Why you should never, ever buy silver coins from the Franklin Mint

I was content to endure the Franklin Mint’s ads without considering the impact they have on consumers – until now…

Consider this my public service announcement for the week. You can boil it down to one commandment: “Don’t buy silver coins from the Franklin Mint.” Or – to make it simpler – “Don’t buy anything from the Franklin Mint.”

Fortunately, I don’t speak from experience, but I have seen the Mint’s ads on television and in magazines. They’re memorable in part because the company makes such a desperate attempt to look and sound like they represent the U.S. government without actually having a thing to do with the government. It’s almost like playing “Where’s Waldo?” Instead of searching for Waldo, though, you’re frantically searching for their disclaimer.

Still, I was content to endure their ads without considering the impact they might have on unwitting consumers until I read a recent Q&A in the Chicago Sun-Times titled “‘You’ve been snookered’ on silver coins purchase.”

In the article, a man who identifies himself as “DA in Troy, Mich.,” writes the paper in desperate need of help. He spent the past 25 years gobbling up “$47,000 in collectable silver coins and beautiful non silver coins from the Franklin Mint for my retirement.”

He did it because he thought “the scarcity and limited edition minting of these coins would drive up their value over the years and because I believed the silver content in the silver coins would also increase in value.” Now, he’s on the brink of retirement, and when he looked into selling the coins to a dealer, got offered $2,500 for the lot.

“DA in Troy” wouldn’t have even gotten offered that much if not for the fact that some of the coins he bought actually had silver in them.

“I don’t know of a single item produced by the Franklin Mint that can be sold today for its original cost,” financial columnist Malcolm Berko wrote in response to DA’s questions. “You overpaid for those coins by orders of magnitude. And you probably paid five or six times the value of the silver content for the silver coins you purchased. So while sliver has tripled in price since 1984, the silver value of those coins is still way less than your cost.”

As for the non-silver coins, Mr. Berko recommends that DA try selling them on eBay where he might get $100. It’s a sad story that reinforces one of our constant themes on this site: always do your own due diligence before making any investment decision. Reading a single blog post (even one of ours) and making a snap purchase of stocks or coins is a fast way to lose your hard-earned cash.

If you’re truly interested in investing in silver coins as a safe haven against an economic meltdown, I’d recommend Silver American Eagles (as sold by the U.S. Mint) or junk silver (pre-1965 U.S. quarters that contain 95 percent silver). Because both are quickly and easily verified as real silver, they’re easy to sell. You’ll pay a slight premium over “spot silver prices,” but at least you can rest assured you won’t end up with a drawer full of junk.

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Expect volatility on the path to higher silver prices in 2012

After the 30 percent plunge in silver prices last week, where do analysts expect prices for the white metal to go by the end of the year?

You know things are going bad in the silver market when the U.S. Mint suspends sales of silver coins. The Mint announced on Monday that it was halting incoming orders for uncirculated American Silver Eagles sets so it can re-price the collector coins (per MineWeb). The move came on the heels of a 30 percent plunge in silver prices last week.

It was a perfect storm for precious metals last week. The CME Group announced new margin requirements for gold and silver on Friday, fears of a Greek debt default and a rally in the dollar all converged to push silver down from $40 to $28 an ounce in the span of five days.

It’s safe to say investors panicked, and – in their panic – showed yet again a preference for sitting on the sidelines in cash. That’s telling, as much of the investment demand for silver has been driven by fears of inflation and a debased dollar.

But what happens when every currency in the world is getting debased and commodities are falling, too? Investors don’t have much of a choice but to sell and wait for sunnier days. And some think it could be a while before we see sunnier days.

Even Eric Sprott – a billionaire hedge fund manager and founder of the Sprott Physical Silver Trust (NYSE:PSLV) and the Sprott Physical Gold Trust (NYSE:PHYS) – sounds nervous. In a recent interview with the Financial Post, he cited the fact that consumers just don’t have any cash to spend.

His evidence? Comments from Wal-Mart’s CEO Mike Duke who claims Wal-Mart shoppers are “running out of money” faster than they were a year ago. Duke cites Wal-Mart sales numbers that show customers are shopping at the first of the month (right when they get paid). After the first, sales drop precipitously.

“People’s incomes haven’t been going up, but their costs have,” Sprott told the Post. “It’s palpable what’s happening, and it’s not good.”

That’s not to say that Sprott’s advocating investors turn away from silver.

“Gold was the investment of the [past] decade, and I think silver will be the investment of this decade, so we’re trying to position ourselves to take advantage of that,” Sprott said in an interview with the Globe and Mail on Sept. 13.

