Gold, Silver, Copper, Nickel and the Slow Death of Money

A huge opportunity to hedge against both inflation and deflation is lying out there in the open. There are no transaction costs and right now there’s even a built-in discount. But most people will never realize any of this.

In 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102, which made it illegal for U.S. citizens to hold gold bullion.

Prior to that, the $20 bill was essentially a warehouse receipt for a one-ounce gold coin. Prior to the Federal Reserve Act of 1914, the $20 bill actually told you this.

After Executive Order 6102, $20 notes weren’t allowed to be exchanged for gold anymore. Americans couldn’t legally own or trade gold as money and savings, only as jewelry or collectible coins.

A year after making monetary gold ownership illegal, FDR revalued gold from $20.67 per ounce to $35 an ounce with the Gold Reserve Act. The Act also required all gold and gold certificates to be turned over to the Treasury.

The dollar was debased. A chunk of the gold it used to be good for was legally removed. Instead of  “containing” 1/20 an ounce of gold, each dollar now only contained (or represented) 1/35 an ounce. And of course you couldn’t actually own the gold itself.

In 1971 Nixon severed the last official ties between gold and the dollar. The dollar quickly sunk to its real value, which had been debased by years of money supply inflation.

By 1975 Americans were allowed to own bullion gold again, but during the roughly 40 years bullion gold ownership had been illegal, the dollar had been drastically debased. At its former lowest point in the summer of 1980, the dollar was worth only 1/850 an ounce of gold. It regained some value for a while, but for the past couple of years a dollar would only get you less than 1/1000 an ounce of gold (right now it gets you less than 1/1300 an ounce).

That was the story with a piece of paper that was merely standing in for a monetary metal. But what happens in the case of circulating coins actually composed of monetary metals?

Let’s look at quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies…

  • Prior to 1964, U.S. quarters and dimes were 90% silver. From 1965 to 1970 half dollars were 40% silver “clad” over a copper-nickel or “cupronickel” mix. Now quarters and dimes and half dollars have no silver in them at all. They are now entirely copper and nickel, but only enough to get a little more than 1/4 their face value.
  • Prior to 1983, U.S. pennies were 95% copper and 5% zinc. In 1982 we started getting pennies made of 97.5% zinc with only 2.5% copper plating. Since 1983 every new penny has had this composition.
  • The U.S. nickel has been cupronickel since 1946: 75% copper and 25% nickel with trace amounts of manganese. But that’s probably about to change…

Why are quarters and dimes no longer silver? Why is the penny no longer mostly copper? And why will the nickel likely follow suit fairly soon?

Because the amount of silver and copper and nickel in each case came to exceed the face value of the coin. The debasement of the U.S. currency over time has required the metal in the coins to be replaced with a cheaper substitute.

The average American has no idea what inflation really is or why currency debasement is a problem at all. He figures one metal is as good as another in minting of the currency…that when the face value of a coin falls below the value of the metal in the coin, it’s nothing more than a curiosity. Substitute a cheaper metal, they think. Problem solved.

And indeed the problem is solved for the government, which mints the coins made of real money at a loss after the effects of bouts of the inflation started by monetization of government debt. Savers and the overall economy on the other hand…their problems are just beginning…

But that is a story for another time. For now let’s look at the opportunities to be had when the government makes metals available for a fraction of their market price via coins…And let’s see if there are any opportunities left (Hint: there are!).

If you had seen the writing on the wall in the early 1960’s and started hoarding quarters and dimes while they still were almost wholly silver, you would have found that your dimes were worth a high of $3.57 each. Your quarters would have been worth $8.93 each.

In fact, these 90% coins still trade just like regular silver bullion bars and rounds. They were taken out of circulation — “hoarded” — by those savvy to debasement (Gresham’s Law tells us that good money will be hoarded when bad money floods the market). These coins were collected without any transaction costs. They were bagged up with different face value totals: $1,000 bags, $500 bags, $250 bags, $100 bags and $50 bags. These bags now sell with a transaction cost.

Each of these bags traded for over 35 times their face value because of the silver in the coins. At least they did at silver’s peak in 1980. Even after the peak and during the ensuing 20-year slump they were selling for more than three times face value.

Now thanks to waves of money and credit expansion from the Federal Reserve, silver (and gold) is pushing back toward its old highs. These bags of so-called “junk” silver are trading at more than 20 times their face value. They may hit 30 times face value again…and beyond…

Between 2000 and 2006 I was a big believer in silver as an investment (I still am). I begged all my loved ones to sell their (overpriced because of credit expansion) homes, pay off their credit cards and shove the rest of the money into silver.

No one listened. Here are a couple of graphs that makes them wish they had.

The red vertical lines in both graphs represent the start of 2006.

If you had sold your house at the very peak of the housing bubble in 2006…just before silver took off…you could now sell your silver and buy back your house…plus five more houses like it.

And there’s a lot more potential for that trade to get even better.

