Investors tentatively move back into silver after price collapse

Whether or not this is the turning point doesn’t matter in the bigger picture. Unless the global economic picture changes dramatically, silver prices will likely test their all-time record highs again before the end of the year.

Silver bulls started poking their heads out of the woods yesterday after one of the worst weekly declines for the metal in decades. At one point, silver was down 30 percent in four days of trading. Yesterday, though, the selling pressing seemed to lift, and the white metal tacked on a modest gain.

Total damage for the week? Silver plunged 28 percent. That’s got some investors wondering if the tide has turned against the metal for good – particularly since some of those same investors define the start of a bear market as a 20 percent decline in prices.

After four days of panic selling, Friday finally saw inflows for silver ETFs. The iShares Silver Trust ETF (NYSE:SLV) rose 2.25 percent on more than twice the stock’s typical trading volume, and the Sprott Physical Silver Trust ETF (NYSE:PSLV) surged 5.6 percent.

Silver ETFs use their share price to determine how much physical silver bullion to add or sell from their holdings. Since they’re so easy to move in and out of, the products have taken a lot of heat this week for helping to intensify the plunge in metals prices – particularly since retail investors can leverage their positions in the ETFs by using margin.

“Margin calls are eating the little guys alive, forcing them to give up their dreams of a silver-coated world,” ETF analyst Carlos Alexandre at CXA Markets told the Globe and Mail.

Of course, it wasn’t just the “little guys” getting creamed by silver’s decline. The CME Group, which owns the Comex, ramped up margin requirements for silver futures traders, too. And they didn’t do it slowly. Initial margin requirements shot up twice this week and another hike to $21,600 is due on May 9. That’s more than 80 percent higher than margin requirements were just two weeks ago.

The CME, of course, insists that their margin hikes didn’t worsen or lead to the decline in silver prices. “We try to make changes in a way that we can telegraph to the market, so that participants have notice. We try to be routine and predictable and provide no surprises,” Kim Tyler, president of CME Clearing, told the Wall Street Journal.

We can’t draw a direct cause and effect conclusion, but it’s interesting to note that the CME’s margin hike went into effect after trading on Friday, April 29. When the silver spot market opened Monday, prices immediately collapsed 12 percent and kept falling through Thursday.

Turning Point?

ETFs showed signs of stabilization on Friday, and silver mining stocks did, too. The silver streaming company, Silver Wheaton Corp. (NYSE:SLW), rose 1.91 percent, and Silver Standard Resources Inc. (NASDAQ:SSRI) climbed 2.76 percent. Some sanity, it seems, is returning to the precious metals market. Now, the question becomes, will prices bottom out here or continue falling in the weeks and months to come?

Most analysts seem to agree that the long-term trend for silver prices is up. Some are even calling on investors to buy even more aggressively in the face of the sell-off. “This argument will be hard to resist, but should be,” GMO forecaster Jeremy Grantham wrote in a recent letter to his clients (per Mineweb). “A second commodity collapse [after the 2008 plunge] may be psychologically hard to invest in…[But] in the next decade, the prices of all raw materials will be priced as just what they are, irreplaceable.”

Whether or not this is the turning point doesn’t matter in the bigger picture. Unless the global economic picture changes dramatically, silver prices will likely test their all-time record highs again before the end of the year. In an era of global currency debasement, commodities offer one of just a few safe places to hide. As I pointed out yesterday, silver prices are still up 18 percent on the year, and I expect them to be much higher come 2012.

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