|Issue #131 • September/October, 2011|
When I was a teenager, a gallon of gasoline was about 25 cents and so was a loaf of bread. Now, each costs around $4. However, there are gas stations today (one is in Medford, Oregon) that will sell you a gallon or more of gas for a mere 25 cents — but only if that quarter is a pre-1965 “junk silver” quarter. They call those pre-1965 silver dimes, quarters, and halves “junk silver” because, having been circulated, they are worn and have no real numismatic (coin collecting) value. But they are far from “junk” as each coin is 90% silver, and silver is becoming more and more valuable.
If money becomes worthless, and it’s becoming worth less and less every day, possessing junk silver currency in a collapsed economy may bump you to the head of the line for medical services, food, or for a host of other goods and services for your family. There may come a day when $100 face value in junk silver coins are worth 400 or more gallons of gas. In a car that gets 25 m.p.g., that can be at least 10,000 miles of travel. On the other hand, it can be more than 400 loaves of bread for your family to eat or maybe 500 to 600 cans of soups and veggies.
Though large corporations, like the electric company, may not be able to take your silver (bureaucracies will have rules and their employees have little latitude to make decisions), the guy who owns the local gas station, the bakery, the grocery store, or even your doctor can and, if he or she is any kind of businessman, will value silver over the “legal tender” the Federal Reserve is passing off nowadays.
As I write this, pure silver is worth about $36 a troy ounce (see sidebar on “Weights.”) and $1 face value of junk silver has about .715 ounces of silver, the same purchasing power as approximately $25 in Federal Reserve Notes. (That’s the funny green stuff that’s in your wallet now.)
A hedge against inflation
Junk silver is a good hedge against inflation, which we are now experiencing in almost every area, especially at the supermarket.
One of the few areas in economy where deflation, rather than inflation, is occurring is in the housing market, which is why the U.S. Government is able to claim that the U.S. inflation rate is low. Of course, they neglect to say that for the first time in history, they have included depressed housing costs in the formulae they use to calculate inflation.
Inflation is now hitting us harder than it has in three decades and the price of silver, gold, and practically everything else has taken off. When the latest rise in the price of silver started a few months ago, I discovered I only had about $115 in face value in junk silver stashed away. Today I’ve got more than double that and I’ll buy more as the price drops back.
How much junk silver?
How much junk silver should someone own for bad times? The answer, of course, depends on your circumstances. I’d like at least $300 to $400 worth. However, if you’re just beginning, you should only consider buying junk silver after you’ve laid in food, medical supplies, and whatever tools — including guns and ammunition — you feel you may need for the circumstances you and your family are in.
If you haven’t bought junk silver before, you’re going to encounter several issues.
The first is that you’re going to pay a premium of some sort to get it. But given its potential value in bad times, it’ll be worth it. Besides, other factors I’ll mention later will likely make your silver appreciate more and compensate you for the cost of the premium.
The second problem is the same problem all precious metals have: They are not “productive investments,” that is, they don’t earn interest, nor do they pay dividends. They are inflation hedges and “real” cash as the dollar declines. If it weren’t for those two factors, I wouldn’t buy it.
Which junk silver coins?
The junk silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars are an alloy made of 90% silver and 10% copper, as are the new “proof” coins.
When originally made, $1 face value — that is, ten dimes, four quarters, two halves, five dimes and two quarters, or any other combination that adds up to $1 — contained .7234 troy ounces of silver. Today, because of wear and tear, the convention is that $1 face value contains about .715 ounces. In other words, it’s assumed that the average silver coin has lost about 1.16% of its mass and, therefore, 1.16% of its silver.
Still, coins of the same denomination do not all weigh the same. Older dimes weigh less than newer dimes, and so on.
To ascertain the weight differences, I decided to buy a scale and weigh my own junk silver coins. I bought an RCBS 505 reloading scale which has a capacity of 511 grains. (One troy ounce is 480 grains.) “But,” I asked myself, “how will I know for sure that my scale is accurate even after zeroing it?” So, after spending $112 for the scale and shipping, I spent more than $100 for a set of Class 6 calibration weights and discovered my scale is accurate to about one part in 4800, all the way out to one troy ounce, accurate enough for what I’m doing.
