INTERNATIONAL. Opportunities abound in small- and mid-cap silver companies, according to Sprott Inc. Chairman Eric Sprott.
In this exclusive interview with The Gold Report, Eric Sprott and Sprott Money Ltd. President Larisa Sprott say the fundamentals that drive the price of silver are as strong now as before the spring selloff-maybe even stronger-even though volatility is causing buyers to hold back a bit.
The Gold Report: The Greek economy is making headlines again, with the Greek Parliament recently voting in extreme austerity measures that include budget cuts of $40B plus a selloff of $72B in assets. When we spoke in March, Eric, you were quite worried about collapses in Greece, Ireland and Iceland. Do you see these new austerity measures as another step toward collapse, or do they signal a reprieve?
Eric Sprott: It's the European troika advancing the money that's really preventing the collapse, from the financial market point of view. The austerity program will create a collapse in Greece economically, but it at least gives them the opportunity to get the troika bailout. I refer to the troika as the ECB (European Central Bank), the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and maybe the BIS (Bank for International Settlements).
I think Greece is not much different from others that have gone before, whether Iceland or Ireland. Most governments in the world have taken on added monetary and fiscal responsibilities because of the financial collapse. For example, the U.S. wouldn't be running a $1.5T deficit had there not been the collapse in 2008 because we wouldn't have had the programs that we now have, trying to support the banking system that everyone thinks is too big to fail.
For quite a long time, my view has been that the banking system has been over-levered. The assets on the books aren't worth what they would be in a normal monetary environment, and if they had to sell the assets, most banks in that situation would become insolvent. Who would you sell those assets to?
Imagine a Greek bank knocking on the door of any other bank in the world saying that they have Greek mortgages, loans to Greek companies and Greek bonds they'd like to sell. There's no buyer, so the government basically has to step in, as happened in Ireland, Iceland, the U.K., the U.S. and Japan. It's happened in almost every country, where the governments have come in to bail out the financial system.
This country with all of 11M people—as many people as live in Ontario—has almost taken down the whole system, as Lehman Brothers almost took down the whole system. What was Lehman? It was like a pimple, and on a relative scale, Greece is not a big situation either. But they want to prevent the falling of the first domino, because if the first one goes down, I can assure you what will happen. That's what everyone's guarding against. It would just spread amongst various banking systems.
TGR: Is there a possibility that Greece and other countries with debt issues could negotiate for pennies on the dollar to reduce their debts by 20%, 40%, or whatever? It would have an impact, of course, but not as bad as a default.
ES: That would be defined as a default for all intents and purposes. Some rating agencies have suggested that the voluntary rollover they're talking about might still be officially a default because everyone knows that what they're getting for what they're giving up isn't worth 100 cents on the dollar.
If a new party comes to power in Greece, they might say they're going to rip up that agreement and take the default because Greece might be better off defaulting. Of course, the powers-that-be don't want that. It's as much the troika that doesn't want it as the government in Greece. They're all trying to prevent this contagion from starting.
TGR: But you're suggesting that eventually the contagion will take hold.
ES: It's kind of taken hold already, right? The weakest—Iceland and Ireland—have been knocked off already. Greece was the third weakest. Who knows where we go from here?
TGR: When we had our conversation in March, you said that sooner or later people will realize that it's better to have real assets in physical metals than bank accounts.
ES: I've always believed that, and it's even truer today. Would you rather have your money in a Greek bank or in gold? Would you rather have your money in an Egyptian, Irish or Icelandic bank or gold? Iceland took a devaluation; if the people in Iceland had their money in gold, they wouldn't have lost a damn thing.
You also take a currency risk when you own a bank deposit. Even a U.S. resident who owns gold instead of a bank deposit would be better off, because the purchasing power of the dollar is going down on an international basis.
TGR: That's why you called gold the investment of the last decade.
TGR: And you've called this the decade of silver, saying that on the basis of the historical gold-to-silver ratio, silver may even triple the performance of gold. Do you still believe there's the potential for outperformance at that level? And, if so, over what timeframe?
ES: It's very difficult to pick timeframes, because so many events can transpire, but I really believe that silver will trade at a 16:1 ratio to gold. I certainly believe that gold can get to $1,600/oz. this year, and while I'm not suggesting that silver will make it to $100/oz. this year, it'll certainly trade at a 16:1 ratio to gold within three to five years. By then, who knows? Gold could be at $2,500/oz.
