202 (27.08.18)


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20 CRITICAL TRADE ROUTES

6. Solaris Avenue, Cayman Islands

At 94 Solaris Avenue in the Cayman Islands, an office block is surrounded by water and palm trees. At this time of year, temperatures average 90 degrees. A short stroll takes you to a coral sand beach and a two-minute taxi ride gets you onto a golf course spread around blue lagoons. Most mining companies have offshore offices and this one belongs to financing company Wheaton Precious, one of the biggest players in the global silver market. In the 1700s, ships carrying silver from the New World used to go via the Caribbean to catch strong winds that would carry them across the Atlantic. 300 years later and the trade route is still in good working order. Ever since it was founded in 2004, Wheaton Precious has structured the bulk of its deals through here, funnelling nearly $1bn of revenue and millions of ounces of silver through a tax-exempt British colony that has more companies than people. It owns no mines, but has dug-up silver that was previously buried across the industry by buying byproduct off companies in gold, copper and zinc under long-term agreements at a fixed price. The contracts it has put together, known as “streams”, technically make it the world's seventh-largest silver producer. Wheaton Precious has nearly 20 staff in its Cayman office, buying metal off more than a dozen mines, primarily in the Americas, selling it on to bullion banks in London that buy physical ounces and sell paper contracts, leveraging up the market many times over. In 2015, Canada's tax authority the CRA shone a spotlight on the office, saying Wheaton Precious should pay taxes via its head office in Vancouver. The company counters that its silver never touches Canadian soil. It also has an independent Cayman board, made up of non-Canadian nationals, including a London-based mining investor. That has left analysts trawling through LinkedIn trying to work out if its Cayman staff have admin or M&A roles. The case has been delayed by appeals and will not be heard until September next year. Nothing, it seems, can stop the flow of silver along one of the world's trustiest trade routes. Wheaton Precious would give up its office in downtown Vancouver before exiting the Cayman Islands, chief executive Randy Smallwood has said. “If it gets to the point that Canada doesn’t want us, then that is always an option.”

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16 days

Whilst gold is flown around the world, silver is stuffed into shipping containers. Mexico to London via Felixstowe port takes two to three weeks

852m ozs

The world mined 852 million ounces of silver in 2017, short of physical demand of around 1bn ounces; the gap is bridged by recycling

$13bn

At spot prices, the global silver market is worth $12.7bn per annum. Mexico is the world's biggest producer, accounting for output of $2.9bn