I expected to find quite a bit of variation in coin weights, with the older coins — those which have been circulated longer and have seen the most wear — to weigh less than the newer coins. What I wasn’t expecting was the amount of variation in weight within the same year of issue, even when the coins showed no wear. Quite a few people didn’t believe this could be true. They felt, as I had before I used my scale, that coins fresh from the Mint should all weigh “the same.” They don’t. Fresh from the Mint, silver quarters should weigh about 96.45 grains. But the 40 uncirculated 2005 Kansas State quarters I have weigh from as little as 95.2 to as much as 99.1 grains. That’s as much as 1.3% less to as much as 3% more. That’s quite a range of error. I can only attribute it to the fact that the blanks from which the coins are pressed are not uniformly thick. Later, I would discover that the new Silver Eagle bullion coins, uncirculated, average about .5% more than spec and virtually all 40 that I own are overweight.
And this is not a new phenomenon. I’ve got some old dimes, quarters, and halves which are actually heavier than spec, even though they show more than 20 years of wear.
I’d avoid the older coins like the Barber dimes, quarters, and halves (so named because they were designed by Charles Barber, head engraver for the Mint, and circulated from 1892 to 1916). The Barber coins I have show anywhere from more than 8% wear to almost 14% wear. That’s 8 to 14% less silver, but you won’t be paying less for them. You may even be paying an added premium because they’re “old.”
The same goes for the “Standing Liberty” quarters. They show excessive amounts of wear.
Part of the wear on the old coins is because of their age, but part is due to their intricate designs. The so-called “Standing Liberty” quarters are among the prettiest coins the Mint ever produced, but the raised edges and intricate detail wore off fast. The figures blurred and detail wore away. Frequently, the dates were obliterated. With all that wear, silver disappeared.
Personally, I think the old “Walking Liberty” half dollars, designed by Adolph Weinman, are the most beautiful design for any of the silver coins the Mint has ever made. But, with all that detail, wear was inevitable. So I wouldn’t get too many of them unless the premium is low or you like them just because they look cool.
I should add that the Walking Liberty design has been returned on the Silver Eagle bullion coins the Mint has made since 1986. However, the beautiful eagle which appeared on the reverse side of the Walking Liberty half was not carried over to the Silver Eagle. The Silver Eagle has a much duller eagle on the reverse side.
Later silver coins, those from the ’50s and ’60s — these include Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters, and the Franklin and ’64 Kennedy halves — don’t show that much wear because soon after the Mint replaced silver coins with the modern (and almost worthless) “clad” coins in 1965, shoppers rapidly gleaned the silver coins from circulation. Thus, many of those coins, though over a half-century old, often look almost like new and even the worn ones have lost less than 1% of their weight. Another reason these coins show less wear is because, unlike earlier coins, they have less intricate detail, so there’s that much less to be abraded off.
As a result of my “studies,” I try to stick to Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters (especially those from the mid-50s to 1964), almost any of the Franklin halves, and all the 1964 Kennedy halves.
Where to buy
I won’t tell you where to buy your silver because prices, shipping costs, and other costs are constantly in flux.
I’ve found local stores, both coin stores and some antique stores, with fair prices, but some online stores and some local stores are grossly overpriced. One antique store in Coos Bay, Oregon, is selling junk silver for just over spot (the price of a commodity such as an ounce of gold or silver at that very moment), but another, just a few miles away in North Bend, was asking $4.50 for Mercury dimes — ridiculously overpriced — and buying them from the public for $1.70. Not a bad racket if you can pull it off.
I suggest googling “junk silver” online and visiting some of the sites to see who’s offering the best deals. Lately, I’ve been buying mine from www.providentmetals.com, but I keep checking prices at other sites.
To figure out what kind of premium you’re paying on junk silver, divide the price of $1 face value of the 90% silver coins by .715 and you’ll see what you’re paying for the silver content. Today, not including any shipping, I can buy $1 face value in Franklin halves from one online site for $26.32. Dividing that by .715, I see I’m getting the silver content for $36.81/oz. At the moment, that’s 80 cents over the spot price of silver. Not a bad deal, especially when I buy enough so that the shipping is free.
I don’t have much to do with the so-called war nickels, coins made with 40% silver which include the Kennedy halves made from 1965 to 1971 and the Eisenhower “S” dollars made from 1971 to 1976. If I find a really good deal on them, I may buy some. For the moment, I’m keeping the ones I’ve collected from my change the last 40 years, but I’m not buying any.
Silver bullion coins
Although everyone’s survival larder should contain junk silver coins, you may decide to consider silver bullion, too. If so, consider the Silver Eagle “dollar” coins made by the U.S. Mint. They contain one ounce of .999 fine silver. Though they are designated as dollar coins (because, by law, all coins issued by the government must have denominations on them), they are worth whatever an ounce of silver is currently going for which, today, is about $36. And, yes, I have some.
