Silver coin shortage reeks of price manipulation?

Shortages of silver coins have some on the Web wondering if dealers are holding back their stock. We don’t think they are, but we do expect more shortages to come. Here’s why.

By now, most silver investors have heard about the lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM). A class action suit’s been pending against the bank since 2010, when a large group of investors accused JPM of taking out enormous short positions in the silver futures market. The move was allegedly a bid to manipulate silver prices (see our post Silver price manipulation case narrows in on JPMorgan; drops HSBC for more).

Interestingly, there are rumors floating around the Web that some silver coin sellers could be doing their own form of silver price manipulation: namely, refusing to sell coins in the face of lower silver prices.

“I visited three very reputable distributors today – AMPEX, Gainesville and Northwest Territorial Mint – and all three of these dealers were mysteriously out of stock on one-ounce silver coins,” writes George Maniere at Market Oracle. “I can only conclude that they are willing to sit on them until the price of silver goes back up.”

Even the U.S. Mint got in the action, halting orders for sets of un-circulated American Silver Eagles (see our post Expect volatility on the path to higher silver prices in 2012 for more) because they can’t stock the necessary blanks to make the coins.

Everything’s in flux right now. We’re going through what the Financial Times calls “the biggest swings in precious metals since the collapse of Lehman.” According to the same article, though, gold and silver coin sales hit all-time sales records on Thursday (Oct. 22), Friday (Oct. 23) and Monday (Oct. 26).

That left the shelves at silver coin dealers empty. Demand for industrial precious metals may be falling, but it’s actually rising in the physical markets on bargain-hunting. That means a whole lot of investors see the recent drop in gold and silver prices for what it is: a rough patch in a decade-long bull market for precious metals.

“Buying in the retail market … it’s just huge right now,” Jim Puplava, the host of Financial Sense Newshour, said on Saturday. “They drive the price down, and it’s like Nordstrom is having a 20-30 percent off sale.”

While it may seem strange that coin dealers run out silver as soon as prices dip, it’s probably not manipulation and refusal to sell silver coins, but rather that a tidal wave of buyers have moved in to capitalize on lower prices. Even the popular Sprott Physical Silver Trust ETV (NYSE:PSLV) announced a week ago that it’d run out of silver and needed to replenish its supply.

“I think investors are really smart,” Kathy Derbes of KDerbes Precious Metals LLC told Mr. Puplava. “They know what’s going on. They understand that these price breaks – particularly this time around – are not telling us anything about the fundamentals of gold and silver. In fact, I think the reasons for owning it have gotten a lot stronger.”

Derbes adds that current orders for her clients have a two to three week delay before they’re shipped, and she doesn’t expect that to change. If anything, the delay could increase.

“We’re probably in the beginning stages of what could be shortages,” she said. “We have to remember that it’s a market that can’t be printed into existence like all the paper currencies. We have to wait for the mints to catch up.”

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