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Silver Standard Resources (NASDAQ:SSRI)

Q3 2012 Earnings Call

November 08, 2012 11:00 am ET

Executives

John Smith - Chief Executive Officer, President and Director

Larry Joe Phillips - Senior Vice President of Operations and Development

Ronald Burk - Vice President of Exploration

Gregory John Martin - Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President

Analysts

Chris Lichtenheldt - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

Joseph Reagor

Andrew Kaip - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Operator

Good day, everyone, and welcome to Silver Standard's Third Quarter 2012 Financial Results and Project Update Conference Call. This call is being recorded. At this time, for opening remarks and introductions, I would like to turn the call over to John Smith, President and CEO. Please go ahead.

John Smith

Thank you, Stephanie. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Silver Standard's Third Quarter 2012 Conference Call, during which we'll provide you with a review of our business, our financial performance and a general update. Joining me on the call this morning are Joe Phillips, our Senior Vice President, Operations and Development; Greg Martin, our CFO; and Ron Burk, our Vice President Exploration. Also present is John DeCooman, our Vice President Business Development and Strategy.

Our interim financial statements, management discussion and analysis and business updates have been filed on SEDAR and are also available on our website. To accompany our comments today, there is also an online webcast, and you'll find the information on this in our news release relating to the call. We will be making forward-looking statements today, and I refer you to the disclosure accompanying our slides, news release and also on SEDAR.

So now we will review the company's progress, positioning Silver Standard for success. As we promised the market at the beginning of the year, we are focused on delivering consistent results from our operations and projects and building value for our shareholders. We continue to deliver at Pirquitas, with sales this quarter exceeding production, as we sell into our 5 long-term contracts. This marketing strategy is agreed out on both commercially and from a risk management perspective.

Our operations team at Pirquitas continue to perform with another quarter of silver production delivering us -- which delivered, which positions us strongly to meet our full year guidance.

Exploration also remains a focus at Pirquitas with drilling continuing to intersect ore grade mineralization, which will add to the resource and allow us to evaluate mining of the material. Our costs are always a challenge in a high inflation environment, but our management team in Argentina evaluate all opportunities to contain the impacts of inflation by focusing on improvements such as metal process recoveries and location of waste dumps. We are working on completing the Pitarrilla feasibility study by the end of the year, and in the third quarter, substantial progress has been made towards this timeline. This feasibility study is based on a 16,000 tonnes per day open-pit project, which would position Pitarrilla as one of the world's largest primary silver mines with a life well in excess of 20 years.

At San Luis, we can report that in September we secured government approval for the EIA for the mine. Having completed this process and having an agreement with the Cochabamba community, it now allows us to focus on reaching agreement with the Ecash community with ultimate project timing remaining dependent on completing this agreement. The EIA, however, marks an important milestone for this project.

In exploration, our team continues to find resource adjacent to our open pit at Pirquitas, and Ron will cover this in his section. The drilling of the BP zone at San Luis in Peru is still targeted for the fourth quarter subject to receiving the only outstanding impairment. Exploration at San Agustin in Mexico will be a 2013 activity, as well as the work on evaluating mining potential.

Silver Standard is well positioned with funding and capability to deliver value with significant leverage to silver price improvements. We have the projects, people and the financial capability regardless of the macroeconomic environment to grow the value of our company. We're all committed to make this happen.

So now I'll hand over to Joe to take you through operations and development.

Larry Joe Phillips

Thanks, John, and good morning, everyone. I'd like to start this morning reporting on the strong operating results at our Pirquitas Mine. Our operations team has been successfully working over the past 2 years to make Pirquitas a reliable, steady-state silver mine with consistent quarter-on-quarter performance. I'm pleased to report that Pirquitas enjoyed its third consecutive quarter this year of over 2 million ounces, bringing year-to-date production for the mine to 6.4 million ounces. A production of 2.2 million ounces in the third quarter was just 7,000 ounces shy of the production record. This puts us on target to achieve our guidance for the year.

