PSLV vs. SLV: Battle of the silver ETFs

Both SLV and PSLV accomplish the same goal: exposure to the spot price of silver without actually buying silver. In the end, then, it comes down to two factors…

While they’re both silver ETFs, the iShares Silver Trust ETF (NYSE:SLV) and the Sprott Physical Silver Trust ETV (NYSE:PSLV) operate very differently. Here’s how they work:

The iShares Silver Trust ETF: The fund buys and sells silver in an attempt to have it’s share price match the value of its bullion holdings. If the value of the fund’s shares rise, iShares buys more silver. In theory, the fund’s market cap should equate to the fund’s silver holdings (less fees and liabilities).

Sprott Physical Silver Trust ETV: The Sprott trust operates much like the iShares ETF with one major exception, shareholders have the ability to exchange their Sprott shares for physical silver bullion on a monthly basis.

Although they operate similarly, the two ETFs have been on divergent paths year-to-date with the PSLV down 10 percent and the SLV up 4.8 percent. During the same time, the price of spot silver is up 2.54 percent on the year. It’s clear then that while the ETFs are designed to track an underlying commodity, they definitely come with margins of error.

And that’s actually making PSLV look quite attractive. In the past, the fund has traded at a premium of up to 35 percent above the price of spot silver (apparently investors like the fact that their holdings could be exchanged for physical silver). Today, PSLV’s trading at a premium of just 4.95 percent to the silver spot price.

There are benefits to both the ETFs approaches, though. First, the arguments for PSLV:

1) Redemption. Obviously, investors can choose to exchange their shares for physical silver – something that could come in handy if we do experience a currency crisis in the West.

2) Tax perks. If you plan to hold your silver ETF shares for more than a year, you can claim any appreciation as a long-term capital gain. That’s good for a 15 percent tax rate. Profits from SLV will set you back 28 percent under the current tax code.

3) Safety. The Royal Canadian Mint stores bullion for the Sprott trust. As Sprott writes on its web site, “The Mint is a Canadian Crown corporation, which acts as an agent of the Canadian Government, and its obligations generally constitute unconditional obligations of the Canadian Government.” SLV’s bullion is stored and managed by a private company (JP Morgan Chase: NYSE:JPM) with no government backing (unless, of course, you count the tacit promise of a bailout when times get tough).

Now the arguments for the SLV:

1) Low or no premiums. Since SLV doesn’t have to manage the costs associated with fulfilling delivery, the fund’s holdings trade at a much smaller premium to the price of silver. That’s important as premiums are subject to the whims of potential investors. As I wrote above, PSLV has traded with a premium as high as 35 percent above the price of silver in the past. You may as well go buy and store your own bullion at those prices.

2) Higher volume. A lot of silver ETF investors have no intention (or at least they don’t foresee the desire) to redeem their stock holdings for physical silver. For them, buying and selling shares is simply a vehicle to make money. SLV wins out if that’s your goal as the fund is much more liquid than PSLV. On an average day, more than 1.7 million shares of SLV trade hands compared with less than 100,000 shares of PSLV. This makes going both long or short the SLV much easier.

SLV Vs. PSLV: Which one’s better?

Both funds accomplish the same goal: exposure to the spot price of silver without actually buying silver. In the end, then, it comes down to two factors: security and taxes. If you know you’re going to hold your shares for more than a year (which entitles you to tax benefits) and you value the security of knowing your ETF shares can be redeemed for actual silver, buy PSLV. For all other traders, the SLV is perfect.

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Silver coin shortage reeks of price manipulation?

Shortages of silver coins have some on the Web wondering if dealers are holding back their stock. We don’t think they are, but we do expect more shortages to come. Here’s why.

By now, most silver investors have heard about the lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM). A class action suit’s been pending against the bank since 2010, when a large group of investors accused JPM of taking out enormous short positions in the silver futures market. The move was allegedly a bid to manipulate silver prices (see our post Silver price manipulation case narrows in on JPMorgan; drops HSBC for more).