TGR: The gold price has been climbing neatly along the 200-day moving average, while the silver price has been all over the place. Do you foresee a time where metals just go hyperbolic?
ES: Yes, I think that will happen. When people ask when I'd get off the gold train, I say that it would cause me to reconsider things if governments and central banks appeared to be getting responsible. I'd say if it evolved into a mania ala NASDAQ 2000, you might decide to exit the investment. Of course, if they made gold the official reserve currency, I wouldn't need to own it anymore because I could convert my currency to gold or silver at any time.
So, it's hard to define when it's going to happen. Earlier this year, I was totally convinced that silver would easily make $50/oz., and for all intents and purposes, it has. I think silver will rally pretty powerfully from this little selloff we've had, and hit a new high this year.
TGR: Larisa, has Sprott Money seen a corresponding increase in silver to gold this year?
Larisa Sprott: When we last spoke in March, in terms of dollars, silver was outselling gold by a ratio of about 5:1—we were selling five times more dollars of silver than dollars of gold. The silver market has had a price correction and it's been a volatile commodity over the last month or so. I've seen a rather dramatic shift in sales toward gold. In terms of dollars, gold is now outselling silver on a 3:1 ratio.
It's not that people have lost their taste for silver, but they're holding back on purchasing silver because of the increased volatility in the market. I think that once the silver price demonstrates less volatility, our sales will return to the aforementioned ratios.
TGR: Do people still tend to take possession of their purchases, or are more keeping it in your storage depository?
LS: They're taking possession simply because at this time we only offer storage in the United States. Some of our U.S. clients fear that a 1933-type confiscation scenario will happen again, so they would prefer to store in Canada or internationally. I've even seen people drive from places such as Florida and Washington to take possession of their bullion so that they may store it in a safety deposit box in Canada.
We're opening a storage depository in Canada, but that's still three to six months out. I've had a lot of interest from clients who say that as soon as that facility opens they'll be moving their bullion up here.
TGR: What else is new at Sprott Money?
LS: We are working on increasing our U.S. presence. We anticipate opening our New York office by October of this year. We are also minting a Sprott silver bar and coin set to be ready for sale in early 2012. And as a proud supporter of GATA (Gold Anti-Trust Action), I am pleased to announce that we will be selling the GATA gold coin at their upcoming conference in London this August.
TGR: We've seen that Sprott Money is the major sponsor of the GATA Gold Rush 2011 conference coming up in London in August. How did your organization get interested in GATA and what it has to say?
ES: When I started investigating an investment in gold and silver in 2000, among the most outspoken—to whom I'm ever so thankful—were the GATA people, who suggested that central banks, in a somewhat coordinated fashion, were suppressing the gold price. There seemed to be some compelling evidence for that because central bankers were huge sellers of gold, which retrospectively looks like the dumbest thing they could ever have done. With 20/20 hindsight, that decision looks like one of the greatest knucklehead moves of all time. Here we are 10 years later and where they were sellers of 400 tons of gold a year, now they're buyers of 400 tons of gold.
GATA was prepared to challenge the system and to explore the data behind various government moves, why they did it and why they always advertised that they were selling gold, which almost necessitated getting the worst price possible instead of the best price. The whole attitude they were taking to gold seemed ridiculous.
The GATA people have been a big influence on the increasing interest in gold. They've been incredibly helpful in terms of keeping people focused on what's going on in the precious metals markets. They had a wonderful conference in Dawson City in 2005.
The people who spoke there—and who will speak at this GATA conference in London—are all independent thinkers who aren't swayed by the conventional. They're typically contrarian. You have to work hard to be a contrarian, because you have to win what would seem to be very difficult arguments. They're just top-notch people. When I look back over the last decade, I think those who were skeptical and outspoken are the true heroes.
If more people had listened to them, they wouldn't have suffered the kind of financial damage that has transpired in the last decade. Certainly, if they owned gold and silver in lieu of any other investment, they would've been better off.
TGR: You noted that when the central banks started selling gold about a decade ago, they pretty much locked in the worst possible price by announcing their intentions ahead of time. Is it the same now that they're announcing in advance their buying intentions?
ES: They only announce after they've bought. For example, in either 2008 or 2009, the Chinese Central Bank revealed that it had purchased 400 tons of gold over about four years, but that was well after the fact. Obviously those purchases were an active force in the market. China hasn't announced anything in the last three or four years, but I suspect it's been a buyer all this time. The Central Bank of Mexico recently announced buying 93 tons, which undoubtedly concluded its purchasing program.