By product zinc production for the quarter was 2.8 million pounds, up by 46% versus the previous quarter, bringing our year-to-date zinc production to 8 million pounds. This is on pace to meet our zinc guidance for the year.

The Pirquitas mining operation continued to operate smoothly for the quarter, exceeding our forecast material movement for quarter and year-to-date. Our mine is approaching the completion of our Phase 1 mining pit towards the end of 2012. And we're already advancing the new mining benches on our Phase 2 pit. Our operations and maintenance personnel at the mine continue to maintain high availability and efficiency of the mining fleet in spite of challenging environments for importation and acquisition of parts supplied and components in Argentina.

Our plant continues to operate smoothly as rates exceeding design by over 10%. The mill operated at an average throughput rate of 4,388 tonnes per day, per quarter. Optimum blended consistent feed grade is part of our operating strategy to optimize production. Average feed rate in the mill was 214 grams per tonne. Silver recovery in the plant at 78% is slightly ahead of design for the average grade process during the quarter and in line with forecasts and up 3% from the previous quarter. The plant benefited from receiving adequate quantities of our preferred flotation reagent from our supplier, a factor which had negative impact on recoveries in the previous quarter. We now have received a 6-month supply of these reagents, which are in short supply worldwide. This portends well for future production.

Direct mining cost were $13.02 per ounce in line with the second quarter. As mentioned last quarter, we ramped up our concentrates shipping schedule from the mine in order to meet contracted sales and to lower our on-site silver concentrate inventory. During the quarter, we shipped a record 5,900 dry metric tonnes of concentrate, with over 3.4 million ounces of silver, reducing our site inventories to 3,137 dry metric tonnes.

Also during the quarter, we are pleased that the Argentine government made a final adjustment in its resolutions governing repatriation of sales proceeds for export shipments and return Pirquitas from 15 days to the 180-day period which the mine has had throughout the majority of its operating life. This is an adequate amount of time to the mine to consonate all of its export sales.

Now on to Pitarrilla, at our Pitarrilla positive in Mexico in the final stages of completion of the feasibility study. The feasibility study will be completed in November and presented to our Board of Directors early in December. We're excited about this very significant project, which represents an opportunity for the company to build one of the largest silver mines in Mexico in one of the world's best business climates for mining. As mentioned previously, this large surface mine would have a life of over 20 years, with silver production rates averaging over 10 million ounces per year. We look forward to publishing the results of this study before the end of the year.

At San Luis in Peru, we received government approval of our EIA for the mine. This is a major accomplishment for our team in Peru over a 2-year period and this approval was an indication of the support which our project has from the Federal and local government. Formal negotiations are continuing with the Ecash community for the remaining surface rights to mine the San Luis Project. The Ecash agreement is the final major milestone we have to achieve in order to put the San Luis project in the queue for a business development decision.

Now over to Ron Burk for an exploration update.

Ronald Burk

Thank you, Joe, During the quarter, exploration focus remained on the brownfield drilling campaign on the Pirquitas Mine property. The ultimate goal of this program is to increase the mines reserves. For the Pitarrilla Project, we completed a number of work programs that together significantly improved our geological, and resource model, which are now being used for mine design as part of the feasibility study. Also during the quarter, we made final preparations for drilling programs to test high potential gold and silver targets on 2 of the properties in Mexico on the Diabillos property in northern Argentina and on the San Luis property in Peru, where the target is a forfeit copper deposit.

At Pirquitas, positive drill results obtained during the quarter prompted us to substantially increase for the second time this year, the total planned meter of the exploration drilling campaign. We are now anticipating drilling close to 53,300 meters by the end of the month, with the majority of the drill hole targeting the Cortaderas Breccia and valley inferred mineral resources. The 2 zones of structurally-controlled sulfide mineralization are located about 500 meters north of the operating open pit and appear to be connected based on the drill hole information obtained to date.

