office last week during his cross-country meet-and-greet with investors.

Randy should know about the appetite for streams. His company had a phenomenal 2015—“the best year we ever had,” he says—highlighted by two successful stream acquisitions, strong production and fully-funded growth. Silver Wheaton stock is up more than 51 percent for the year. And the company just received the Viola R. MacMillan Award, presented by the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), for “demonstrating leadership in management and financing for the exploration and development of mineral resources.”

We were one of Silver Wheaton’s seed investors in 2004. In the summer of that year, the company was spun off from Wheaton River, a producer that took its name from a stream in the Yukon where one of its mines, the Luismin property, produced silver. It was founded by Ian Telfer, chairman and CEO of Wheaton River, and the company’s then-chief financial officer, Peter Barnes, who later headed up Silver Wheaton management. My friend, the mining financier and philanthropist Frank Giustra, also had a hand in its conception.

As the only pure silver mining company, Silver Wheaton couldn’t have been founded during a more opportune time. The commodities boom was still young. I remember that when the idea for the company was shared with me, what I found most attractive was that it had virtually no competition.Franco-Nevada, which had been acquired by Newmont in 2001, wouldn’t be spun off for three more years. It was a no-brainer to put capital in this new endeavor.

Wheaton River was eventually bought by Goldcorp—the entire story is told at length in the book “Out of Nowhere: The Wheaton River Story”—and today, Silver Wheaton is the world’s largest precious metals streaming company, with a market cap of over $9 billion.

But Wait, What’s a “Stream”?

A “stream,” in case you were wondering, is an agreed-upon amount of gold, silver or other precious metal that a mining company is contractually obligated to deliver to Silver Wheaton in exchange for upfront cash. (The company’s preferred metal is silver because, as Randy puts it, it’s a smaller market and has a higher beta than gold.) The payment generally comes with less onerous terms than traditional financing, which is why miners favor working with Silver Wheaton (or one of the other royalty companies such as Franco-Nevada, Royal Gold and Sandstorm.)

Overview of Royalty and Stream Financial Model
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Streaming allows producers to “take the value of a non-core asset and crystallize that into capital they can invest into their core franchise,” Randy explains in a video prepared for the PDAC awards.

With operating costs mounting and metals still at relatively low—albeit rising—prices, royalty and streaming companies have become an essential source of financing for junior and undercapitalized miners. Between 2009 and 2014, operating and capital costs per ounce of gold rose 50 percent, from $606 to $915 per ounce, according to Dundee Capital.

Gold and Silver at 15-Month Highs

Paradigm Capital estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of global miners’ operating costs are covered when gold reaches $1,250 an ounce. The metal is now at this level—it’s currently at $1,298, up 22 percent so far this year—but as recently as December, prices were floundering at $1,050, which cut deeply into producers’ margins.

Royalty and streaming companies, on the other hand, get by with a materially lower cost of $440 an ounce.

From only 11 stream sales in 2015, miners collectively raised $4.2 billion, which is double the amount they raised in 2013.

These partnerships are a win-win. The miner gets reliable, hassle-free funding to cover part of its exploration and production costs, and the streaming company gets all or part of the output at a fixed, lower-than-market price. A 2004 streaming arrangement made with Primero on the San Dimas mine in Mexico entitles Silver Wheaton to buy all of its silver for an average price of $4.35 an ounce. With spot prices now at more than $17.89 an ounce, up 29 percent year-to-date, the San Dimas property is one of Silver Wheaton’s more lucrative assets. (The mine represents an estimated 15 percent of Silver Wheaton’s entire operating value, according to RBC Capital Markets.)

As part of its contracts, Silver Wheaton gets the added value of optionality on any future discoveries. This is important, since an estimated 70 percent of all silver comes as a byproduct of other mining activity, including gold, zinc, lead and copper. According to Randy, all of Silver Wheaton’s silver is byproduct.

Seventy Percent of Silver Is a Byproduct of Other Mining Activity

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Huge Rewards, Minimal Risk

Investors find royalty companies such as Silver Wheaton attractive for a number of reasons, not least of which is that they have exposure to commodity prices but face few of the risks associated with operating a mine.

They have minimal overhead and carry little to no debt. Franco-Nevada, in fact, added debt for the first time ever last year to buy a stream from Glencore. By year-end, the company had already paid down half this debt, and it plans to tackle the rest this quarter.

Royalty companies also hold a more diversified portfolio of mines and other assets than producers, since acquiring new streams doesn’t require any additional overhead. This helps mitigate concentration risk in the event that one of the properties stops producing for one reason or another.