Interestingly, there are rumors floating around the Web that some silver coin sellers could be doing their own form of silver price manipulation: namely, refusing to sell coins in the face of lower silver prices.

“I visited three very reputable distributors today – AMPEX, Gainesville and Northwest Territorial Mint – and all three of these dealers were mysteriously out of stock on one-ounce silver coins,” writes George Maniere at Market Oracle. “I can only conclude that they are willing to sit on them until the price of silver goes back up.”

Even the U.S. Mint got in the action, halting orders for sets of un-circulated American Silver Eagles (see our post Expect volatility on the path to higher silver prices in 2012 for more) because they can’t stock the necessary blanks to make the coins.

Everything’s in flux right now. We’re going through what the Financial Times calls “the biggest swings in precious metals since the collapse of Lehman.” According to the same article, though, gold and silver coin sales hit all-time sales records on Thursday (Oct. 22), Friday (Oct. 23) and Monday (Oct. 26).

That left the shelves at silver coin dealers empty. Demand for industrial precious metals may be falling, but it’s actually rising in the physical markets on bargain-hunting. That means a whole lot of investors see the recent drop in gold and silver prices for what it is: a rough patch in a decade-long bull market for precious metals.

“Buying in the retail market … it’s just huge right now,” Jim Puplava, the host of Financial Sense Newshour, said on Saturday. “They drive the price down, and it’s like Nordstrom is having a 20-30 percent off sale.”

While it may seem strange that coin dealers run out silver as soon as prices dip, it’s probably not manipulation and refusal to sell silver coins, but rather that a tidal wave of buyers have moved in to capitalize on lower prices. Even the popular Sprott Physical Silver Trust ETV (NYSE:PSLV) announced a week ago that it’d run out of silver and needed to replenish its supply.

“I think investors are really smart,” Kathy Derbes of KDerbes Precious Metals LLC told Mr. Puplava. “They know what’s going on. They understand that these price breaks – particularly this time around – are not telling us anything about the fundamentals of gold and silver. In fact, I think the reasons for owning it have gotten a lot stronger.”

Derbes adds that current orders for her clients have a two to three week delay before they’re shipped, and she doesn’t expect that to change. If anything, the delay could increase.

“We’re probably in the beginning stages of what could be shortages,” she said. “We have to remember that it’s a market that can’t be printed into existence like all the paper currencies. We have to wait for the mints to catch up.”

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Expect volatility on the path to higher silver prices in 2012

After the 30 percent plunge in silver prices last week, where do analysts expect prices for the white metal to go by the end of the year?

You know things are going bad in the silver market when the U.S. Mint suspends sales of silver coins. The Mint announced on Monday that it was halting incoming orders for uncirculated American Silver Eagles sets so it can re-price the collector coins (per MineWeb). The move came on the heels of a 30 percent plunge in silver prices last week.

It was a perfect storm for precious metals last week. The CME Group announced new margin requirements for gold and silver on Friday, fears of a Greek debt default and a rally in the dollar all converged to push silver down from $40 to $28 an ounce in the span of five days.

It’s safe to say investors panicked, and – in their panic – showed yet again a preference for sitting on the sidelines in cash. That’s telling, as much of the investment demand for silver has been driven by fears of inflation and a debased dollar.

But what happens when every currency in the world is getting debased and commodities are falling, too? Investors don’t have much of a choice but to sell and wait for sunnier days. And some think it could be a while before we see sunnier days.

Even Eric Sprott – a billionaire hedge fund manager and founder of the Sprott Physical Silver Trust (NYSE:PSLV) and the Sprott Physical Gold Trust (NYSE:PHYS) – sounds nervous. In a recent interview with the Financial Post, he cited the fact that consumers just don’t have any cash to spend.