But there are two problems with Silver Eagles. First is that, like the new silver proof coins, they are not as recognizable to the general public as junk silver is and this may make them more difficult to spend in hard times.
The second problem is a more difficult one to deal with: Silver Eagles are now being counterfeited, in China among other places, and as they become more valuable, expect the quality of the counterfeits to improve.
Many people are also investing in silver bullion rounds (they look like coins) and bars made by private mints. I’m not. The trouble with them is that they are going to be more difficult to spend because they are unlikely to be recognized by the general public, and to sell them they generally need some kind of authentication. In the meantime, like the Silver Eagles, they are and will continue to be counterfeited.
If you’re going to put money in bullion, make it separate from the junk silver coins that you can be sure are going to be spendable, if and when the world goes to pot.
Americans are always going to recognize dimes, quarters, and halves, and junk silver coins, especially those that have seen years of circulation, and they are going to be difficult to fake.
When to buy
The price of silver is high, just now, and though I wish I had laid in my stash when it was a lot cheaper, I’m going to buy about $10 face value each month for the next year. However, I believe there’s a “correction” coming and the price will come down. And if the spot price goes below $33 an ounce, I’m going to buy a little more than $10 face value each month. How much more depends on how low the price goes.
So, how low do I think it might go? I think the spot price of silver will dip back into the $20 to $30-per-ounce range and there’s a remote chance it’ll visit the teens, one more time. But don’t wait for that. It may not happen.
What about gold?
Gold is good. But the biggest problem with holding gold is that it’s difficult to spend. Unless you’re buying a large-ticket item or making a massive purchase of food, guns, ammo, etc., how do you get change? If a guy wants junk silver quarters for a few gallons of gas, I can easily fill my tank with some silver change. I can’t as readily do that with gold.
Also, if you’re like me and you’ve only got a little money to spend, start with junk silver. Right now, for $1500 I can get about $55 face value in silver or a 1-ounce piece of gold bullion. Tell me which one you think is more useful.
Silver will outpace inflation
With the recent bailouts, during which the Federal Reserve Bank poured about $11 trillion into our economy to bail out its Wall Street cronies, the value of the American dollar is going to decline faster than it ever has. There is no way that that amount of money, created out of thin air, can be introduced into our economy without creating inflation, and inflation is going to guarantee that, over the long run, your stash of junk silver will become worth more in Federal Reserve Notes. Inflation is not going to go away.
Theoretically, the rise in the price of gold or silver will, over the long run, stay in step with inflation. (In the short run, it doesn’t.) But there are other forces which, over the long run, may make your stash of junk silver go up even faster than inflation and even faster than gold. This is what will make the premium you have to pay for your silver today less painful tomorrow.
One of the forces that will make silver’s price rise is that silver is in demand because it has a multitude of industrial and consumer uses. Silver conducts heat and electricity better than any other metal. Because of this, it’s used in the production of computers, cell phones, monitors, chips, automobiles, etc., and more uses are being found every day. Sometimes a lot is used, but usually it’s very little. But even in minute amounts, millions of computers, monitors, cell phones, etc., add up to a lot of silver.
Silver is also valuable for use in the purification of water and air, and it’s got antibacterial properties. It has uses for which no decent substitutes have yet been found. Modern civilization just wouldn’t be the same without this precious metal. And because of the way it’s used in such small amounts in so many industrial products, it’s often not economical to recycle, so it’s lost.
With roughly a third of the world’s population between them, both China and India are industrializing and both are trying to provide more consumer products to their citizens. One commentator has pointed out that about 10 years ago, the per capita consumption of silver in China was a mere 1/70th of that in the West. But now, they’re catching up.
In the meantime, the world’s supply of new silver has not kept pace with silver consumption. Since 1990, more silver has been consumed every year than has been produced. To make up for the shortfall, silver reserves have been depleted and the price of silver has increased — well ahead of inflation.
In the future, the world’s two most populous countries are going to be eating up gobs of the metals as both their industrial bases and consumer demands increase.
And if that’s not enough, China is finally allowing its people to own silver bullion. Until recently, private ownership of the metal was illegal. There are roughly 1.33 billion people in China and even if you take only a small percentage of that figure taking possession of silver for savings, numbers like that can do nothing but drive up the cost of this precious metal.
All of these reasons and more are going to drive up the demand on silver and, along with it, its cost, promising to make your silver stash more valuable to you in bad times.