Since the start of the campaign at the end of Q1, we have diamond drilled 140 boreholes. In our news release issued yesterday, we reported a 120-meter long intersection of Cortaderas Breccia mineralization that averaged 206 grams per tonne silver and 5% zinc. In the same news release, we also reported an intercept of Cortadera Valley mineralization that averaged 751 grams per tonne silver and 16.3% zinc across 14.1 meters. This year's drill holes have returned interceptions of silver, zinc realization along a strength length of at least 400 meters.

Also at Pirquitas, we completed a second ground geophysical survey using the gravity method, which on the property, is proven to be an effective survey technique for detecting the dense, sulfide-rich mineralization in the Cortaderas target area. The area that was surveyed lies between the open pit and the mine's administration complex. A number of gravity highs, that is rock density anomalies, were outlined by the survey and these represent high potential drill targets that will be tested in the future.

At Pitarrilla, we completed 2 programs of diamond drilling that totaled approximately 17,000 meters. The mineralized intersections made by one set of drill holes resulted in a modest expansion of the silver resources of the deposit, while the other set of diamond boreholes was drilled for geo-statistical purposes. As for the second set of drill holes, analysis of the assay data from these relatively closely-spaced hole has considerably increased the level of confidence we have in our estimate of the silver resources in the upper oxidized part of the deposit.

By the end of the third quarter, all drill hole information was compiled and incorporated in our latest iteration of the estimated mineral resource model for this very large silver, lead, zinc deposit. The Pitarrilla Project feasibility study is based on this updated block model estimate of the resource.

Also in Mexico, in the fourth quarter, we will be commencing with diamond drilling programs on our San Patricio property located in the historically-important Parral silver mining district in Chihuahua State and on the Valenciana property in Zacatecas state. The target that will be tested with a 15 to 20 planned drill holes were defined by exploration programs that involve a variety of geochemical and geophysical surveys, which were completed on these properties in the first half of the year. Miner's historic silver mine workings are present on both of these properties.

The exploration programs we are conducting at Santo Teresio and Valenciana are representative of the company's strategic focus of exploring high potential properties within the Central Mexican Silver Belt.

Moving to South America, we commenced a diamond drilling program on our Diablillos property in northern Argentina. The planned drill holes will be targeting zones of gold and silver mineralization that lie peripheral to the Oculto deposit where we have an indicated resource of 640,000 ounces of gold and 77 million ounces of silver. And at the San Luis property, we are waiting to receive a water permit to begin drilling the 2,500 meter program that was designed to test for the porphyry copper mineralization at the BP Zone.

In the fourth quarter, we will be building a new resource estimate for the Cortaderas vein and Breccia mineral system at Pirquitas. The 2 drilling programs that will be done on our Mexican properties will determine if economic vein-hosted silver deposits exist on these properties. And finally, our goal for the drilling programs in Argentina and Peru is to discover new zones of mineralization that would significantly impact the economic value of the existing Oculto and Ayelen deposits, respectively.

And with that, I'll turn the call over to Greg for a discussion on finance.

Gregory John Martin

Thanks, Ron, and good morning. In addition to the strong operating performance in the third quarter, financial performance improved in all areas on the back of strong sales, stable direct mining cost and a silver price that improves during the quarter.

Income from mine operations, adjusted income and operating cash flow, all improved relative to earlier quarters in the year and relative to the comparative period in 2011. Sales of 2.8 million ounces of silver and 2.2 million pounds of zinc resulted in revenues in the quarter of $73.5 million, a record for the company, 73% higher than last quarter and almost triple the comparative period in 2011 due to the higher ounces sold as inventory were shipped in the long-term agreements.

Average realized silver prices declined by 2% relative to the second quarter, but a positive mark-to-market adjustment of $4.7 million was recognized on outstanding sales due to the stronger silver price prevailing at the end of the quarter. As discussed on our previous call, the mine is shifting into the improved long-term sales contracts on schedule and without further regulatory challenges. As a result, we expect sales to generally match production over the coming quarters.

