Interview with Fred Davidson, President & CEO of Impact Silver (TSX-V: IPT).
Silver is a famously volatile commodity, but hit it right and you can make money. We talk to Davidson, a long-time Silver miner, who talks us through the basics of the macro thesis. Correlation with Gold makes it slightly easier to gauge the temperature when it’s coming and when you are in it. What was less clear is how low it is here to stay.
Davidson has been with Impact Silver for 13 years and mined 9.5Moz. They are a primary Silver producer, at 95% of production skewed to Silver. Many Silver operators have come and gone but Impact Silver remains as a small but profitable producer.
We ask about growth, the options seem to be: 1. Keep producing, 2. Farm-out of one of their licenced areas, 3. M&A. Listen which he thinks is most likely. We want to know what is going to move the dial for shareholders.
They have $4M of cash, no debt, $55M of operating profits, and a market cap of only $46M. They own 2 mills. Only one is operating. And a concentrate sales agreement with Samsung. What does all this mean.
- Company Overview
- Silver Market: Drivers, Past Tendencies and Predictions
- Volatility of the Silver Market: What Signs Should You be Aware Of?
- Business Plan: Has it Changed Over the Years?
- Scaling Up and Restrictions for Growth
- Shareholder Returns and Timeline for Bringing Value
- Cash Position: Will They be Going Back to Market in 2020?
- Moments to Look Out for From Impact Silver
Matthew Gordon: Hi Fred. This is the first time we’ve heard your story so why don’t you give us a 1 minute summary.
Fred Davidson: Impact Silver is basically operating in the second oldest mining district in Mexico. Cortez actually hit out here 500 years ago. We’ve been actively mining here ourselves for about 13 years. We have mined about 9.5Moz to date, at USD$175M with the revenue generated. And it’s just the start on a property that’s over 221km2. We’ve only exploited about 20% of the property. And we’re actively in production and with the current price of Silver, we’re starting to re-expand our production profile.
Matthew Gordon: I don’t know much about Silver. You’re the third Silver story that we’ve talked to. Give us your view of the Silver market. From what I’ve seen, it’s highly volatile and if you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s dangerous. So what’s it been doing and what do you predict it will do?
Fred Davidson: Predicting is more interesting. What it has been doing, it is a volatile animal. It’s regarded partially as a precious metal. It’s also regarded as an industrial metal. Solar panels, et cetera, all require Silver. A lot of the modern computers; disbursement et cetera, all requires Silver. And in fact, you’re in a country that used to have Sterling Silver as your backup for your pound.
So you run into those two things: 1. The precious metal, sort of the poor man’s precious metal, and 2. An industrial product. Traditionally, Silver has traded in the sort of 20:1 price ratio with Gold, and over the last 5, 10 years, it’s gone to the point where it’s getting probably in the area of about 90:1. So there’s a real disparity between the pricing and I think there’s an expectation that’s inelastic, which is stretched beyond its capability of holding its position.
The general market conception is that Silver is under-priced right now. It is controlled because it’s a very small market relative to Gold. It can be manipulated. Look at the Hunt family 40 years ago or so, where they moved it up to USD$40 to $50 in a matter of months, just personal financing. It is volatile. Now that volatility provides opportunity, obviously; somebody who can trade the metal does very well. Somebody who trades our stock does even better because our stock is highly leveraged to Silver. In 2016, we went from about USD$0.15 cents to about USD$1.20 in five months. So a very, very volatile product.
Our forecast going forward, as you can tell, I’m a bit of a Gold bug, but not to the extreme, we’ve seen it gradually strengthening over the last year and a half and it has been very positive heading through some of the volatility and setting a pattern for growth. We’re looking in the sort of USD$22 range over the next year and given the volatility of world events, it could easily exceed that.
Matthew Gordon: I think I want to treat this an educational process for our audience, which is retail investors, high net worth and family officers. It is volatile, but what are the drivers for this? People talk about Silver being closely aligned to Gold: when Gold does well, Silver tends to do well. What are the drivers for that?
