The real reason 2013 Silver Eagles hit an all-time high in January

The U.S. Mint probably isn’t the best gauge of market demand for silver. It’s too easily overwhelmed by demand, and that pushes sales forward into months when demand could otherwise have been low.

Because the silver investment market is so small, it’s particularly vulnerable to hype. That’s exactly what the commodities research firm CPM Group thinks is happening now as investors trumpet the “incredible” demand for silver coins in January. While the U.S. Mint did announce all-time sales records for 2013 silver eagles in January (with 7,498,000 coins sold), CPM Group argues that’s just a hold-over of pent-up demand from earlier in the winter.

“All of this talk about a shortage of silver is irrational and not supported by readily available market data,” CPM Group says in its latest report.

Specifically, the company cites worries over the Fiscal Cliff in November and December as driving up demand for American Eagles. Since the Mint sold-out of coins in both November and December, that demand rolled forward into January driving sales up to record levels.

CPM Group’s been painting a pretty bleak picture of silver prices going forward. The commodities research firm believes prices will head lower over the next decade (through 2022) rather than higher as most silver price prognosticators would have you believe.

I’m not ready to make that assumption, but there are lessons to be learned from CPM Group. Mainly that the U.S. Mint isn’t the best gauge of market demand for silver. It’s too easily overwhelmed by demand, and that pushes sales forward into months when demand could have otherwise been low.

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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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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How to buy silver coins cheaply

From buying in bulk to using special online search services, you can probably find silver coins cheaper than you thought online.

1) Buy in bulk. If you want to get the best possible price on silver bullion coins, consider stashing your cash, waiting for a pull-back in prices and buying a bulk lot. Some web sites offer reduced pricing for bulk silver coin purchases. In the image below, I’ve taken a sample of GoldSilver.com‘s bulk pricing rates for Silver American Eagles as of Sept. 6, 2001:

As you can see above, if you purchase 10,000 silver American Eagles, you stand to save more than $20,000. Not bad! If you don’t have the cash to buy silver coins in bulk, consider partnering up with friends or family to place a larger order than you could on your own.

2) Buy direct from third-party sellers. eBay and Amazon have become two of the most popular places for consumers to sell silver coins directly to other consumers. Prices can be hit-or-miss depending on who’s selling when. As of this writing, for instance, Amazon sellers have listed silver American Eagles for as low as $50. That’s pretty high compared to some specialty online coin vendors, so you’ll want to check Amazon and eBay frequently. When sellers list coins at low prices, they get snatched up quickly.

3) Roam your local flea market. While it’s hit-or-miss, you might come across great deals at garage sales, community sales and flea markets. Most flea markets have specialty coin booths that are set up year-round, but you’ll probably find better deals if you stumble across an individual who just happened to set up for the weekend and has a coin or two to sell (along with a whole lot of junk from his or her garage). For most investors, this approach isn’t worth the effort, but if you’re already at a sale, it doesn’t hurt to keep your eyes open. If you stumble across a silver coin you’d like to buy, don’t be afraid to haggle.

4) Do a search on Google Products. I’m always surprised at the number of people who don’t know about or use Google Product Search when doing comparison shopping. The service lets you type in a keyword (like “Silver American Eagle 1 Oz. Coins”), and it’ll show you list prices for that product from vendors around the Internet. It’s a great place to find sellers you might not have otherwise discovered.

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How to sell your silver jewelry and silver coins

If you’re looking to cash in on your silverware, silver jewelry or silver coins, there are a number of options for selling from silver selling parties to your local pawnshop.

Even though silver prices are well off their recent highs near $50 an ounce, silver’s still up more than 15 percent since the start of the year. Currently, the white metal’s worth $35 an ounce. If you’re looking to cash in on your silverware, silver jewelry or silver coins, there are a number of options for selling:

1) Pawnshops, coin shops or jewelry shops. The easiest and fastest way to sell you silver is to stop by a pawnshop, coin shop or jewelry shop. Keep in mind that you won’t get the so-called “spot price” for your precious metals for several reasons: 1) Gold and silver shops have to make a profit re-selling the scrap they buy from you; 2) It costs money to melt down scrap gold and silver before re-selling it; 3) Spot prices are quoted for “pure” or “fine” precious metals, and most jewelry, silverware and scrap isn’t pure.

