Updated: April 30, 2013
I've often mused about how fun it would be to have a time machine and travel back to the early 1960s, and go on a pre-inflation shopping spree. In that era, most used cars were less than $800, and a new-in-the box Colt .45 Automatic sold for $60. In particular, it would be great to go back and get a huge pile of rolls of then-circulating US silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars at face value. (With silver presently around $30 per ounce, the US 90% silver (1964 and earlier) coinage is selling wholesale at 22 times face value--that is $22,000 for a $1,000 face value bag.)
The disappearance of 90% silver coins from circulation in the US in the mid-1960s beautifully illustrated Gresham's Law: "Bad Money Drives Out Good." People quickly realized that the debased copper sandwich coins were bogus, so anyone with half a brain saved every pre-'65 (90% silver) coin that they could find. (This resulted in a coin shortage from 1965 to 1967, while the mint frantically played catch up, producing millions of cupronickel "clad" coins. This production was so hurried that they even skipped putting mint marks on coins from 1965 to 1967.)
Alas, there are no time machines. But what if I were to tell you that there is a similar, albeit smaller-scale opportunity? Consider the lowly US five cent piece--the "nickel."
Unlike US dimes and quarters, which stopped being made of 90% silver after 1964, the composition of a nickel has essentially been unchanged since the end of World War II. It is still a 5 gram coin that is an alloy of 75% copper and 25% nickel. (An aside: Some 1942 to 1945 five cent coins were made with 35% silver, because nickel was badly-needed for wartime industrial use. Those "War Nickels" have long since been culled from circulation, by collectors.)
According to www.Coinflation.com, the 1946-2011 Nickel (with a 5 cent face value) had a base metal value of $0.0733 in February, 2011. That was 146.7% of its face value. Because of the global recession and the fact that both nickel and copper are primarily industrial metals, the melt value of a nickel declined to just $0.045671 (91.34% of face value). in April, 2013, and their actual minting and distribution costs are actually much higher. According to Coin Update, it cost the US Mint $0.1009 to produce and distribute each nickel, as of fiscal year 2013.But I predict that as inflation resumes--most likely beginning in 2013--the base metal value of nickels will rise substantially, regardless of the weakness in the industrial economy.
The Root of the Problem
It is inevitable that any country that issues a continually-inflated fiat paper currency will run into the problem of their coinage eventually having its base metal value exceed its face value. When this happens, it is one of those embarrassing "emperor's new clothes" moments. Unless a government takes the drastic step of lopping off a zero or two from their currency, this coinage problem is inevitable. In essence, we were robbed by our own government when silver coins were replaced with copper sandwich coins in the 1960s. I predict that essentially the same thing will soon to happen with nickels.
Helicopter Ben Bernanke will inflate his way out of the current liquidity crisis. through artificial lowering of interest rates, massive injections of liquidity, and monetization of the Federal debt. That can only spell one thing: inflation, and plenty of it. Mass inflation will mean much higher commodities prices (at least from the perspective of the US currency.)
Starting in 2009, I began warning my readers that a nickel debasement was coming. But since then, I've pleasantly surprised to see that the government moved at a snail's pace, in implementing the change. In February, 2010 it was announced that the Obama administration had endorsed a change in the metal composition of pennies and nickels. And then, in November 2010, President Obama signed "The Coin Modernization, Oversight, and Continuity Act of 2010". Then, in late 2011 came news of the introduction of H.R. 3694 (the Saving Taxpayer Expenditures by Employing Less Imported Nickel ACT -- aka the "STEEL Nickel Act". It now appears likely that the STEEL Nickel Act the will be signed into law in 2012 and the U.S. mint will begin producing debased steel nickels in 2013.
In January, 2012 this was reported: Mint begins trial strikes in composition tests. The good news is that the trials strikes are part of a two year study. (The contract runs through June 30, 2013.) So we may have some extra time to stockpile nickels before the debasement. Once this change is implemented, you will then have to manually sort the "old" from the "new" debased nickels! But for now, there is still an open window of opportunity, during which time SurvivalBlog readers can salt away countless rolls, bags, and boxes of nickels. I am grateful for the delay in the nickel debasement, but this window of opportunity is likely to close in 2013. Act accordingly.
Within just a few years, the base metal value of a nickel is likely to exceed two times ("2X") its face value. (10 cents each.) The nickel will then begin to disappear from circulation. (Gresham's Law is unavoidable.) Unlike the mid-1960s experience, the missing nickels will not cause a crisis, since pennies will suffice for making small change, and most vending machines now use dimes as their smallest purchase increment. Meanwhile, most bridge tolls and toll roads have inflated so that tolls are in 10 or 25 cent increments. The demise of the nickel will hardly cause a ripple in the news.
Unless the Treasury decides to drop the issuance of nickels entirely, the US Mint will within the next three years be forced to introduce a "new" nickel with a debased composition. It will possibly be stainless steel.
