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.