If you have the time and energy, it can definitely pay to shop around. Don’t be afraid to ask a prospective buyer what the weight and “purity rating” is for your scrap silver. You can then take that information and call several other shops in your area to see if they’ll out-bid your first offer.

2) Coin shops. Coin shops typically buy scrap gold and silver in addition to coins. Keep in mind, though, that some silver coins are collectible, and that means they might be worth more than their weight in gold or silver. This is particularly true of Silver American Eagles, which are issued by the U.S. Mint and have a slight mark-up over the spot price of silver since they’re easily recognizable as real silver. “Proofs” or circulated silver coins have even more of a mark-up over circulated coins. In general, if you have gold or silver coins to sell, it’s best to try to sell them to a coin dealer rather than a pawnshop or jewelry shop as they have built-in channels to re-sell your silver coins.

3) eBay/online sales. eBay has a thriving marketplace for silver coins and – in some cases – scrap silver. Keep in mind, though, you’ll need to have a strong seller rating so that prospective buyers feel comfortable sending you cash. If you’re just starting out on eBay, don’t expect to get many bids on your silver until you’ve sold several items and received positive feedback from past buyers.

In general, you’ll get much better rates selling silver coins via eBay than you will taking them to a local coin, jewelry or pawn shop (right now, for instance, spot silver is quoted at $35 an ounce, while Silver American Eagles are selling for $45 each on eBay). That said, you’ll have to factor in the time it takes to photograph, list and ship your silver products. Pay special attention to eBay’s seller fees, too, and protect yourself by shipping your silver via insured and certified mail (two additional expenses that will also eat into your profits).

You can also consider selling your silver via an online or paper-based classifieds service (think Craigslist.org). It might take you longer to find a buyer, but you won’t have to pay fees and – if you have the luxury of time – you can wait until you find a buyer who’s willing to pay the price you want.

4) Host a silver party. A small company out of Massachusetts called Party of Gold, has basically put gold- and silver-buying parties on the map. Host a party at your house, and sell your own silver to the Party of Gold representative and help your friends do the same. Not only will you make money on the silver you sell, you’ll get 5 percent of the value of the silver your friends sell, too (and 10 percent of all the gold that sells). It’s a great way to make some pocket money and have fun with your friends.

Ultimately, the route you decide to go when selling your silver will come down to how much time you have to put into it. Keep in mind, though, silver prices aren’t set in stone. The value of any asset, after all, is what someone is willing to pay for it. With a little work, you can find the right buyer, and pad your pockets in the process.

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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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Silver Thursday, the Hunt Brothers, and the collapse of a precious metal

On a single day in March of 1980, silver prices fell more than 30 percent. Now known as Silver Thursday, could the same thing happen today?

After bottoming around $27 an ounce in January of this year, the price of silver has roared up 60 percent to $43.05. The see-saw trading has me looking back on one of the worst trading days in history of silver. It’s a day so infamous it has its own name: Silver Thursday.

On a single day of trading in 1980, the price of silver plunged from $15.80 to $10.80 – a decline of more than 31 percent! Those are the sort of moves that can wipe out a brokerage or Forex account in the blink of an eye. What exactly caused Silver Thursday and are we vulnerable to such declines again?

The Causes of Silver Thursday

Convinced that the United States’ loose monetary policies were going to lead to inflation, Herbert and Nelson Hunt – the sons of a wealthy oil tycoon – were convinced paper currencies would soon give way to metals-backed paper. In particular, they thought silver was grossly undervalued, so they set about accumulating it – lots and lots of it. Throughout the 1970s, they gathered up $4.5 billion of silver in bullion and futures contracts. By some accounts, that was fully one third of the world’s entire supply of silver (excluding silver held by governments, which rarely enters the free market).