Fred Davidson: That’s part of it. No question about it. They say it’s a poor man’s Gold, so you get places like India when you get to seasonal purchasing –
Matthew Gordon: Same as Gold. What are the big drivers to this? What do we need to understand? Because you used a phrase that was quite interesting: “for people who know how to trade Silver…”, it’s great, but for the great unwashed like me, I’m going to be the last man standing, aren’t I?
Fred Davidson: Well, you’d probably be the last guy in the door. Yes, you’re right, that’s the problem. And you’re the last guy out the door. We see it in one of the primary things, as there are very few primary Silver producers. We’re one of the unique animals; 90% to 95% of our product is Silver. What that means is, when you see a reduction in base metal production, you get a significant reduction in the supply of Silver. And like Gold, there’s probably more paper Silver being traded than there is actual Silver. When you get that reduction of supply, the demand doesn’t really change very much. In fact, that’s probably increasing with the concerns about the world with the physical demands for Silver in industrial products. The other part about Silver is, unlike Gold, in most cases Silver isn’t readily recoverable. So the secondary market for Silver, because it’s in minute quantities in your cell phone and what have you, isn’t generally recovered. You’re facing a deficit in supply and that deficit in supply plus an over-sale of Silver certificates that isn’t backed up with actual Silver is a classic short situation. I think that’s where most of us anticipate, although there’s volatility, the volatility is driving northward, not southward in this business.
Matthew Gordon: So if you look at your share price, you quoted some numbers there from 2016 . That was a heck of a ride; at the end of 2000, you went up from USD$0.20 cents all the way up to USD$1.20, but you came crashing back down again. Fairly unspectacular 2018. Same with 2019, until the middle of last year. So this thing moves in violent swings, there’s huge peaks and troughs. How does someone like me or retail investors spot the signs? Because you are saying, ‘the only way is up’, and maybe it is right now. But I don’t want to get left holding the baby here, Fred, so what other things do I need to be looking out for?
Fred Davidson: I think you have to look at continuity. Most of us look in the marketplace and we’ll say, okay, if I’m in this to speculate short-term, that is highly volatile, that’s dangerous stuff. I don’t pretend to do that. I personally look at it and say, I see as a long-term trend and that’s actually what we did when we acquired this property 14 years ago. We thought Silver was under-priced badly and you go and we managed to get a property that the owner thought it was badly under-priced. We’ve been right. Now during that time, the volatility has been dramatic, but the trend over that period of time has been consistent and has been consistently upward. And I think that you are either a long-term player, believe in silver, pickup those companies or get involved with those companies that have demonstrated history, or alternatively, you run it short-term and you’d be a day trader, and I wouldn’t even try to be a day trader in this market.
Matthew Gordon: So you picked this thing up 13 years ago. What was the plan back then and has that changed or had to change, because of market conditions over that term?
Fred Davidson: Yes, during that time, we picked it up as an exploration project, but it had a history of production, and you look for elephants where there have been elephants. It had a small mill on it at the time. It allowed us to bootstrap ourselves. And that is over about 50% of all of our expenditures in the field have been financed through operations. So we have avoided, or reduced dilution. We then acquired a significant controlling position in two very large mineral concessions in Southern Mexico, in basically the silver belt. Taxco; They were the oldest. We were the second oldest district. We found over 5,000 old workings on this property to date and we still have a lot of exploration to do.
We found over 50 haciendas dating back…hacienda is actually a plant in the local jargon, dating back to the Spanish era. We looked at that. We looked at the mining that had been conducted in the past, and again, you look for elephants where there’s elephants. We thought Silver was a strong product that invariably would be covered; it has. We looked at a prospective ground, which has had a history of production, had a history of elephants. Even though we talk about the Spanish era, the Indians here mined well before that: Gold and Silver. And we then went in as quietly as we could and acquired as much ground as we could, to the point where it’s almost like a hand in a cookie jar; you just pick all the cookies out of it at once. And since then, it pretty well supported our premise that; A. We are capable of supporting ourselves, and B. We are capable of developing what could be an international level resource.