At quarter end, total finished goods inventories stood at approximate 5,600 tonnes containing 3.2 million ounces of silver with a book value of $50.3 million. Higher revenues drove income from mine operations to $16.5 million, 144% above the second quarter and 43% above the previous year comparative period. The results indicate the leverage to higher sales, improved quarter and silver prices and a better sales terms. The quarter had no material unusual items, so net income before tax of approximately $2.2 million is indicative of the overall stronger operating performance.

Our tax expense in the quarter of $4.7 million makes for an odd quarterly tax rate. Most of these taxes, expenses, deferred tax, not current tax, and is driven by the devaluation of the Argentine peso as under IFRS, deferred tax balances are determined in the functional currency, which for us is the U.S. dollar. Quarterly variations in tax expense will occur, but as you can note, the 9-month tax expense to September 30 is at an expected rates, so these quarterly variations tend to average over time. Our after-tax loss in the quarter was $2.5 million.

Direct mining cost in the quarter totaled $13.02 per ounce of silver, marginally lower than in the second quarter, bringing year-to-date direct mining costs to $12.64 per ounce, which is within our guidance range. Inflation and ongoing import restrictions remain challenges, but the team is actively working to minimize these impacts through process and productivity improvements. We remain confident in delivering on our cost guidance for full year direct mining cost within $12.85 per ounce of silver.

Cash cost during the quarter totaled $24.01 per ounce. We had previously guided that reported cash cost would be higher at periods where sales exceed production, as was the case in this quarter. Cash costs are composed of 2 main components: direct mining costs, which scale the ounces produced; and off-site costs, transportation, export duties, treatment and refining charges, which scaled the ounces sold. But some of these is divided by period production, which creates a mismatch to the driver of off-site cost. For comparative purposes, if we take off-site costs and divide them by sales instead of production, it equates to $8.29 per ounce, approximately $2.32 per ounce lower than reported cash cost. If adjusted by this basis, total cash cost would be $21.69 per ounce, which management believes is more indicative of actual cost performance. I also remind everyone that our reported cash costs include approximately $2.60 per ounce produced related to silver concentrate export duties that we accrue but do not pay, as we have an injunction against duties being levied due to our fiscal stability agreements. Net of this accrual, cash costs would be approximately $19.09 per ounce.

Cash generation in the quarter was strong. Before changes in working capital, we generated $17.6 million in cash from operating activities, an excellent result. An increase in accounts receivable on the back of strong sales resulted in an increase in working capital of $16 million. Investments in our portfolio during the quarter included $2.2 million in plant, property and equipment, and $11.5 million in exploration and development expenditures, principally related to Pitarrilla and Pirquitas. These were entirely funded by net VAT recoveries.

Overall, in the quarter, our cash position increased by $2 million to $353 million. The strength of our cash position remains a notable characteristic of the company. We continue to have good success on recovery of VAT taxes in Argentina. We had a net reduction in VAT outstanding in the quarter of approximately $14 million and $17 million year-to-date. In total, we have now received approval of approximately $63 million of VAT and recovered over $30 million in cash. Last week, Argentina announced some regulation specific to an error situation around VAT recoveries. We're assessing whether these regulations have an impact to our situation. Due to the factors just described, our working capital position increased by over $18 million in the quarter to $396 million. Our working capital position remains exceptionally strong in an industry where risk capital remains scarce. Our $138 million of convertible notes are reported within current liabilities, so they are already deducted in the calculation of our working capital position.

At the end of the quarter, over 87% of our cash was held in Canada or other AAA-rated jurisdictions, as we repatriated funds from foreign operations and redeployed cash in our development projects. Our interest in Pretium Resources currently stands at just over 20% with a market value of approximately $250 million. The market value of Pretium is not included as an asset in working capital, so this is an additive source of value.

In summary, we delivered as we had guided with consistent operational results, coupled with strong sales. The increase in silver price since this summer during a period of strong sales has been beneficial, and we remain positive on the outlook for silver prices. The improvement in performance across all our financial metrics was a key success in the quarter with cash flow not only funding our development pipeline, but concurrently strengthening our working capital position by over $18 million.

