June 21, 2024

For Silver, This Time It’s Different

To many investors with a sense of history, the four most dangerous words are “this time it’s different”. The phrase is usually evoked in an attempt to justify why a huge price gain in a particular asset class can continue to defy common sense and historical valuation norms. A surfeit of explanations on why “this time is different” is usually enough to send seasoned investors to the exits.

Silver, having defied the low expectations of many investors, has now seen a monster rally of 392% from $8.88 in October 2008 to the recent market price of $43.67. The pace of the advance has gone almost vertical with silver gaining 60% from the lows of late January.

Long term silver investors no doubt remember the aftermath of the last rapid run up in silver prices to $48.70 in January 1980. Silver prices collapsed shortly thereafter and ultimately slid to the $5 range where it remained throughout the 1990’s. Silver dropped off the radar for most investors and remained dead money for 25 years before decisively breaking out of a very long base in early 2006.

Will history repeat with another meltdown in silver prices at some near point in the future, or is the rise in silver prices indicative of a major trend change in our economic future? I have never believed that the mechanical application of past price trends was a useful tool for predicting the future. Each point is history is unique with new players and new sets of circumstances. Understanding today’s fundamentals are far more important than ascribing importance to past events that are largely irrelevant.

To understand why silver prices are in the initial stages of a long term super cycle advance rather than a replay of the 1980’s, it is necessary to review the differences of the late 1970’s compared to our current situation. Gold and silver both advanced in the 1970’s as a booming, demand driven economy fueled inflation. The huge cost of financing the Vietnam War, low employment and surging wages all contributed to a steadily rising rate of inflation which peaked at 13.5% in 1981. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker finally stopped inflation dead in its tracks through a series of massive interest rate increases which brought the prime rate to a high of 21.5% in mid 1981. High interest rates caused a severe recession but by 1983, the rate of inflation had collapsed to 3.2%.

Both gold and silver moved dramatically higher during the inflation surge of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s but the meteoric rise in silver prices was driven by specific events. Wealthy brothers Nelson and William Hunt acquired a massive position in silver in an attempt to corner the market. Prices skyrocketed on the news and silver went from $11 per ounce in late 1979 to $48.70 in early 1980. Regulators did not take kindly to market manipulation and margin requirements on commodities were dramatically raised. The Hunt brothers’  ill conceived attempt to drive silver prices higher collapsed along with their net worth. Silver prices plunged to less than $11 per ounce within two months. The last great silver “bull market” lasted less than six months, driven not by fundamental demand but rather by heavily leveraged speculators.

Fast forward 30 years – the finances of governments worldwide have reached the tipping point under ballooning debt levels and massive deficits. Additional borrowing by insolvent nations to rollover debt simply delays the day of reckoning – more debt is not the solution for too much debt.

The message from the gold and silver markets is clear – governments have reached the limits on borrowing and the day of debt Armageddon is approaching. The accelerating exodus from paper assets to historical stores of value is only in its initial stages as desperate governments take desperate measures to stay afloat (see Smart Money Sees The Perfect Storm for Gold and Silver).

The great debt bubble of the United States and much of the rest of the world is reaching its end game as creditors realize that a stealth default of some type is inevitable via a combination of inflation, money printing, currency debasement and/or negative interest rates.  Nor is it likely that S&P’s lowered outlook on U.S. government debt to negative from stable will have any affect on reining in ballooning U.S. debt (see Why There Is No Upside Limit To Gold and Silver Prices).

From a long term perspective, perhaps this time is not different but simply a replay of the history of currencies backed only by the “full faith and credit” of governments.  Voltaire had this to say regarding fiat money – “Paper money eventually returns to its intrinsic value – zero”.

Gold and Silver: Investment Differences

Gold just had an amazing year, in which it reached a new all time high, rising about 25%. Silver provided an even more stellar performance, with a gain of about 75% and counting. It’s no wonder then, that more and more investors are becoming interested in the potential offered by silver.

One of the most pronounced differences between gold and silver is the price per ounce. Gold is currently around $1,400 per ounce, while silver is at $30. The difference has not always been so large.

The gold-silver ratio, or the number of ounces of silver it takes to buy one ounce of gold, is currently around 47:1. Historically, this ratio has been around 16:1, which closely corresponds to the ratio of gold to silver within the earth’s crust. Thus on an absolute basis, the difference in price is justified, but not to such a degree as current prices have suggest.

Another key difference between gold and silver is the price volatility. While gold has enjoyed a string of ten straight years of annual gains, silver’s price performance has not been as constant. Some years have been downright disastrous, such as the 27% drop silver experienced during 2008. From the start of the year to the low, silver had experienced a decline of nearly 40%. During 2008, gold had booked a 4.32% gain, with a maximum decline of 14.54% from the start of the year.

Finally, while gold and silver are both metals that store value, silver has been long served as an industrial metal. The recent case for gold demand has been as a hedge against inflation or a safe harbor from fiat currencies. Demand from these factors has offset declines in demand from gold jewelry, which has historically been the predominant source of demand. Silver, on the other hand, can serve in a dual capacity, with possible appreciation in value in times of both economic distress and prosperity.