Royalty Companies Hold a More Diversified Portfolio of Assets

Consequently, margins have historically been huge. Even when the price of gold and gold mining stocks declined in the years following 2011, Franco-Nevada continued to rise because it had the ability to raise capital at a much lower cost than miners. And with precious metals now surging, royalty companies are highly favored, with Paradigm Capital recommending Franco-Nevada, which has “exercised the most buying discipline among the royalty companies,” and the small-cap, highly diversified Sandstorm.

Gold Royalty Company vs. Gold Bullion vs. Gold Miners
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With only around 30 employees, Silver Wheaton has one of the highest sales-per-employee rates in the world. According to FactSet data, the company generates over $23 million per employee per year. Compare that to a large senior producer like Newmont, which generates “only” $200,000 per employee.

Royalty Companies Have a Superior Business Modelclick to enlarge

Royalty companies can often minimize political risk because they don’t normally deal directly with the governments of countries their partners are operating in. This is especially valuable when working with miners that operate in restrictive tax jurisdictions and under governments with high levels of corruption. Silver Wheaton’s contract with Brazilian miner Vale, for instance, stipulates that Vale is solely responsible for paying taxes in Brazil, which are among the highest in Latin America. Vancouver-based Silver Wheaton pays only Canadian taxes.

Political risk is still a thorny issue, however. When government corruption is too pervasive, or the red tape too tortuous, the miner’s corporate guarantee is obviously threatened. In cases such as this, Silver Wheaton can simply elect not to work with the producer, as it had to do recently with an African producer.

A key risk right now is Silver Wheaton’s ongoing legal feud with the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA), regarding international transactions between 2005 and 2010. Randy says the company might finally be nearing a resolution to the dispute.

“We do have resource risk. We do have mining production risk,” he says. “But with that risk comes rewards, and I think if we’re selective in terms of our investments, the rewards far outweigh the risks. I think we’ve been really successful making sure we invest in good quality, high-margin mines. We really put a strong focus on mines that are very profitable.”

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‘Upside in gold is both larger and closer than the downside in gold’ – Rick Rule

Source: Karen Roche of The Gold Report 

Rick Rule Reveals a Unique Arbitrage Opportunity

One of the hardest things for a mining executive to do may be nothing. But in a market that is not rewarding companies for pulling resources out of the ground, Sprott US Holdings Inc. CEO Rick Rule would prefer to see what he calls “optionality” rather than dilution from companies looking to justify salaries. In this interview with The Gold Report, he praises innovative precious metals streams on base metal projects.

The Gold Report: In November, you called the bottom for precious metals. Do you still believe that we’re in the bottom?

Rick Rule: Yes, as long as you can define a bottom gently. I said in that same interview that the most important factor in gold pricing was the fact that it was priced in U.S. dollars, and we see a topping in the U.S. dollar. In fairness, Karen, if you had asked me that same question two years ago, I would have responded in the affirmative and been quite wrong. But I do think the upside in gold is both larger and closer than the downside in gold.

TGR: Now that the Federal Reserve has increased the key interest rate slightly, the expectation is that the value of the dollar will increase relative to other currencies. How could that be the sign of a bottom for gold?

RR: I cut my teeth in the gold business in the 1970s when the prime interest rate in the U.S. increased from 4% to 15%, and the gold price went from $35/ounce ($35/oz) to $850/oz. I also remember that the gold price increased in 2002 in a climate of increasing U.S. interest rates.

The question is more about the reason that interest rates get raised than it is about the simple fact that interest rates go up. If interest rates go up because there is an anticipation of the deterioration in the price of the dollar and, as a consequence, savers deserve more compensation for lending credit, that sort of ethos is supportive to the gold price. If, by contrast, Janet Yellen can make not just the first 25 basis point interest rate rise succeed but subsequent interest rates rise, too, in other words if she can get a positive real interest rate on the U.S. 10-year treasury that exceeds the depreciation in the purchasing power of the currency, then I think we’ll see renewed dollar strength. I don’t believe she’s going to be able to do that, but the market will determine that.

TGR: Back in the 1970s, the international currency situation was different. Today, the euro and the yuan are part of a currency basket competing with the dollar. If gold is priced in U.S. dollars but now we have competitive currencies, is the logic used in the 1970s relevant anymore?

RR: Although we are in a multicurrency world, the dollar hegemony relative to other currencies has stayed intact. If you owned gold in almost any currency in the world in the last 18 months, gold performed its role as a store of value relative to the depreciation in currencies. It was only the strength of the U.S. dollar relative to all other media of exchange, including gold, that caused gold to perform poorly in U.S. dollar terms. To the extent that the U.S. dollar hegemony in world trade begins to be compromised in favor of other currencies, that weakening would be beneficial to the gold price.