With those comments, I'll turn the call back to John.

John Smith

Thanks, Greg. Ladies and gentlemen, I trust we have given you a sense of progress here at Silver Standard. Revisiting our goals that we've set and shared with the market at the beginning of the year, we are delivering consistent quarterly operating performance at Pirquitas. Our long-term sales strategy is in place, and we can see the benefit through the revenue line and improved margins. We're also managing the export-import supply chain well, thanks mainly to our in-country team. And now having an excellent experienced team in place, we remain focused on building real value for our investors, underpinned by experience and good process. As you have heard, we're on track to complete the Pitarrilla feasibility study in the fourth quarter, a significant milestone for the company.

Silver Standard offers a real value opportunity for investors to participate in a growth strategy that has been systematically built up a strong foundation. We have the answers, people and the wherewithal to deliver. And importantly, we're doing what we said we would do.

So now let me pass over to the operator and open up for any questions that you may have.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your first question is from Chris Lichtenheldt from UBS.

Chris Lichtenheldt - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

Just wanted to ask, first, I think, Greg, you said we should expect sales in production to be similar for the next few quarters. That is to mean that over about a 3-quarter period, you expect to sell down the remaining level of inventory, is that right?

Gregory John Martin

Yes, Chris, as we've announced, we have entered into a series of long-term agreements which effectively are targeted at matching our sales to our production level. So what we're trying to guide to is you're not going to see the dramatic difference between production and sales that you saw in this quarter on a go-forward basis.

Chris Lichtenheldt - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

Okay, I'm just trying to understand because production would presumably higher than sales usually just because of the payability. So are you saying that you wont' be moving much inventory or only very little bit going forward?

Gregory John Martin

Yes, we'll continue to actively manage the inventory into the contracts to maximize the value of that inventory within the normal volatility of production and sales through the coming quarters.

Chris Lichtenheldt - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

Okay. So a last thing in inventory then, is there like a number of ounces that you would expect to always sort of be in inventory that you could share with us?

Gregory John Martin

At this point we probably want to provide a specific number of which we would be guiding towards a floor. There's certainly a number of factors that goes into how we optimize that inventory as we look forward into our contracts and through production levels. So we're still working through this process with regards to not only the new agreements we announced last quarter, but also as we roll forward those contracts into 2013. So we can't provide you with that kind of specificity at this point.

Chris Lichtenheldt - UBS Investment Bank, Research Division

Okay, understandable. I wanted to ask on the community negotiations occurring in Peru, with respect to San Luis, does the environmental approval -- do you think that may help or is that not really part of -- is not having to do with the nature of the negotiations with the Ecash community?

John Smith

Chris, I'll get Joe to answer that for you.

Larry Joe Phillips

Chris, this is Joe Phillips. I would say, yes, the approval of the EIA, as a minimum, an indication of the support that the federal and local government have to the projects. We also, with our community relations team, are quite in touch with the general sense of the public support for the project, and it is quite high. So we expect that to be a very positive factor.

Operator

Our next question comes from Joseph Reagor from Global Hunter Securities.

Joseph Reagor

Financial housekeeping questions. First one is on by-product credits. In your MD&A, it says that the revenue from them was only about 88,000 in the quarter, is that correct?

John Smith

Joe, I'll get Greg to talk to that.

Gregory John Martin

Yes. That's not exactly correct, Joe. The by-product credit is really netted against a number of processing costs related to the zinc. The zinc has silver ounces contained within that concentrate as well. So effectively all of the cost of that concentrate get pushed against the zinc revenue, and that's why you've seen that low in the quarter.

Joseph Reagor

Okay, and what are your price realizations for zinc then?

Gregory John Martin

Sorry, in terms of relative to the prevailing spot market of zinc?

Joseph Reagor

Yes, whatever you guys are getting paid on it, the percentage of actual ounces or pounds.