That’s our strategy going forward. We’ve had bumps, such as the price of Silver dropping off, or the crash in the market place, but we’ve been able to sustain our business where many of our peer group has disappeared in that period of time. And we’re still here and we are still growing. So yes, given there have been bumps, our strategy it is the right strategy. And going forward, if we see a solid Silver price, that strategy is going to get nothing but endorsed.
Matthew Gordon: Was there any data that came with these land packages?
Fred Davidson: We probably spent USD$5M or $6M accumulating a huge amount of data in a computer system, an AR system that we have developed that literally has layers of data going back 300 yrs, 400 yrs plus. In fact, in one mine we discovered from old references that were 250 yrs old. When we went out, there was an old Spanish mill and an old underground that they had been mining on.
Matthew Gordon: What does that data look like?
Fred Davidson: Handwritten books, we’ve actually gone back into some archaeological studies. There’s historical production where the Spanish where talking about bringing 120 mules out of this area to go to Taxco, to the ore. Yes, there’s been a lot of research and we’ve had a team dedicated now for almost 10 years, outing it all together.
Matthew Gordon: That was the plan: tie up and buy up this land package, you are sitting on a district-wide package. But how do you move from Exploration into Development to Production? You are producing today, 9.5Moz. I’m looking at the market cap of $46M and I’m wondering how this thing get some scale to it? Or, does the nature of the commodity – Silver and the volatility of Silver, restrict you from doing that?
Fred Davidson: Well, on an operational basis, we have a number of targets that we move forward when there is loose change, basically. If we make a profit in a quarter, that profit doesn’t really go up because it gets reinvested in improving our knowledge or advancing one or two of the projects that we have at any one time.
But we are cash positive. The strategy going forward is, we have probably 4 or 5 projects in front of us: both Silver and Gold, that sensitive to the price of metal, sensitive to the cash I have in my jeans, we push and accelerate and you know, case in point is we have a volcanogenic massive sulphide.
Matthew Gordon: VMS – we love it.
Fred Davidson: Down in the south of us, we have got a resource there that would normally require the price of Silver at USD$22. Right now, we are working on metallurgical changes to the mining and milling which can substantially draw up that. That coordinated with an increase in the price of Silver, suddenly becomes a mine. And in fact, there are two other deposits nearby that if that becomes a mine, we would then spend the money to bring those deposits up to resource base too.
Matthew Gordon: A good business plan can make a company hugely successful. It can change the dynamic and the growth of the company. You have gone from Exploration into Production, but you are putting the money back into the ground all the time. Isn’t that part of the problem for shareholders? When you are talking to shareholders and saying, ‘trust us, this is a growth story’. How is this thing ever going to move from USD$46M to market cap, to double that? Shouldn’t you be looking to be giving something back to the market if you are producing all of this cash?
Fred Davidson: Yes. That’s one of the balances we do have to look at. There’s real value in the ground. For instance, we have a whole Gold district that we haven’t done any more than just exploration on. If we were to bring that into production, that would have a substantial impact upon the market cap in its own right. So it is one of those balances; you say, ‘Okay, we have this. Let’s go forward on it’. Alternatively, I don’t think many of my shareholders are looking for a dividend, they are looking for us to prove the underlying value of this property. I think we are very capable of doing that. We have had some ‘oopses’, but they have been fairly market-related. But what we have also done in our strategy is we have protected ourselves from the downside, that unlike a lot of my peer group from 10 years ago, we’re not selling marijuana right now. We’re still there. We’re still working on the project. And we are advancing that project.
Matthew Gordon: I get that building up a cash reserve is sensible: it makes sense to do that because it gives you options. But at the same time, we’d like to understand at what point you are going to start leveraging this? Being debt-free is fine – to a point, but you need to ramp this up. You have been 13 years at it, what’s the timeline look like for some of these VMS assets? What’s it going to cost you? When does the market start reacting to that? Can you give us a sense of how you are planning the road ahead?