You see, any time the denominator declines, the numerator becomes less important. That means if the dollar buys less of everything, it buys less gold, ergo, the gold price goes up at least nominally. Probably more importantly, however, the response that we’ve seen in the last 10 years to financial uncertainty has been an attraction for international investors into U.S. Treasuries as a store of value. If the purchasing power obtained from the real interest rate on U.S. Treasuries comes to be seen globally as negative, the attractiveness of U.S. Treasuries generally, relative to gold, will decline.

What traditionally has happened in periods of uncertainty is that investors have chosen to store some portion of their wealth in gold. The U.S. Treasuries have replaced gold to some degree over the last 10 or 15 years. My suspicion is that gold will regain some of the market share it has lost to the U.S. Treasuries as a consequence of a reduction in confidence in the U.S. dollar and U.S. Treasuries. At current interest rates, with the ongoing deterioration in the purchasing power of the dollar, U.S. Treasuries are a very flawed instrument despite their popularity.

TGR: Why are they popular?

RR: I think they are popular because people have an intrinsic sense that losing 1 or 2% a year in purchasing power beats losing 30% a year in the equities markets. People are genuinely afraid of the direction in the economy. They’re afraid of a replay of 2008.

Super investor George Soros once said that you make large amounts of money by finding a popularly held public precept that’s wrong and betting against it. I just last night watched the movie The Big Short, and I was reminded that it’s not uncommon to have the financial services industry, the government and the populace believe something to be true that is categorically false. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. 10-year Treasuries are as stupidly overpriced as the U.S. housing market and mortgage-related securities were in the last part of the last decade, but I do suspect that we are in a bond bubble, in particular a sovereign bond bubble. I suspect that a 30-year bull market in bonds is fairly close to being over. Raising rates is very difficult for the principal value of bonds. I think we’re closer to the end of the bond bull market than we are to the beginning and that’s very good for gold.

TGR: In terms of resources, are there some widely held popular beliefs that you believe are not true?

RR: I do. Sadly, as an American, I think the hegemony of the U.S. economy relative to the rest of the world economy is a widely held precept that’s untrue. Remember in 2011, the pro-gold narrative revolved around on-balance sheet liabilities of the U.S. government—just the federal government, not the state and local governments—of $16 trillion ($16T). That was considered unserviceable in an economy that generated new private savings of $500 billion a year. If $16T was unserviceable in 2011, how can $19T be serviceable today? Was $55T in off-balance sheet liabilities—Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—in 2011 less serviceable than $90T in off-balance sheet liabilities today?

My suspicion is that the change in the interpretation of the narrative has to do with the fact that in 2011, the lessons of 2008–2009 were much closer. My observation, having been in financial services for 40 years, is that people’s anticipation of the future is set by their experience in the immediate past. And the experience that we’ve had in the 2011–2015 time frame is that the big thinkers of the world—the Yellens, the Merkels, the Obamas—have somehow muddled through. But the liquidity they have added to the equation is not a substitute for solvency. That is the great, popularly held precept that’s wrong. What I don’t know is when the reckoning occurs.

TGR: Going back to Soros and a widely held popular belief and you bet against it, what’s the bet against this?

RR: Gold for one thing. I think you also need to have U.S. dollars because cash gives you the courage and the means to take advantage of circumstances like 2008. But I think that if you had a set of circumstances where faith in the U.S. dollar and U.S. dollar-denominated sovereign instruments began to falter, gold would be an enormous beneficiary. History tells us that if you’re using gold as an insurance policy that a very small premium—a fairly small amount of gold held in a portfolio—gives you an enormous amount of insurance. In other words, the upside volatility in the gold price is such that you can protect your portfolio against losses in other parts of your portfolio by having fairly moderate gold holdings.

TGR: Are you talking about physical gold?

RR: This would apply to physical gold or proxies like the Sprott Physical Gold Trust, the Sprott Physical Silver Trust and the Sprott Physical Platinum and Palladium Trust.

TGR: Soros has said that sometimes it takes two or three years before a bet actually comes in to the money. If we are expecting the gold price to increase as the faith in the dollar falters, what is the role of mining equities in betting against the status quo?

