Like its commodity cousin gold, silver has a rich history dating back thousands of years. It was first mined about 5,000 years ago in Anatolia (modern day Turkey). When the Europeans came to the New World, they found abundant silver. In fact, in the period between 1500 and 1800, the Latin American countries of Peru, Bolivia and Mexico accounted for more than 85% of global silver production. Since then, however, silver has been discovered in regions all over the world, making silver mining a global industry [for more silver news and analysis subscribe to our free newsletter].
Silver does have one major difference from gold: only about 20% of silver output comes from primary silver production. Much of it is produced as a by-product of mining for other metals such as copper, lead, zinc and gold.
With silver’s volatile, but sharply upward, movement in price over the last decade and increased demand from individual investors for the precious metal, it may be worth investors’ time to find out about which countries have the largest in-ground silver reserves to see if there are investment opportunities to be found there [see also 25 Ways To Invest In Silver].
Even though silver is now mined globally, Latin America still plays a key role in the industry. In 2011, Mexico and Peru were the top producers, followed by China. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the country with the most in-ground reserves of silver is still Peru (120,000 tons) which is followed surprisingly by Poland and then Australia.
Peru is at the center of the silver mining industry and has been for centuries. Some analysts even call it the “Saudi Arabia of silver” and rightly so. It produced nearly 110 million ounces of silver last year and is one of the few countries over the past decade to add to its silver reserves [see also Gold, Silver, Natural Gas Sitting in Deep Contango].
Fortunately for U.S.-based investors, there are a couple of easy ways to invest into Peru’s silver industry. The first is through the precious metals mining company Compania de Minas Buenaventura SA ADR (BVN). Another interesting way to play Peru’s mining industry is through an ETF, the iShares MSCI All Peru Capped Index Fund (EPU). Buenaventura is the top position in the fund at nearly 17%, and nearly 60% of the fund’s portfolio is invested in mining companies.
Poland is not a country that investors normally think of when it comes to commodities, but it is rich in coal, natural gas, copper and even silver, for which last year it was the sixth-biggest producer. It has become the country with the second-biggest silver reserves on the planet. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, this revision in reserves is a recent one and came after new information was given to them by both Polish government and silver industry sources [see also Protect Yourself From Debased Currencies, Jim Rogers Style].
Poland is also home to the world’s largest silver producing company, KGHM Polska Miedz S.A. (KGHPF), which last year produced some 40.5 million ounces of silver. The company is also a major copper producer, and it gets its silver as a byproduct of copper and zinc production at major mines like its Lubin mine in Poland.
Australia is, of course, a country well known for its abundance of natural resources. Silver is no exception as in 2011 the country was the fourth-biggest producer of the precious metal at 55.2 million ounces. That is quite impressive considering the industry’s modest start near Adelaide in south Australia in 1840 with a single lead-silver mine. Much of Australia’s silver is produced from highly mechanized lead, zinc, copper and gold mines [see also Checking in On Precious Metals ETFs in 2012].
In fact, the world’s second-biggest producer of silver is none other than Australian resources giant BHP Billiton ADR (BHP). The company owns the Carrington silver-lead mine in northwest Queensland, the world’s leading primary silver mine, which produced 32.17 million ounces of silver last year.
Other silver hotspots in Australia include the Mt. Isa deposit in Queensland and the McArthur River mine in the northeast portion of the Northern Territory. Other large producers of silver in the country include mining powerhouse Xstrata ADR (XSRAY) and Minmetals Resources.
Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.