The situation was so dire that Tiffany & Co. took out an ad in the New York Times in March of 1980: “We think it is unconscionable for anyone to hoard several billion, yes billion, dollars worth of silver and thus drive the price up so high that others must pay artificially high prices for articles made of silver from baby spoons to tea sets, as well as photographic film and other products” (per Time magazine).

Tiffany was responding to what – by all accounts – was one of the most violent upswings in commodities prices in history. In 1979, silver bullion prices rose from $6 an ounce to a high of $48.70 – a gain of more than 700 percent in a year.

Silver Thursday and the Hunt Brothers

Tiffany was just one of the Hunt brothers’ enemies. The U.S. government smelled a secret attempt at cornering the market in silver (though the Hunts would always deny that was their goal). On Jan. 7, 1980, commodities regulators were given the go-ahead to halt the creation of new long positions in silver futures.

Shorts started piling into the trade and the price of silver began to fall. Because the Hunts were heavily invested in silver on margin, falling prices led to a series of a margin calls in their trading account. The Hunts met these diligently through March.

With little respite from falling silver prices, though, it was inevitable that the time would come when the Hunts could no longer meet a margin call. That fateful day came on March 27, 1980 – what we now know as Silver Thursday. Rumors surfaced that morning that the Hunts had a one-billion-dollar margin call they couldn’t meet. The truth was, they had a $100 million margin call. The actual dollar amount mattered little. Full-scale panic hit the pit and commodities markets.

Failing to meet a margin call is failing to meet a margin call, and the Hunt name was besmirched. No one would lend the brothers money to meet the call, and the price of silver plunged from $15.80 to $10.80, according to 24HGold.com. Other stocks and commodities sold off, too (though they would quickly recover), as traders feared an all-out collapse of some of the country’s largest financial institutions. Silver Thursday had arrived, and the Hunt fortune would never be the same again.

Indeed, it took nearly 10 years after Silver Thursday for the Hunt brothers to unwind all their silver positions. And the price of silver hasn’t come close to touching those highs in more than three decades – until now that is.

Will we see a repeat of Silver Thursday?

As I wrote yesterday, we’re just five trading days away from beating the all-time record high price for silver set in January of 1980. If current price trends for the metal continue, we could easily see $50 silver by June.

What are the odds we’ll see a repeat of Silver Thursday? The fact is, no one knows, but we do know this: silver’s more volatile than gold. Whatever happens to the yellow metal will be amplified in the price of silver. And right now, the primary driver for both metals is the ever-growing threat of inflation.

So long as that threat continues to grow, we’ll likely see higher silver prices. No one can say they won’t be another Silver Thursday, though. If the Fed signals that it’s planning to raise interest rates or end QE2 early watch out. It might not be the end of the bull market for metals, but it could be the start of a powerful correction.

Nimble traders can make money either way. At least one investor made out big on Silver Thursday the first time around. According to 24HGold.com, Occidental Petroleum’s chairman, Armand Hammer, made $119 million shorting silver. Don’t expect to see a similar collapse anytime soon, but don’t deny that it can’t happen. It did on March 27, 1980, and that days contains lessons for us all.

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How to buy America the Beautiful silver bullion coins

The full set of 2010 America the Beautiful silver bullion coins contain five ounces of silver each for a total of 25 ounces. With silver spot prices at $37.21, that’s $930.25 worth of silver. One authorized dealer in New York is selling the full set for just $18 more than that.

When the U.S. Mint started accepting orders from authorized dealers in December 2010, for its 2010 “America the Beautiful” silver bullion coins, the demand was overwhelming. Coin collectors reportedly offered authorized dealers “double spot value” to guarantee delivery of the coins, according to the Wall Street Journal.