Silver’s roles may be expanding once again, as it is starting to be utilized for its antibacterial qualities.

With an impressive year nearly in the books, the story for silver seems hardly over. Next year might be telling as to whether silver will continue to make progress in catching up with the historic ratios and start to challenge the label of “poor man’s gold.”

America the Beautiful Silver Bullion Coins Relaunch with Price Controls

After putting the program on hold earlier this week, today the United States Mint has relaunched the eagerly awaited America the Beautiful Silver Bullion Coins. If primary distributors wish to purchase the coins from the Mint, they must agree to a new set of terms and conditions, which includes price caps and very specific guidelines for distribution.

Despite extremely limited mintages of only 33,000 coins per design, the coins technically represent a bullion series. By law, the coins must be distributed through the United States Mint’s authorized purchaser network. A small group of 11 primary distributors are able to purchase the coins directly from the Mint based on the market price of silver plus a mark up of $9.75 per coin.

When one of the distributors started charging considerably more than their cost, customer complaints prompted the US Mint to put the program on hold.

The series has relaunched today with a new set of terms and conditions for authorized purchasers.

1.  Authorized Purchasers shall make available for sale to the public all 2010 America the Beautiful Silver Bullion Coins that they acquire.  The intention of this condition is to ensure that all 2010 America the Beautiful Silver Bullion Coins minted and issued by the United States Mint are sold to the public.

2.  Authorized Purchasers may charge to their customers a price no higher than ten percent above the price at which the Authorized Purchasers acquire 2010 America the Beautiful Silver Bullion Coins from the United States Mint.  Authorized Purchasers may charge their customers a reasonable shipping and handling fee; however, Authorized Purchasers may not charge any other fee, premium, or other expense to their customers to circumvent this ten-percent markup limitation.  The intention of this condition is to ensure that members of the public can obtain these coins at a reasonable and affordable purchase price.

3.  Authorized Purchasers must establish and enforce an order limit of one coin of each design for each household.  A household is defined as all persons of a family, or living as a family, at a single mailing address.  The intention of this condition is to ensure the broadest and fairest public accessibility to 2010 America the Beautiful Silver Bullion Coins, which are limited-mintage United States Mint products.

4.  Authorized Purchasers may not sell, either directly or indirectly, 2010 America the Beautiful Silver Bullion Coins to their officers or employees.  The intention of this condition is to ensure that 2010 America the Beautiful Silver Bullion Coins are available to the public and that Authorized Purchaser officers and employees do not have an unfair advantage over members of the public.

Although there was definitely a problem with the distribution system in this particular situation, by imposing price controls, the US Mint is treading into dangerous waters. There may be future implications for the authorized purchaser system and average consumers seeking to invest in gold or silver bullion.

Back in late 2008, the price of silver had plummeted to less than $10 per ounce. The rush to buy physical silver resulted in supply shortages, which pushed premiums to around 50% even for typically low premium products like 100 oz. silver bars. The United States Mint’s American Silver Eagle bullion coins were typically sold for a $4.50 per coin premium or more.

This represented a mark up greater than 10% above the cost to the primary distributors who, at the time, were able to buy the coins directly from the Mint at a $1.40 per coin premium. There weren’t many complaints to the Mint, presumably because all silver bullion products were priced at similar premiums.

The next time there is a silver supply shortage and premiums start to rise, will the US Mint seek to impose price controls for Silver Eagle bullion coins? How do you think that will work out?

Silver Market Correcting or Crashing?

Despite predictions of the silver market’s strength, prices fell from an impressive 30 year high of $30.68 recently. As of the today, COMEX silver futures have fallen about 7% from their recent peak

Likewise, the silver ETF experienced a similar fall in higher volume. From its intraday high of $30.00, it has fallen below $28.00 on higher volume.

It seems like, for the moment at least, silver prices are falling. Will they rise again? And why?

Strong Holdings vs. Falling Prices

In reality, the news is conflicting. After all iShares Silver Trust is the world’s largest silver backed exchanged traded fund and it has just reported reaching an impressive record. On the 7th, it announced that holdings had reached a record 10,941.34 tons, up from 10,816.69 tons on the 6th.

The question is: has silver regained its strength? Is the market simply correcting? Or are we about to experience a major collapse in silver prices despite expert predictions of strength and growth? In any case, how should investors respond to its new movements?

Silver Shortage?

In the end, the best thing investors can do to protect themselves is to simply be careful. Its important to be mindful of the many pressures that the market is under, as well as the predictions of its potential long-term growth. Silver has been sold past the point of availability and as a result significant shortages of the physical metal are developing.

This is in part due to attempts at manipulation that have recently begun to turn on the manipulators. Companies that have traded silver futures in an effort to keep prices low are now being stressed by the rising investor interest in silver. As a result it seems clear that the short-term silver market is about to get truly exciting.