His evidence? Comments from Wal-Mart’s CEO Mike Duke who claims Wal-Mart shoppers are “running out of money” faster than they were a year ago. Duke cites Wal-Mart sales numbers that show customers are shopping at the first of the month (right when they get paid). After the first, sales drop precipitously.

“People’s incomes haven’t been going up, but their costs have,” Sprott told the Post. “It’s palpable what’s happening, and it’s not good.”

That’s not to say that Sprott’s advocating investors turn away from silver.

“Gold was the investment of the [past] decade, and I think silver will be the investment of this decade, so we’re trying to position ourselves to take advantage of that,” Sprott said in an interview with the Globe and Mail on Sept. 13.

He also argues that a Greek debt default would ultimately be a boon for gold and silver prices as it would lead to yet more currency debasement in Europe.

Where does that leave us in the short-term then? One of the few analysts who has went on record in recent days with an actual short-term price target for silver is Chris Thompson from Haywood Securities.

Thompson expects the gold-to-silver ratio to tighten this year, and he believes that will push silver prices up to $38 per ounce by the end of the year.

“Nonetheless, we caution that more sharp declines in silver prices, similar to that recently experienced, should not be ruled out, considering the volatile nature of silver prices and the relative ease with which ETF investors can exit the market,” Thompson says (per MineWeb).

As I said earlier in the week (see my post Silver prices setting up for “trade of a lifetime”?), I went long on the ProShares Ultra Silver ETF (NYSE:AGQ) on Monday. The paper-based silver ETF seeks to produce 200 percent of the daily returns for the price of silver.

Yes, there could be extreme volatility in the months to come, but the ultimate driver for the price of silver (currency debasement) hasn’t changed. And that means my outlook for silver prices hasn’t either.

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3 reasons to move from silver into gold

Precious metals investors are re-assessing their holdings, and here are three reasons why gold will likely out-perform silver in the months to come.

The manic rise and fall in silver prices over the past few months has a lot of precious metals investors re-assessing their holdings. In the near-term, it looks like gold bugs have the upper hand. Here are three reasons why the yellow metal will likely out-perform silver in the months to come:

1) Slow and steady wins the race. The fundamental case for gold and silver hasn’t changed, but investor perception has. Whatever the cause of silver’s violent 30 percent plunge, the aftershocks of that move will likely continue for several months. Meanwhile, gold’s proven that its support won’t be knocked out so easily. Over the past month, the iShares Silver Trust ETF (NYSE:SLV) has shed nearly 18 percent of its value. The SPDR Gold Trust ETF (NYSE:GLD) has actually appreciated 0.4 percent during the same time span. That shows unflappable support for the yellow metal even as panic seemed to set in for commodities across the board. When the muck truly hits the fan, there’s nowhere safer than gold.

2) A ratio gone mad. There’s been a lot of speculation about the gold:silver ratio of late. Silver bulls like Eric Sprott of Sprott Asset Management – which manages the Sprott Physical Silver Trust ETV (NYSE:PSLV) and the Sprott Physical Gold Trust (NYSE:PHYS) – have been calling for titanic shifts in the ratio. Sprott’s actually argued that the gold:silver ratio could fall as low as 10:1 (meaning gold would cost just 10 times as much as silver). If that were the case today and gold stayed at $1,491 an ounce, we’d be looking at silver prices around $150 an ounce. Perhaps such a move will be possible over the course of several years, but don’t expect it over the next few months. Since the 1980s, the gold:silver ratio’s been closer to 60:1, which means $25 silver is just as likely as $150 silver (in fact, it’s probably MORE likely). In the words of Dave Kansas at the Wall Street Journal: “It’s more likely that the ratio will revert to modern-era norms rather than race back to the Napoleonic era.”

3) Silver ETFs push down prices. One of the most powerful drivers of silver prices today comes from physical silver ETFs. These stock market vehicles use the cash they get from issuing new shares to buy physical silver. Conversely, when the price of silver falls, ETFs like the SLV must liquidate their physical silver holdings to buy back shares. When the market’s trending up, the SLV can accelerate the rise in silver prices. During extreme silver sell-offs, SLVs decline floods the silver market with excess supply.