All told, only 165,000 of the 0.999-fine silver bullion coins were minted, and now two authorized dealers are finally accepting orders for the coins from the public – and the prices are near spot price. One company, New York-based Jack Hunt Coin Broker Inc., is selling sets of the five coins for $949.00 ($860.20 plus $88.20 for shipping), according to SilverCoinsToday.

The full set is comprised of five coins, which contain five ounces of silver each for a total of 25 ounces. With silver spot prices at $37.21 at the time of this writing, that equals $930.25 worth of silver. That’s a premium of less than $1 an ounce for what will likely be a sought-after set of coins in the years to come.

The coins could prove particularly collectible as dealers expected the Mint to produce 100,000 coins for each design. Instead, the Mint produced 33,000 of each coin. “This went from being a bullion coin to being a limited-edition collectible,” Jeff Garrett, a rare gold coin expert and dealer, told the Journal in December.

The 2010 America the Beautiful silver bullion coin set features designs depicting national parks and other national sites. They include:

  • Hot Springs National Park, AR
  • Yellowstone National Park, WY
  • Yosemite National Park, CA
  • Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
  • Mt. Hood National Forest, OR

The coins also mark the first time since 1915 that the U.S. Mint is issuing silver bullion coins that include more than 1 ounce of silver. In the coming years, the Mint will offer more designs until its completed the 56-coin set. 2011’s set will feature the following parks and sites:

  • Gettysburg National Military Park, PA
  • Glacier National Park, MT
  • Olympic National Park, WA
  • Vicksburg National Military Park, MS
  • Chickasaw National Recreation Area, OK

In addition to Jack Hunt Coin Broker Inc., Manfra, Tordella & Brookes (MTB) is also accepting orders for sets of the 2010 America the Beautiful silver bullion coins. Their prices are higher, though, at $1,025.00 with shipping. To order the coins from Jack Hunt, visit www.jackhuntatb.com. After you’ve placed your order online, you’ll have to mail the company a money order for the retail price of the coins within seven days. To order the coins from MTB, call them at (800) 535-7481 for instructions.

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India silver price to outpace rise in gold?

A number of factors have vendors looking for big gains in India’s silver prices in 2011, gains that could easily outpace the rise of the price of gold.

Rapidly rising gold prices have made it more acceptable for Indian families to offer gifts of silver rather than gold at their daughters’ weddings. “Only poorest among the poor in India could have thought of buying silver jewelry for the marriage of their daughters some years back,” writes CommodityOnline. A number of factors are driving up demand for silver in India, though, and here are a handful of reasons why silver’s price rise might outpace gold’s in 2011:

1) The high cost of gold. At $1,430 per ounce, the cost of gold jewelry is moving out of reach for low-income Indians. “Silver has emerged as a fashion statement as many people find difficult and unrealistic to buy gold jewelry at these high prices,” John Luckose, the owner of a small gold and silver shop in Kochi, tells CommodityOnline.

2) Fresh investment demand. Year-over-year food inflation is running rampant in India. The rate, as measured by wholesale prices, topped 10 percent (10.05 percent) for the week ended March 12, according to The Economic Times. Inflation is also finding its way into prices for non-food items with manufactured goods inflation at 6.1 percent last month. As prices climb, silver coins and bars present an attractive, low-cost means of protecting assets.

3) The wrong sort of attention. Wearing flashy gold jewelry in India could be enough to get you mugged. “People fear wearing gold jewelry these days as high gold price has led to several incidents of gold jewelry snatching on streets,” Luckose says. “Many customers coming to us say that they feel comfortable wearing silver jewelry.”

4) Some boats rise faster than others. India is the world’s largest consumer of gold. It accounted for around 24 percent of world gold consumption, according to the World Gold Council and the Bombay Bullion Association, and demand for gold as an investment soared 73 percent last year. That sounds like a lot until you compare it to last year’s growth in demand for silver in India. Silver imports climbed more than six times 2009 levels in the first six months of 2010, according to commodities brokerage Karvy Comtrade. If that trend stays intact in 2011, silver’s price rise will likely dwarf gains in the price of gold.

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