Gregory John Martin

Yes, approximately it's about a 70% payable rate on the zinc.

Joseph Reagor

All right. And then on tax rate, what should we be looking at going forward into, say, 2013 as a reporting level tax rate for the company?

Gregory John Martin

Yes. Thanks, Joe. As my comment said, certainly we expect to see some volatility of tax rates through quarters. And that's just the nature of your calculation of deferred taxes these days under IFRS and with the multi-jurisdictions of which we operate in. We certainly actively manage our global tax position to lower our effective tax rate. We've guided on previous calls, and it remains valid that we would expect an effective tax rate about 35% on a consolidated basis over a reasonable average in term.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our next question comes from Andrew Kaip from BMO.

Andrew Kaip - BMO Capital Markets Canada

I'm wondering if you can provide us with any additional details on Pitarrilla? We've talked about it in the past and the resource that you provided early on this year has a very large inventory of silver, it's a very large resource. But can you provide us any clarity on what type of grade should we be expecting in the oxide zone? And similarly what type of grade should we be expecting in the sulfide when you move towards providing the feasibility detail?

John Smith

Andrew, it's John. Look, it's a good question. We know that the market is anticipating and what the situation is on Pitarrilla. We're getting very close. We will, through the fourth quarter, complete that study process. I'll maybe let Joe speak about expected recoveries in terms of the metals. But it's a difficult point for us just now, we're just actually writing up the material. But with publishing so close, we really can't give you too much guidance at this point. But Joe, maybe you got some comments on recoveries?

Larry Joe Phillips

John, I think it would be a little bit premature on that over a 20-year period. It goes through quite a range.

John Smith

Okay. Andrew, you're getting the answer that you probably didn't want, which is we're going to just have to wait till we do the feasibility study and get it but there. But believe me, we're fully focused on getting that done as soon as possible.

Andrew Kaip - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Yes, look, I understand. But at the same point in time, you put out a resource earlier this year without any technical information. And that's public information now. So any clarity that you can provide on information that you've already disclosed would be of interest and certainly would help your shareholders better understand the quality of the asset that you're advancing.

John Smith

Yes, I understand that, and I share your frustration. But remember that we have said to the market that our design of mine for Pitarrilla is different than we've had in our prefeasibility study. So we will be getting that out to the market, believe me, as soon as possible. Really, I can't provide anymore guidance at this time.

Andrew Kaip - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Yes, all right. I mean, it is a pit-constrained resource that you've provided. Can you give us any detail on the volume of waste within that constrained pit?

John Smith

I'm sorry, Andrew, I just got to wait on that. I've just got to wait.

Andrew Kaip - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Yes, all right. And then one final comment -- one final question I've got is, reading the disclosure on your -- essentially your back and forth ongoing legal battle with the Argentinian government, it looks like you're consistently winning with respect to not having to pay the export duty. When are you going to feel confident enough to be able to say, "Hey, it doesn't look like we're going to have to pay this, and we're going to appropriately bring down our cash costs?"

John Smith

Okay, I'll let Greg speak to that one, Andrew.

Gregory John Martin

Yes. Andrew, as you'll note as we've disclosed now for a number of quarters, we have an injunction in place and we are not currently paying those export duties. But from a conservative standpoint, we are both accruing them from a financial statement perspective, and we're also including them in our cash cost calculation to be conservative with our investors on that point. There has been no update to the legal situation in Argentina, so that injunction remains in place. But there has been no progress on that court case, neither for us nor on a number of other companies of which are similarly affected. So at this point in time, we continue to revisit quarterly, but there is no progress of which we view as being substantial to change our accounting position on that issue.

Operator

There are no further questions at this time. I will turn the call back over to Mr. Smith.

John Smith

Thank you, Stephanie. And thank you to everybody for participating, and we look forward to keeping you updated. Thank you very much, and all have a good day.

Operator

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. That does conclude today's conference. You may all disconnect and have a wonderful day.

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