There probably should be transparency in these transactions anyway. The central banks should be telling the populations they represent where they are investing their money.
TGR: You've indicated that GATA was founded on evidence of collusion among financial institutions that resulted in suppressing the gold price. We also hear about market manipulation through derivatives. Tell us a little bit about this.
ES: First, understand that commodity markets rarely settle in physical commodities; they're really paper markets. Let me give you an example.
We produce 900 Moz. (million ounces) of silver in a year. When silver was up around $48/oz., between the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), the COMEX, the SLV Silver Trust and some vehicles in China, we were trading 1 Boz. (billion ounces)/day silver in the paper market. We produce just a little over 1 Moz./day for consumption as an investment. So we trade 1 Boz. of paper silver and yet there's only 1 Moz. of physical quantity available for investment. That makes you wonder.
They get after the silver speculators who are long. I can understand being long silver, because maybe those speculators think they'd like to own it. What are those who are selling the billion ounces thinking when there's no physical silver to settle with?
TGR: What might change to slow this down?
ES: There should be position limits, and trading limits per day. What's the net effect of trading 1 Boz. when the stuff doesn't even exist on the face of the earth? The short position in the silver market was so concentrated amongst the four largest bank-owned firms that it was shocking. Why they should be short that much silver is beyond me.
TGR: Let's talk a little about options for the individual investors.
ES: I'm very comfortable having a very large weighting in precious metals, which are way more likely to hold their value than paper assets. And I feel so involved in trying to get people to own more precious metals because I think it's the one thing that will save them in a very difficult financial time. But most won't take the steps of getting a little bit of insurance by owning precious metals.
TGR: If another financial trauma is coming, should investors be more weighted with the actual physical metals or should they continue with the equities too?
ES: People worry about the banking system, and I think ultimately they'll put their money into gold and silver. If the prices of gold and silver go up because of that, notwithstanding a short-term decline in the market, ultimately people also will realize that gold and silver stocks are good things to invest in. But you may have to go through a six-month swoon.
We went through a swoon like that in 2008. Gold was probably $900 at the time. Owning gold and silver would've been very propitious. Today it's $1,500. I think this next time around, as we see gold and silver gaining more recognition as to their intrinsic merits, that will get transmitted into the gold and silver shares.
TGR: As you look forward, are you holding or considering some equities that you feel will swoon less than the market?
ES: Let's face it—if you use the HUI Index, precious metal stocks have gone up by a factor of about 12 to 13 times from the 2000 bottom. On a long-run basis, there aren't many losers in those stocks, and certainly on a relative basis, they're all winners.
Until a few months ago, any silver stock on the board had such a massive run that everybody could sell at a profit. It's important to know that most people like to sell their winners. At the first sign of problems, you sell the stock that's got the biggest profit for you. And, it's very easy to sell it. Maybe it's not so easy to sell some bank stock that's still 60% from its high, but it's not too tough to sell a gold and silver stock that's 5% from its high because it has had a good run.
We get more volatility in this group because of that. Any stock that has gone up a lot will be more volatile than one that hasn't. That's just the way it is. The high flyers always get knocked down the most, because they're easy to sell. That's the situation we find ourselves in. Most of these stocks have been the best performers of the last decade.
Every time there's a little hiccup in the market, people sell them. It doesn't mean that the fundamentals have changed. That's just the way people react in a market selloff. Give it time. People will get calm again about where they should have their money.
TGR: We were talking with Rick Rule and Brent Cook a couple of weeks ago about the fact that most juniors are off 10%–20% since April and May. They suggested it might be a good time to own some mid-caps and seniors. Considering the profit-taking you just described, do you agree?
ES: I've been investing in small-cap stocks for roughly 40 years, and the opportunities in small caps are far superior to those in big-cap stocks on a sustainable basis. It's always been the case because they're under-owned, under-followed and under-capitalized. You can do a lot in the small- to mid-cap area that you can't do in the large-cap area.
You can buy a junior gold stock on a relative valuation of probably a third of any major stock just because they're seasoned and that's where the big money goes. Opportunities abound in the small- to mid-cap area, so that's where I'm going to stay. In a sustainable rally, I guarantee you they'll outperform the large caps.
TGR: Peru is one of the best mining addresses on the planet, but we've seen a lot of decrease in share prices in some of the Peruvian mining equities. You have some interests there, too, that have been specifically affected by government action. Could you comment on that?