Fred Davidson: Well that’s true, and we recognise that we have a property that is a Major’s property size. Part of the strategy is prioritising our targets and where we are going to spend our money, and then looking at other targets in the area and we referred our negotiation with one or two companies right now to come in and take on part of what we have got.
Spend their money on our projects.
Matthew Gordon: So we are talking about farm-ins.
Fred Davidson: Exactly.
Matthew Gordon: How far advanced are those conversations?
Fred Davidson: We are already negotiating price. In one case, they have done all the due diligence they feel is necessary. The other one is just initiating that, they have a expressed a strong interest. It is again, one of those projects that we have got that with a finite number of dollars on hand, we are saying, okay, in order of priority, as long as Silver keeps its current price, this one that we would happily have someone come in and spend some serious coin on. There are two ready at the moment: one is very serious. The other one is serious but probably without the number of resources as the first.
I’m hoping you’ll hear later this year that they have gone just beyond discussions, we intend to do something about this fairly quickly.
Matthew Gordon: That’s a nice addition to your strategy. So you are, in that case, a Project Developer – you bring partners in with cash, or an operating partner with cash, and you are also producing your own Silver as well, and producing your own cash. I’ll just come back to the share price again; there was some pressure put on it in December. There was a bit of an overhang. You had a lot of trading and a lot of selling. Was that something you knew was coming down the line?
Fred Davidson: There was a couple of groups that we knew had to get off their position for their own financial situation. I wouldn’t necessarily like to think there was a lot of selling – there was a lot of buying.Because the price did go up while that was happening as opposed to forcing the price down.We saw volumes. Well, I think it was 18M traded in December alone.
I think that the interesting fact is that normally, that would have driven your stock down pretty dramatically. It didn’t. And I suspect it is because people are starting to appreciate, A. What we have as a project, B. The go-forward strategy and C. The very fact that we are so highly leveraged to Silver, if they anticipate Silver going up $1, they can see us going up, percentage-wise, dramatically more. That has certainly happened in the past and I suspect if it continues the way it is going, it will happen in the future.
Matthew Gordon: Give me a break down of your share register. How much is institutional and how much is register and where in the world do they sit?
Fred Davidson: That’s a good question. We have been debating that one ourselves because, as you know, it is kind of hard to sort of dig through it. We found a lot of the smaller funds, the metal funds that are interested in precious metals are there. At any one time, they are probably talking 30%, 40% that Family Office Funds etc, that see us is a play on Silver. The reassurances to the downside are protected pretty well from our longevity and our production. And the upside is that we are highly leveraged to the price of Silver: Silver goes up a dollar, it goes right to our bottom line. We see a lot of those. We do have a fair retail crowd, that are again retailers in Silver themselves and then the insiders and what have you probably running at 10% to 12%, maybe even up to 15%. I’m not sure everybody tells me the truth.
Matthew Gordon: Are you still buying?
Fred Davidson: At the moment I’m stepping back because we keep on having news releases which puts me in a conflict situation. Every time we are interested in buying, there’s a blackout. For instance, the Veta Negra that came out, it sounds innocuous but it has got a lot of potential and I know more about it than we are allowed to disclose because we can only 43-101 results and I have been on the ground watching our non-43-101 team exploring that. So that is something that puts me in a heck of a conflict to be honest – it’s a pain in the butt because there’s real value here and I would like to be opportunistic myself.
Matthew Gordon: But you are smiling. There’s nothing you want to tell us, is there?
Fred Davidson: Nothing I can tell you.
Matthew Gordon: And how much cash are you sitting on today?
Fred Davidson: About USD$4M right now.
Matthew Gordon: And are you going to have to go back to market or is that sufficient for everything you have to do this year?