“On May 4th as silver plunged below $40, SLV experienced such heavy differential selling pressure that it was forced to liquidate 4.8% of its holdings in a single trading day!” writes Adam Hamilton and Scott Wright of the Australian investing site, TheBull. “This was 16.8 (million) ounces of physical silver that hit the markets!” That’s an enormous amount of silver. Hamilton and Wright point out that it’s 60 percent of Silver Wheaton Corp.’s (NYSE:SLW) silver output for an entire year, and it hit the market in 6.5 hours!

Gold’s stability in the face of panic selling in the silver market is evidence that gold holders have the stronger hand. More selling in the silver space, though, could be on the slate as the gold:silver ratio moves back toward reasonable levels. The ratio hasn’t fallen as low as it did last month in 30 years, after all. Interpret that how you may, but I see it as evidence of an anomaly that’s in the process of correcting.

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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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Time to short silver?

A number of noted hedge funds and hedge fund managers have started selling. Does that mean it’s finally time to start shorting silver?

If there’s one rule I’ve learned in investing, it’s that ignoring the old saying “the trend is your friend” can lose you a whole lot of money. Stocks, bonds, currencies and commodities are all cyclical. And while I believe that the long-term trend in silver is up (reference my post yesterday: 3 reasons the rally in gold and silver prices is far from over), it’s clear that support for the white metal is breaking down in the short-term.

In part, we have the CME Group to thank for that. The Comex’s owner announced that it was raising margin requirements for the metal for the third time time in a week. As of the close of business on Monday, new initial margin requirements for silver have climbed from $14,513 to $16,200 per contract, according to BusinessWeek. Margins have risen more than 280 percent from $4,250 over the past 12 months.

The CME Group adjusts margin rates when it fears volatility in the markets could expose the company itself to losses. If metal falls too fast, for example, some traders may be unable to cover their losses – and that’s tantamount to a default that cuts into CME’s profits.

“Silver is often the lead indicator for changes in trends, or at least for corrections,” an analyst at Societe Generale SA wrote in a note to clients (per BusinessWeek). Right now, the lead indicator is pointing down.

And physical silver ETFs probably aren’t helping the situation. Stocks like iShares Silver Trust (NYSE:SLV) and the Sprott Physical Silver Trust (NYSE:PSLV) trade on exchanges just like shares in companies. They take the equity they get from investors, though, and use it to purchase physical bullion. When investors move out of the ETFs, SLV and PSLV sell bullion from their physical stockpiles.

Since ETFs are so easy to move in and out of, many investors fear they’re injected even more volatility into the already-volatile silver market. That steepens both climbs and sell-offs in the metal.

The most damming signal yet that the end may be near for silver, though, comes from a number of noted hedge funds and hedge fund managers that have started moving out of the metal. Among them? George Soros, Passport Capital’s John Burbank, Alan Fournier of Pennant Capital and Eric Sprott of Sprott Asset Management (the company that happens to manage the Sprott Physical Silver Trust).

Inflation may be imminent, but your best bet on making money might be shorting one of the world’s most popular inflationary hedges. We can logically justify why an asset should move in a particular direction, but all we know in the end is the trend. And you shouldn’t have much trouble identifying the trend if you look at silver’s recent charts.

Not sure how shorting works? Check out my post: How to short silver.

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Post-plunge: What’s next for silver prices?

Is this the start of a long and steady decline in silver prices, or is it merely a deep breath before the next aggressive upswing in prices?

On a fateful day in 1980, silver prices collapsed 30 percent. It was a day so bad, it’s got it’s own nickname: Silver Thursday. We fell almost halfway as far on Monday.

Futures prices for the white metal got massacred at the start of Asian trading – tumbling 13 percent in a near vertical decline that can’t help but remind investors of Silver Thursday. Or maybe it should just remind us of 2008. Double-digit price swings in silver were the norm during the height of the banking crisis just three years ago (and silver prices are four times higher today!).