ES: Bear Creek Mining Corp. (TSX.V:BCM) has been one of my favorites because of its two ore bodies. It's unfortunate the governments have made the decisions they've made. We see this in different places, not just in the less-developed countries, where governments come in and change the rules. If it's not Ecuador, it's Peru. If it's not Peru, it's Bolivia. Somebody's always doing something.
TGR: In the case of Peru, though, this was an injunction signed by outgoing President Alan Garcia that halted Bear Creek's Santa Ana silver project specifically.
ES: You take those risks with any country. People always ask if I think the U.S. government will confiscate gold. You hear chatter about the U.S. government nationalizing the gold mines someday. If you want egregiousness, that's almost as bad as Ollanta Humala (Peru's new president) declaring that one property is not going to continue to be owned by somebody. It could happen anywhere. That's one of the problems you face when you're an investor; you don't know exactly what the political flavor is.
If I were a betting man, I'd bet the Santa Ana mine comes into production within the next 10 years. The stock market doesn't like delays, but they don't detract from the merits of the property. When people calm down and know the regulation is in place to try to prevent environmental problems, it will ultimately get the go-ahead.
TGR: Do you feel just as bullish on small caps in gold as you do in silver?
ES: Because I think the price of silver probably will outperform gold by maybe 2.5 times, I have to look much harder for silver equities than gold equities. That's what we've done in the last 18 months. So I prefer silver junior equities to gold for sure.
When I look at the demand and supply fundamentals, it's all in place as far as I'm concerned. Lots of times the market doesn't corroborate your view for a while, but the important thing is the market corroborates your view along the way. Yes, we had to deal with that gut-wrenching selloff in the gold stocks in 2008, but when you look back at it now you wonder what the hell the market was thinking.
TGR: What are some of the good silver small caps you found in your search?
ES: We've been in lots of companies. We've been involved with Fortuna Silver Mines Inc. (TSX:FVI; Lima Exchange:FVI), First Majestic Silver Corp. (TSX:FR; NYSE:AG; Fkft:FMV), Argentex Mining Corp. (TSX.V:ATX; OTCBB:AGXM), SilverCrest Mines Inc. (TSX.V:SVL), Silver Quest Resources Ltd. (TSX.V:SQI), Aurcana Corp. (TSX.V:AUN) and Mirasol Resources Ltd. (TSX.V:MRZ). I've got a long list.
TGR: Those names have assets all over North America and South America.
ES: Most of them tend to be in North America, particularly Mexico, Central America and South America. But I own stocks in companies with silver in other places, too. One example is Minco Silver Corp. (TSX:MSV), which has its Fuwan silver deposit in China. I'll buy a silver asset wherever it is located.
TGR: So clearly, you still do see this as silver's time to shine.
ES: I do. And I'd refer readers who'd like to know about why I believe the robust fundamentals for silver are only getting stronger to the Caveat Venditor! article we've just posted to Markets at a Glance on our website.
TGR: We'll be sure to check that out, too. Thank you both for your time.
Eric Sprott is chairman of Sprott Inc., CEO, CIO and senior portfolio manager of Sprott Asset Management LP and chairman of Sprott Money Ltd. He has more than 40 years' experience in the investment industry. After earning his designation as a chartered accountant, he entered the investment industry as a research analyst at Merrill Lynch. In 1981, he founded Sprott Securities.
After establishing Sprott Asset Management Inc. as a separate entity in December 2001, Eric divested his entire ownership of Sprott Securities to its employees. Eric has been stunningly accurate in his predictions, including foreseeing the current financial crisis. He chronicled the dangers of excessive leverage and the bubbles the Fed was creating, while also correctly forecasting the tragic collapse of the housing and financial markets in 2008.
Eric's predictions on the state of the North American financial markets, as well as macroeconomic analyses have been presented in Markets at a Glance, a monthly investment strategy newsletter.
Larisa Sprott joined Sprott Money Ltd.(www.sprottmoney.com) in the role of President in December 2009. As one of Canada's largest owners of gold and silver bullion, the company's goal is to facilitate ownership of precious metals to the general public. Larisa has more than 15 years experience in the financial industry, having worked at Sprott Securities Inc. (now Cormark Securities), first as an office administrator in the Vancouver office, and later in roles in research and corporate finance Toronto headquarters.
Larisa then spent five years with Sprott Asset Management in the capacity of client services, sales and marketing. In November 2007, she became an investment advisor responsible for servicing and managing high net worth clients.
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