Silver shot up about fourfold, while real estate plummeted by a quarter or a third. That’s “so far.” Silver’s price could multiply again — even if does dip in the interim — while housing could drop even more.

Even if you didn’t catch the peak, but just saw the writing on the wall in 2000-2005, you’d still have done pretty well by selling your home and buying silver. You wouldn’t have gotten quite as much for your house, but you would have gotten silver at around $4 instead of $9.

Silver probably has another trick or two up its sleeve. It probably has a lot more upside than gold. It will probably play catch up till the silver/gold price ratio gets larger. Who knows?

Look at the other coin that was debased: the lowly penny…

Prior to 1984, the penny was almost all copper. Now those old pennies have been driven out of circulation and hoarded (Gresham’s Law strikes again). And they’re worth just under three times their face value: Almost three cents for the old one-cent piece.

Copper hasn’t had quite the success that silver has. Non-debased silver coinage has been worth 35 times face value and is currently worth 20 times face value and climbing. Copper coins’ triple-bagger over nearly thirty years doesn’t seem nearly as impressive. That’s because it’s not. But it is telling.

The thing is, silver now has transaction costs. Whether you buy bars, rounds or pre-debasement coins, you have to pay a middleman. You have to pay shipping if you get it online.

Meanwhile, copper pennies are still floating around, but hard to find. It’s really not worth the effort to gather underpriced copper this way.

But nickels? That’s a different story. Every single circulating nickel still has 3.75 grams worth of copper each…along with 1.25 grams of nickel. The silver dimes and quarters and the copper pennies are gone, but the copper-nickel or cupronickel nickel is still the only kind of nickel there is. For now…

What if you could have simply been there to start collecting silver quarters and dimes when they were actually circulating? You’d just have had to walk up to your bank and withdraw your money as quarters and dimes. This would have worked up to 1963. After that you’d have to sort through your quarters and dimes to make sure you didn’t have one of the new, non-silver ones.

The best opportunity with silver coins has long passed. But there is still a similar opportunity with silver’s humble cousin, the cupronickel five-cent coin.

Buy Two, Get One Free

Copper is currently about $4.60/lb. Nickel is currently about $13.00/lb

120 five-cent pieces is $6.00. Those 120 coins contain a pound of copper and 1/3 pound of nickel. That’s about $8.93.

If you deposit $6 in any bank in the nation, then withdraw your money as nickels, you get almost $9 worth of metal. That’s an immediate 50% return. That’s like paying for two thing and getting three.

You can’t legally cash in on it now (anti-smelting laws for pennies and nickels were introduced in late 2006). But the bullion market for cupronickel coins will develop, just as it did for silver U.S. coins. This will happen once the government starts minting five-cent pieces made out of cheaper metals.

To those who doubt this will happen, I refer you to the bags of silver coins trading as bullion for over 20 times their face value. You can easily order such a bag right now by going to any of a number of online bullion dealers. These bags of coins sell right alongside silver bars and rounds.

Right now, the government is subsidizing your copper and nickel purchases…and cutting out the middleman. As much as we complain about government, we ought to stop and offer them a little thanks for this.

The debasement of the U.S. nickel is looking very likely. Right now you have another opportunity to do what the silver coin hoarders did back in the early 1960’s.

Hoarding nickels right now gives you an immediate benefit. You get between $0.07 and $0.08 of copper and nickel for a mere $0.05. Thanks to Uncle Sam. But your good uncle won’t subsidize this forever. He can’t afford it.

What’s even more is that there is a hedge against deflation risk that you just don’t get with bullion. You see this discounted metal is minted. It will always have a nominal value of what’s stamped on it by its issuer.

So if the dollar strengthens and copper, silver, and gold all get cheaper in dollar terms, you can still spend your nickels just like any other money. Your purchasing power stays the same, maybe even increases.

But if the dollar declines, then the value of the cupronickel in the currency will rise against the face value. Eventually — at two or three times face value — these five-cent pieces will trade as bullion just as 90% silver quarters and dimes did and still do.

Again, there is currently no transaction cost to saving in nickels and no risk from plummeting metal prices. There is literally nothing (in case of deflation) to lose and everything (in case of inflation) to gain.

Your only real problem is storage; a few thousand dollars of nickels takes up a lot of space…and it’s heavy. But people had the same problem with silver when it was cheap. I doubt they’re complaining now.

Having “too much” cupronickel won’t seem like much of a problem if inflation continues to drive the cupronickel in five-cent pieces far in excess of face value.

At worse the dollar strengthens and you’ve just saved money whose purchasing power has increased. That is not a bad worse case scenario at all.

The cupronickel is the last bit of honest U.S. currency there is. Right now it’s dying slow, like the others did. But things could speed up quick.

The cupronickel could surprise us all. Gold and silver are having their day. Maybe eventually cupronickel will, too. What cannot be dismissed is the current discount on the stuff (thanks, Uncle Sam) and the extremely limited downside.

Gary Gibson
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

February 16, 2011

The Daily Reckoning