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The silver segment has been a puzzling mix over the last 12 months. Good news had silver's average price for 2011 an impressive 74% increase over 2010's average price. Yet silver stocks definitely fell into a have or have not where some companies and their investors enjoyed banner stock price increases, while others languished or even plunged. Oddly, the share price did not always match company performance, leaving some companies overvalued, while others stand over-priced. We also are looking at a new year where I expect silver prices to remain relatively level or to advance only slightly. Which companies are buys at the current the price? Here are five to consider.

Great Panther Silver Ltd (NYSEMKT:GPL) has a market capitalization of $368 million and a recent price under $3.00 within a 52-week trading range of $1.78-$5.04 It currently has a price-to-earnings ratio of 22.9 off of earnings per share of $0.12 within the trailing twelve months. It rebounded from negative reports in August 2011, when false reports of mismanagement and insider trading erupted on the blogosphere before being proved false. Great Panther is a pure silver price play, since it is a tiny company with only two silver mines in Mexico. Growth is limited and the mines do not produce any meaningful ore other than silver (such as copper, gold or rare earths) as is the case with many of its peers. After the run up in silver prices in 2011, it is hard to imagine a scenario where there would be a repeat, so the aggressive price-to-earnings ratio seems to indicate the share price is a bit steep right now.

Compared with Great Panther Hecla Mining Co (NYSE:HL) is a monster with a market capitalization of $1.2 billion on a stock price around $5.00, which tends toward the low end of it 52-week trading range of $4.25-$11.08. Its earnings per share stands at $0.40 for the trailing twelve months. It offers a tiny quarterly dividend of $0.02 for a yield of just 1.48%. Hecla looks to be accelerating its profitability. After losing money during the disastrous silver correction of 2008 the company has been profitable, with steadily improving revenue and bottom line and 2011 profits expected to reach north of $75 million. Hecla is much more diversified than Great Panther, with its mines producing important amounts of zinc, lead and gold to go along with its primary silver operations. This gives it some protection against the historically volatile silver price. Also unlike Great Panther, Hecla seems reasonably priced and with enough ability to grow into the market. As long as silver prices do not drop significantly, Hecla is a good buy.

Not as far along on its turnaround is micro cap Mag Silver Corporation (NASDAQ:MAG), which is priced around $13 within its 52-week trading range of $7.511-$26.00 and a market capitalization of only $43 million. It is showing an earnings per share of $1.92 for a price-to-earnings ratio of a very attractive 6.8. The year 2011 was the first year in the last four that the company has turned a profit after losing roughly $40 million since 2008. While the one-year profit is encouraging, management has yet to prove it can reliably create positive performances. It did announce in a recent press release that it was opening five new exploration projects and it has high hopes for but this is for far into the future. Investors willing to take a lot of risk might want to take a small position for now, but I would advise waiting and watching until management can deliver good results over another two to three quarters.

Another company that has shown three years of steadily increasing profitability is Pan American Silver Corporation (NASDAQ:PAAS) at a $2.5 billion market capitalization with its recent stock price near $24 and a 52-week trading range of $19.93-$43.06. It boasts an earnings per share of $2.34, which calculates to a price-to-earnings ratio of 10.3. It pays a small dividend of $0.025 per quarter for a microscopic yield of 0.42%

It not only has a reserve of nearly 24 million ounces of silver in its mines but it also produces lots of ancillary metals such as gold, copper, zinc and lead, which again mitigates against the historical volatility of silver. Pan American looks well set to continue riding its wave of success with its profits and the share price looks to be cheap considering its growth momentum. I consider it to be a solid buy for growth investors who are looking for solid investments in the silver sector.

Working under a much different business model than the other on this list is Silver Wheaton Corporation (NYSE:SLW). It has by far the biggest market capitalization of this group at $12.7 billion off a share price around $36, which is in the middle of its 52-week trading rage of $25.84-$47.60. It has an earnings per share of $1.32 for a price-to-earnings ratio of 27.2 and it pays a $0.09 quarterly dividend for a yield of 1.00%.

Unlike its mining peers, Silver Wheaton buys and resells silver and silver ore, acting as a middle man in the silver sector. It is a silver streamer. Management has found a way to produce profits in both low and rising silver price scenarios and profits have been accelerating. Growth in sales for the trailing five years is 42.96% while earnings per share growth for the trailing twelve months has been an eye-popping 241.41%. Still, despite its great growth the delirious 2011 results were largely due to the run-up in silver prices. I expect the upcoming year will be profitable but at a more prosaic pace, and the stock valuation may suffer when the excitement eases. There are better opportunities out there.

Of these five silver stocks the best looks to be Hecla with Pan American coming in as a close second, both looking to be on solid platforms to continue earnings growth in 2012.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

Source: 5 Silver Stocks: Which Should You Buy Now?