RR: I think it’s important to segregate between the gold bet and the gold equities bet. I would say if you think that gold is going to go up, buy gold. Don’t buy the gold stocks for that reason. This is particularly the case with the juniors. People ask me, “Rick, if the price of gold goes up, what will it do to the share price of my Canadian junior, Amalgamated Moose Pasture Mines?” The truth is that Amalgamated Moose Pasture doesn’t have any gold. It’s looking for gold.

If the price of something that you don’t have goes up, it doesn’t have much impact on the intrinsic value. I will say that the leverage that’s inherent in the best 10% of gold stocks is superb, but you need to buy those stocks because the management team is adding relative value. You can’t buy the shares hoping for a magnification of the gold price increase. That won’t compensate for the risks. There have to be other ways the company is advancing.

The truth is that the gold mining industry has been an enormously efficient destroyer of capital in the last 40 years despite real increases in the gold price. You need to be an excellent stock picker to overcome drag brought on by corporate inefficiency relative to the inherent leverage that you should theoretically enjoy in equities relative to the gold price. The equities have made me an enormous amount of money in the last 40 years. It’s just that as a consequence of understanding the equities for what they are, I’ve done a better job of picking them.

TGR: The Silver Summit was the first time I heard you explain the concept of “optionality.” What is your advice in this climate for mining investors?

RR: For the right class of reader who is speculative and willing to do the work, there is a class of junior company that offers extraordinary leverage to the changing perceptions in favor of gold and gold equities. It is inherently illogical to put a mine in production because you think the price of a commodity is going to go up in the future. Let’s say that there’s a five-year lag between the time that you put the mine in production and the time that the commodity price goes up. What happens is that you’ve mined the better half of your ore body and sold that gold during periods of low gold prices in anticipation of higher gold prices. So the gold price goes up, and you have a hole in the ground where your gold used to be. Fairly silly.

A much better strategy is to buy deposits cheaply when gold prices are low. Then hold them in the ground, spending almost no money on beneficiation. Spending money at that point only causes you to issue equity, which reduces your percentage ownership in the deposit.

TGR: How does someone who is not a geologist know what the relative cost of getting that gold is if the company hasn’t done some work like drilling and publishing a preliminary economic assessment to educate me?

RR: One thing investors can do is subscribe to publications like Brent Cook‘s newsletter or visit the free educational material at www.sprottglobal.com. The truth is that nobody, even the best investor in the world, is going to get it right all the time. All you have to do is get closer than your competition. Given the fact that most of your competition isn’t doing any work whatsoever, the bar isn’t very high.

TGR: Another investment strategy that you have been a fan of is streaming companies. How would you compare their optionality given where the gold price is now?

RR: I love the streaming business. It’s regarded as an extremely conservative strategy, and maybe that’s why I like it. In the streaming business, the contracting company buys the rights to a certain amount of gold or silver from a mine for a fixed price over a given period of time. The company receives the gold in return for a pre-negotiated payment irrespective of the gold price at the time that the gold is received. The company that contracts for the gold isn’t responsible for the capital cost required to build the mine, so any cost overrun associated with the mine is irrelevant to the streamer. Similarly, it is not responsible for the operating cost of the mine. It has already locked in its costs. Commonly, those are about $400/oz. The margin between $400/oz and $1,000/oz—$700/oz—is substantially greater than the margins enjoyed by the mining industry in general, which are, in fact, negative.

What I really like about the streamers right now is the arbitrage in cash flow valuation between the streaming companies and the base metals mining companies. Precious metals-derived revenues in a streaming company, because of the success of streamers in the last 20 years, have been capitalized at about 15 times cash flow. That same precious metals revenue as a byproduct revenue in a base metals mine is capitalized at about six times cash flow. That means that a streaming company could buy that cash flow from a base metals mining company at $10M, and it would be wildly accretive to the streaming company at the same time as it would materially decrease the cost of capital for the base metals mining companies.

Base metals mining companies are in truly dire circumstance right now, with the price that they’re being paid for their base metals commodities being substantially lower than their all-in sustaining capital costs for producing it. This means that the base metals mining companies need to do whatever they can do to lower their cost of capital. My suspicion is that you will see many billions of dollars of precious metals byproduct streams from base metals mines being sold from the major base metals mining companies around the world to the streaming companies. My suspicion is that these transactions will simultaneously save the base metals mining company billions of dollars in capital while being accretive to the precious metals streamers by billions, too. I think this is a transformative event for the streamers.

TGR: If a base metals company is essentially losing money for every pound pulled out of the ground, why wouldn’t the management leave the commodity in the ground until prices increase? Why don’t they practice optionality?