He also argues that a Greek debt default would ultimately be a boon for gold and silver prices as it would lead to yet more currency debasement in Europe.

Where does that leave us in the short-term then? One of the few analysts who has went on record in recent days with an actual short-term price target for silver is Chris Thompson from Haywood Securities.

Thompson expects the gold-to-silver ratio to tighten this year, and he believes that will push silver prices up to $38 per ounce by the end of the year.

“Nonetheless, we caution that more sharp declines in silver prices, similar to that recently experienced, should not be ruled out, considering the volatile nature of silver prices and the relative ease with which ETF investors can exit the market,” Thompson says (per MineWeb).

As I said earlier in the week (see my post Silver prices setting up for “trade of a lifetime”?), I went long on the ProShares Ultra Silver ETF (NYSE:AGQ) on Monday. The paper-based silver ETF seeks to produce 200 percent of the daily returns for the price of silver.

Yes, there could be extreme volatility in the months to come, but the ultimate driver for the price of silver (currency debasement) hasn’t changed. And that means my outlook for silver prices hasn’t either.

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U.S. Mint rationing silver American Eagle coins… again

SilverCoinsToday.com has suspected that silver coin rationing has been going on since February. Now, it’s official.

Spiking demand for silver American Eagles has forced the U.S. Mint to ration sales of the bullion coins … again. Via a special allocation program announced last week (per ChristianPost.com), the Mint will restrict the number of Silver Proof coins authorized purchasers can buy.

Similar allocation measures have been implemented off and on since 2009 as the Mint struggles to meet demand. This comes despite a law mandating coin production “in quantities and qualities that the Secretary determines are sufficient to meet public demand.”

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

SilverCoinsToday.com, in fact, has suspected that silver coin rationing has tacitly been going on since February.

“In January this year Authorized Purchasers were buying 2011 Silver Eagles nearly every day,” the site reports, “but by March that sales trend changed. Daily sales updates became less frequent and weekly sales increases were capped at or very close to the 700,000 level after the week ending March 4.”

That could explain why we haven’t seen record-breaking sales numbers for the coins since the start of the year. In fact, January 2011 saw the most American Silver Eagle sales in history with the Mint offloading 6,422,000 of the coins, according to SilverCoinsToday.com. The next closest month came in November of 2010 when 4,260,000 American Eagles were sold.

Silver prices have risen more than 40 percent since the start of the year. That’s on top of a more than 80 percent gain in 2010. At some point, those high prices could start eating into demand for silver bullion coins, but for now, at least, it looks like the eagles are still flying high.

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Utah gold standard takes pot shot at the Federal Reserve

Utah’s new gold standard bill takes a symbolic jab at the Fed. And it’s a jab that’s representative of the pent up anger over the federal government’s fiscal irresponsibility.

Utah just got a lot of street cred by firing the first bullet in the war against the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policies. The state’s Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill into law last month that recognizes gold and silver coins issued by the U.S. Mint as legal tender in the state.

Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t go so far as letting you exchange gold and silver for goods and services based on the value of the underlying metal. Instead, Utah residents would have to use face value on the coins to purchase goods and services. That means people probably won’t be using Eagles to pay their mortgages or car payments (since the face value is far less than market value), but nonetheless it’s a symbolic jab at the Fed. And it’s a jab that’s representative of the pent up anger out there.

It’s not just Main Street that’s upset about government spending; it’s state governments, businesses and voters, too. And there are few voices speaking more loudly against rampant inflation than Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

“The gold standard would keep you from printing money and destroying the middle class,” Paul says. “Every country where you have runaway inflation, there’s no middle class. Mexico, there’s no middle class, you have a huge poor class, and a lot of wealthy people. Today we have a growing poor class, and we have more billionaires than ever before. So we’re moving into third world status.”

While Utah’s bill stops short of recognizing all forms of gold and silver as currency, it does contain a nice tax benefit. Utah investors who buy and sell gold and silver coins for investment purposes no longer have to pay state capital gains taxes on the metal.

A number of other states appear to be following Utah’s lead by introducing their own gold and silver currency bills. Georgia and Iowa have put forth legislation that would mandate state taxes be paid in gold and silver, according to MotherJones. Indeed, more than a dozen states have floated or are in the process of debating alternative currency bills.

It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m still not convinced we’ll start seeing progress until banks are allowed to issue gold- and silver-backed debit cards that can electronically exchange bullion for U.S. dollars at checkout terminals.

I wrote about just such a scheme recently in my post How would a gold standard work in the 21st Century? It’s Utopian thinking right now, but if the government can’t rein in spending before we’re subject to runaway inflation, I suspect I wouldn’t be the only one who would sign up for a gold- or silver-backed debit card.

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