A major Japanese electronics maker approached First Majestic Silver Corp. for the first time last month seeking to lock in future stock, a sign of supply concerns that could boost the metal’s price ninefold, according to the best-performing producer of the metal.
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“For an electronics manufacturer to come directly to us — that tells me something is changing in the market,” said Keith Neumeyer, chief executive officer of First Majestic, the top stock in Canada and among its global peers this year. “I think we’ll see three-digit silver,” he said, predicting the metal could surge to $140 an ounce by as early as 2019.
That’s a bold forecast. While silver has rallied 19 percent this year to leapfrog gold as the best-performing precious metal, it settled lower Wednesday at $16.26 an ounce on the Comex in New York and reached a record of just under $50 in 2011. The highest projection among analysts surveyed by Bloomberg is $57 an ounce in 2019.
“That seems aggressive,” Dan Denbow, a portfolio manager at the USAA Precious Metals & Minerals Fund in San Antonio, said by e-mail. “There has been a lack of investment in silver exploration, but with significantly higher prices you will get new supplies. The current cost curve wouldn’t support that price.”
Still, there are other optimistic signs for silver rising. Hedge funds expanded their bullish bets on the metal to an all-time high earlier this month. Because the commodity holds appeal both as a store of value as well as for its multiple industrial uses, it surged earlier this year on speculation that the pace of U.S. interest-rate hikes will slow and that Chinese manufacturing may be improving.
First Majestic is the second-biggest silver producer in Mexico, which supplies more of the precious metal than any other country. As such, the company has been a primary beneficiary of the silver rally after choosing not to diversify into other metals like many of its peers. The company earns more than 63 percent of its sales from silver and its share price has more than tripled this year, more than any other company on the S&P/TSX Composite Index. The stock rose 2.2 percent to C$14.65 at 9:51 a.m. in Toronto, giving it a market value of C$2.36 billion ($1.82 billion).
While long coveted for use in jewelry, coins and utensils, silver is increasingly in demand for its industrial applications. Last year, about half of global silver consumption came from such use, including mobile phones, flat-panel TVs, solar panels and alloys and solders, according to data compiled by GFMS for the Washington-based Silver Institute.
“Silver is not a precious metal, it’s a strategic metal,” Neumeyer said in an interview in Vancouver, where the company is based. “Silver is the most electrically conductive material on the planet other than gold, and gold is too expensive to use in circuit boards, solar panels, electric cars. As we electrify the planet, we require more and more silver. There’s no substitute for it.”
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Industrial demand is set to increase, driven by rising incomes and growing penetration of technology in populous, developing nations, as well as thanks to new uses being found for silver’s anti-bacterial and reflective properties in everything from hospital paints to Band-Aids to windows.
“Over the next 10 or 20 years, more and more people are going to be using these devices, and silver is a very limited commodity,” Neumeyer said. “There’s just not a lot of it around.”
Use of silver, including investment demand, coin sales and what goes into inventories to settle trades, has outstripped annual supply of the metal in every year since 2000, according to data from GFMS, a research unit of Thomson Reuters Corp. Still, not everyone agrees that the world is headed for a shortage of the metal.
“I would tend to disagree that silver is rarer than thought,” David Lennox, a resource analyst at Fat Prophets in Sydney. “Silver cannot be easily substituted but there’s been no need as it’s in abundance. I’d expect the search for silver would intensify and the search for substitutions would happen long before silver got to” $140 an ounce.
About 50 percent of global demand last year came from price-sensitive sources such as retail coins, jewelry and silverware, which would help curb price increases, said Erica Rannestad, a senior analyst at GFMS in Chicago. “Increased market penetration in emerging economies certainly will result in higher per-capita consumption of silver in industrial uses, but this is over the long run and would not happen overnight.”
Neumeyer said his company has no immediate plans for acquisitions, dividends or to take on any debt. The company raised C$57.5 million from a share sale earlier this month. It plans to use funds internally for development and exploration of its mines, which had suffered from underinvestment during the recent downturn. “The capital will be used to look internally,” he said.
Neumeyer acknowledges his forecasts aren’t always correct. First Majestic had estimated silver at $14 an ounce for this year’s budget. “I think I’ve been wrong every year for the past four or five years.”
Still, he’s unfazed by his past record.
“The silver rally is just beginning,” Neumeyer says. “What we’ve seen in the last two months is just the beginning of the next bull market.”