Fred Davidson: Well the plans we have for this year; I don’t rely on us going to market this year for our program. We are looking as well because, let’s face it, part of the game in Silver production or Gold production is size, and as some of the projects that are also out there, different locations, are of interest to us. They have been unable to raise money because the money the money that has been raised in the industry in the last year, is only going to the more sophisticated companies. There are a lot of Juniors that have taken the program on, after two or three years, they have not been able to raise money, except through their grandmother. It is opportunistic that we can take it in another project to take it to production very quickly.
Matthew Gordon: I’m not sure I understood that; you have got USD$4M, you are not going to raise any more money this year which suggests that you are doing nothing of scale. But you say that scale is important but the institutional money is going to sophisticated companies. So what are you?
Fred Davidson: Oh, I think we are a sophisticated company. People understand our expertise. People understand that it is not easy to make money and it is not easy to set up a mill. Start up production, operate a mine. And you find quite often that there is sort of two cultures here: there’s the geologist culture where they love to find something, then they come up to the edge, look over the cliff and say, ‘God, we’ve got to put it into production.’ That’s a whole different end. Those are the ones we look at, at being opportunistic from our point of view. The reason I brought that up, if something like that came along and had the right size and flavour, that might be a cause to go back to the market.
Matthew Gordon: There are three different models going on here: there is the produce it yourself which you are doing. You’ve got your own mill. You’ve got the farm-out option; and potential M&A, if you deem it appropriate to your strategy.
Fred Davidson: That’s right.
Matthew Gordon: What are the moments that are going to make a difference to your share price this year. You have told me about the VMS potential farm-out there, your production – are you planning to increase that or is that business as usual? Same rate?
Fred Davidson: We will be increasing it. We backed it off about a year and a half, two years ago because we mine from the underground for the most part. Certain mines have certain grades and certain cost of mining. When the price of Silver went down to $14, it was literally breaking even or lose a dollar, so we shut those down. We then produced from the other mines. Now, we haven’t abandoned those mines that are marginal at $14, as the price continues to rise or go up, we will bring them back into action. If we see the continued price that we are looking at right now: let’s say $17, $18, we are probably going to go back to where we were two years ago in terms of production, which is about a 25% increase.
Going forward, if we see a continued strength, then we may push forward and accelerate a couple of our more advanced targets. Because you have to have money to do that, you have to be confident that the price of metal is stayingthere to justify that Capex that you are putting out in order to put that into production. Over this year, we see a 25% increase over last year and, barring dramatic changes in prices, a further increase next year.
Matthew Gordon: These are incremental changes to the plans. They are nothing significant, unless you deliver something on the M&A front. So what’s the problem?
What’s holding you back though? Is your grade the issue here? You have got varying grades here across a large area.
Fred Davidson: I think the problem we have got, at least has been in the last couple of years, is finite dollars that we could put back into the ground. The market gives people a market cap for discovering than sometimes, quite a bit more than production and there’s a story in the industry called, ‘Up on mystery and down on history.’ The mystery isn’t there because we are producers. The mystery isn’t there until I can wave my arms and say, ‘look, we’ve just hit a hole that is 100m long, running at this grade, market gets excited and you see strength enter the market price. That can ultimately take us the next year up on exploration alone. The price of Silver will also take us the next year up. You can easily see it double.
Matthew Gordon: What are you doing about it?
Fred Davidson: We are borrowing. We are spending money now. That’s why we raised the money in late last year. It takes time to initiate those programs, because again, we want to prioritise it – it’s not as if we have $50M in the bank, and in doing so, it’s going to be two-fold: 1. It is going to help production, 2. It is going to increase expectations as to the future. And that’s the program for doing right now on our own projects. Those other projects – I think the market will see as strikes because people are willing to spend a portion of money on our property. Going forward, it is going to be opportunistic, if there is an acquisition that makes sense, we will do that as well I suspect with the number of projects we are looking at, there’s a decent likelihood that we might do that as well.
Matthew Gordon: Fred, thank you so much for talking to us today.
Fred Davidson: Pleasure. Good talking to you.
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