Nonetheless, yesterday’s volatility in the silver market gives one pause. Is this the start of a long and steady decline in silver prices, or is it merely a deep breath before the next aggressive upswing in prices?

The bearish case is compelling, if for no other reason than the fact that the pros themselves seem to be jumping ship. Eric Sprott – one of the biggest silver bulls in the world – offloaded $34 million worth of shares in his company’s Sprott Physical Silver Trust (NYSE:PSLV). That’s after he’s went on record countless times claiming he expects the gold-silver ratio to fall as low as 16:1.

“Every dollar of money that was raised by selling shares of [the Trust]… was reinvested in silver or silver equities,” Sprott reassured the Globe and Mail yesterday.

We can’t know that for certain, but Sprott claims he saw opportunities in the shares of silver miners, which have vastly underperformed the price of spot silver this year. That makes sense. No one’s better positioning to make money off the 50 percent+ gains we’ve seen in silver this year than the companies that actually pull the metal out of the ground.

There are still plenty of physical silver bulls out there, too. Silver prices could fall as low as $40 an ounce, according to David Banister of the Market Trend Forecast.

For Banister, it’s just another consolidation period that should be looked at as a buying opportunity. Indeed, he sees silver spiking to $60 an ounce in the near-term. That would be a gain of 36 percent from today’s price near $44 an ounce.

“Any pullbacks in silver should be bought here and same with the silver stocks post haste,” Banister writes. Perhaps, he’s right. You can’t make money buying when everyone else is buying, too. You’ve got to get in when everyone else is headed for the door.

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Sprott silver predictions calling for uncharted gold-silver ratio

Sprott Asset Management’s chief investment officer Eric Sprott believes the silver:gold ratio could tumble as low as 10:1. What would that mean for silver prices in 2012 and beyond?

Sprott Asset Management’s chief investment officer Eric Sprott has been one of the most vocal silver bulls in the media these days. Sprott believes that the silver:gold ratio could tumble to 20:1 or lower; perhaps as low as 10:1, according to Brian Sylvester of The Gold Report. While gold may meet strong resistance at $2,000+ per ounce, Sprott believes silver will keep climbing – and, in the process, substantially lower the silver:gold ratio.

Let’s give that prediction some historical background before looking at what it might mean for the future price of silver:

1980: The silver:gold ratio hit its all-time low driven in part by the Hunt brothers’ efforts to corner the silver market. At its peak, the ratio stood at 17:1.

2003: The current bull market in precious metals starts gaining steam with the silver:gold ratio at 83:1.

2011: The current silver:gold ratio stands at roughly 38:1.

2012+: Sprott predicts the silver:gold ratio could enter uncharted waters sinking as low as 10:1.

Before dismissing Sprott’s predictions off-hand, keep in mind that’s he’s not an end-of-the-world-preaching silver bug who lives in a bunker in the Canadian wilderness. He directs a vast pool of cash that’s made a big bet on the silver metal. According to some estimates, Sprott’s got $1 billion or so of client capital and his own cash invested in silver.

A big chunk of that comes from the Sprott Physical Silver Trust (NYSE:PSLV), which launched in November 2010 and now stores more than 22 million ounces of physical silver.

“When you’ve got guys like Eric Sprott and Frank Holmes [CEO and CIO of U.S. Global Investors]-guys that are really recognized as ‘thought leaders’ in the space – predicting much higher silver prices, that in itself becomes a fundamental driver for the price,” James West, editor of the Midas Letter, tells Sylvester.

Should Sprott’s bullish calls on silver prove out, and the ratio sinks to 10:1, you could expect to see silver prices at $200 an ounce or higher depending on where gold stands. Those predictions would sound foolhardy if the future of the dollar and other global currencies didn’t look so dim. So long as that picture doesn’t change, though, Sprott’s got a backer in me.

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