How Franco-Nevada Caught Up to Silver Wheaton

By Dan Caplinger Markets Fool.com

The precious metals markets have gone through a huge boom and bust over the past decade, and the impacts of big rises and falls in gold and silver haven't been limited to mining companies. Streaming specialists Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW) and Franco-Nevada (NYSE: FNV) have exposure to precious metals prices through the financing arrangements they make with their mining-company partners. For a long time, Silver Wheaton's success overshadowed its industry rival, but after the bull market in gold and silver deteriorated, investors found that Franco-Nevada's slow and steady approach has helped it win the long-term race. Below, we'll show you how Franco-Nevada did it.

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Franco-Nevada: Market cap leader

The most obvious sign of Franco-Nevada's long-term success is in the value that investors have put on the company. Although Silver Wheaton took a huge lead in market cap during the early 2010s, Franco-Nevada gradually caught up and surpassed its industry peer in late 2015.

FNV Market Cap data by YCharts.

Those who follow streaming stocks attribute their relative performance to many different factors, and not all agree on whether Franco-Nevada's move upward has been fully justified. However, there's a key element that sent Silver Wheaton soaring for a time but then left it vulnerable to subsequent declines.

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All that glitters is not gold, but...

The most important difference between Franco-Nevada and Silver Wheaton has been in their relative exposure to different metals. As its name suggests, Silver Wheaton historically emphasized silver streaming deals. Franco-Nevada had a greater emphasis on gold, and it has also gone beyond gold and silver to make deals involving platinum group metals, base metals, and energy assets.

Silver Wheaton's concentration on silver gave it a big advantage for much of its history. For instance, during the final stage of the precious-metals boom after the financial crisis, silver prices dramatically outperformed gold.

New York Silver Price data by YCharts.

Silver's big rise, however, eventually gave way to an even bigger downfall. In the years since silver prices reached their peak, the white metal has performed much worse than gold.

New York Silver Price data by YCharts.

Silver Wheaton's market capitalization largely followed the ups and downs of the silver market. For a while after silver peaked, Silver Wheaton was able to sustain its value due to shareholder optimism about a potential silver-price rebound. Eventually, though, reality sank in, and Silver Wheaton's shares ground downward over the years even as Franco-Nevada enjoyed flat to slightly higher price movement.

How Silver Wheaton and Franco-Nevada have responded

To its credit, Silver Wheaton saw early on how a more diversified portfolio could generate less volatile results in a more challenging price environment for precious metals. In recent years, Silver Wheaton has dramatically increased its exposure to gold, with numerous gold streaming deals with major partners to try to get a more balanced mix between the two primary precious metals. Moreover, by doing so after gold prices peaked, Silver Wheaton was able to get favorable deals that locked in lower-cost production.

Image source: Getty Images.

Yet at least so far, Franco-Nevada has been able to keep its edge. Some, including Silver Wheaton itself, have argued that the difference in valuation is unjustified, pointing to a number of fundamental metrics that show how investors are putting a higher value on Franco-Nevada's earnings and cash flow than on those of its rivals. However, investors have been willing to gobble up Franco-Nevada shares even at these high valuations. For instance, in early 2016, the company had sought to offer $500 million in stock to help fund its agreement with Glencore regarding its Antapaccay mine in Peru. Demand for the offering was so heavy that Franco-Nevada ended up raising more than $800 million.

What will the future bring?

Silver Wheaton remains larger than Franco-Nevada in terms of revenue, adjusted earnings, and cash flow, and it clearly believes that it can reassume the top spot in market cap once investors realize its potential. Yet Franco-Nevada has been aggressive in its growth, and it'll take more than just a reversion to the mean for Silver Wheaton to regain the top spot for good.

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Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Silver Wheaton. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.