RR: One of the challenges with the optionality strategy is it is very tough to get a management team to do nothing. It’s tougher yet to get them to be paid appropriately for doing nothing. Not mining is an awful lot cheaper and an awful lot easier than mining, but the truth is that there’s a bias to produce, and there may be a need to produce. Your all-in cost to produce 1 pound of copper may be $2.75, but your cash cost to produce that pound may be $1.70, and if you sell it for $2/lb, you are generating $0.25 to service debt and cover the all-important CEO salary.

TGR: Frank Holmes agreed with you when he said that while the price of gold seems to have languished in the U.S. dollar terms, in other currencies it has been doing quite well. Particularly, he pointed to Australian mining companies as standing out. Do you agree?

RR: Australian gold stocks have performed incredibly well this year, so part of that thesis has been used up by the share price escalation of those companies. Given that Australian gold mining companies sell their product in U.S. dollars but pay their costs in Australian dollars, they had a de facto 40% decrease in their operating costs, which is extraordinary. In fact, the decrease was deeper than that because a major component of their variable costs is the price of energy, and the price of energy fell 50% in U.S. dollar terms at the same time that the Australian dollar fell further. That means that the operating performance of gold mining companies in Australia relative to gold mining companies whose costs are denominated in U.S. dollars with U.S. operations has been extraordinarily good.

We don’t see any near- or immediate-term strength in the Australian dollar so this cost competitiveness could continue. Additionally, the iron and the coal industry, which compete for workers and inputs directly with the gold industry, have experienced continued distress, which means that the cost push even in Australian dollar terms will diminish.

Plus, we see the Australian market as more honest than the Canadian or the London market in the sense that the mining industry in North America and Europe became increasingly securities-oriented where the value proposition became rocks to stocks and stocks to money. In Australia, the ethos is more a direct drive, more a sense that you want to make money mining and that the stock ought to take care of itself. We see that as a competitive advantage that will continue for five or six years while the North American and European industries reform their expectations.

TGR: The value of the Canadian stocks has been decimated over the last three years. If the management teams are not focusing now on making money now, what’s going to make them change?

RR: Hopefully, bankruptcy. There are 500 or 600 listings on the TSX Venture Exchange that are zombie companies with negative working capital. They’re in a capital-intensive business, but they have no capital, so they aren’t really in businesses. These companies need to be extinct. It’s an ugly thing to say to the people who own stock in these cockroaches and uglier still to the people who work for the cockroaches, but it has to happen.

TGR: You’ll be speaking at the Vancouver Resource Investment Conference at the end of January. What are you hoping that investors take away from that conference?

RR: This conference is in Vancouver, so it’s easy and cheap for companies to exhibit there. The first thing that I hope that people do is understand that if the narrative that existed with regard to resources and precious metals in 2011 was true then, it’s more true now. Only the price has changed. Investors need to recognize that a market that’s fallen by 88% in nominal terms and 90% in real terms is precisely 90% more attractive now than it was then. The mistakes that people made then were mistakes of overvaluation. The mistakes that people make now are mistakes of undervaluation.

It’s important, however, not to make the mistakes that we made in the past. The truth is that you need to temper your expectation of wonderful stories with hard core reality, with securities analysis, which people are unwilling to do. At that conference, you will have the ability to learn lessons in equity market valuations if you are willing to work and absorb them. And you have the ability, with 200 exhibitors present, to practice the lessons that you’ve learned in real time, 20 or 30 meters away from where you learned the lesson itself. So it’s a wonderful opportunity for people who come to work rather than people who come to be entertained.

TGR: Thank you, Rick, for your insights.

Rick Rule, CEO of Sprott US Holdings Inc., began his career in the securities business in 1974. He is a leading American retail broker specializing in mining, energy, water utilities, forest products and agriculture. His company has built a national reputation on taking advantage of global opportunities in the oil and gas, mining, alternative energy, agriculture, forestry and water industries. Rule writes a free, thrice-weekly e-letter, Sprott’s Thoughts.

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DISCLOSURE:
1) Karen Roche conducted this interview for Streetwise Reports LLC, publisher of The Gold Report, The Energy Report and The Life Sciences Report, and provides services to Streetwise Reports as an employee. She owns, or her family owns, shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.
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3) Rick Rule: I own, or my family owns, shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: Fission Uranium Corp. I personally am, or my family is, paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. My company has a financial relationship with the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. I was not paid by Streetwise Reports for participating in this interview. Comments and opinions expressed are my own comments and opinions. I determined and had final say over which companies would be included in the interview based on my research, understanding of the sector and interview theme. I had the opportunity to review the interview for accuracy as of the date of the interview and am responsible for the content of the interview.
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