Update: After a two-year study, testing 80 different alloys, the United States Mint's findings on alternative metals were announced on December 14, 2012. In essence they've said: "We need more time." Here is the key line from the report summary: "The Mint has made significant progress and, at this time, has concluded that additional R&D is necessary before it can recommend any changes to the current coin composition." Here is a link to the full report.
Based on the biennial R&D report, the U.S. Congress will probably either delay making changes to the penny and nickel, or they may just suspend further production. (Following Canada's lead, with pennies.)
I found the following in the contractor's report:
"Stainless steels, despite the having an electrical conductivity that is about half that of cupronickel, were recommended for testing for the 5-cent coin. The ideal stainless steel for coinage would be non-ferromagnetic (so it would not be mistaken for a steel slug), have low flow stress (i.e., result in low striking loads), have excellent corrosion resistance and be comprised to the greatest extent practical of elements that are not as expensive as nickel. Nickel and molybdenum contents should be low to reduce costs. Austenitic stainless steels (3xx series) are preferred because they are non-ferromagnetic and thereby are more likely to be accepted by a majority of fielded coin-processing equipment."
So I stand by my assertion that unless the denomination is dropped altogether, the cupronickel five cent piece will be replaced by a stainless steel token. It now appears that the 301, 302, 302HQ, or 304 stainless steel alloys are the most likely choices. Perhaps they'll lean toward choosing 302HQ or 304, since they both include some nickel for Austenitizing. Hence, the bureaucrats could save some face and be able to claim that the new stainless steel slugs are still "nickels." But they'll still be just about worthless, compared to a real cupronickel nickel which contains more than five cents of base metal value. (See the details at the Coinflation web site.) The report cited a fully burden production cost (including base metal, tooling, labor and transportation) of 6.77 cents to produce each nickel out of stainless steel, but that is certainly an improvement over the current cost of 11.2 cents.
Why Not Pennies?
You may ask, why not accumulate 95% copper (pre-1982 mint date) pennies? They already seen a spike in their base metal value to 2.2 cents each. But unfortunately, pennies have two problems: confusion and bulk. They are confusing, because 95% copper pennies are now circulating side-by-side with 97.5% zinc pennies. They are also about four times as bulky (per dollar of face value) as nickels.
With nickels you won't have to spend time sorting out pre-1982 varieties. At present, visually date sorting pennies simply isn't worth your time. Although Ryedale Coin makes an automated density-measuring penny sorting machine, it is still very time consuming, and unless you have a lot of pennies to sort, it would take a long time for the machine to pay for itself. As background: The pre-1982 pennies recently had a base metal value of about $0.0295 each.) Starting in mid-1982, the mint switched to 97.5% zinc pennies that are just flashed with copper. Those presently have a base metal value of only about $0.0067 each.
Pennies are absurdly bulky and heavy to store. Nickels are also quite bulky, but are at least more manageable than pennies for a small investor's storage. (Storing pennies would take a tremendous amount of space and constitute a huge weight per dollar invested.)
The biggest advantage of nickels over pennies is that there is no date/composition confusion. At least for now, a nickel is a nickel. Even the newly-minted "large portrait" nickels have the same 75/25 cupronickel composition. But that is likely to change within just a couple of years. The US Mint cannot go on minting nickels at a loss much longer. My advice: start filling military surplus ammo cans with $2 (40 coin) rolls of nickels.
The standard U.S. military surplus .30 caliber size can is the perfect size for rolls of nickels. They will hold $188 of rolled nickels per can. Any larger containers would be difficult to move easily. (Avoid back strain!) Cardboard boxes are relatively fragile, and lack a carry handle. But ammo cans are very sturdy, have an integral handle, and they are relatively cheap and plentiful. They are available at military surplus stores and gun shows.
The current difference between a nickel's base metal value and its face value is fairly small, but trust me, it will grow! Someday, when nickels are worth 4X to 8X their face value, your children will thank you for it. Consider it an investment in your children's future.
In December of 2006, the US congress passed a law making it illegal to bulk export or melt down pennies and nickels. (It became illegal to do so, per a change to Title 31, Subtitle IV, Chapter 51, Subchapter II, Section 5111, U.S. Code.) But once the old composition pennies and nickels have been driven out of circulation, that is likely to change. In any case, once the base metal value exceeds face value by about 3X, an investor's market will develop, regardless of whether or not melting is re-legalized. Count on it.
What if Uncle Sam Decides to Drop a Zero?
As previously noted in SurvivalBlog, inflation of the US dollar has been chronic, cumulative, and insidious. So much so that turns of phrase from old movies like "penny candy" and "its your nickel" (to describe the cost of a call on a pay phone) now seem quaint and outdated. When inflation goes on long enough, the number of digits required to express a price grows too large. (As has been seen with the Italian lira, the Zimbabwean dollar, and countless other currencies. One whitewash solution to chronic inflation that several other nations have chosen is dropping one, two, or even three zeros from their currency, in an overnight revaluation, with a mandatory paper currency exchange. The history of the past century has shown that when doing so, most governments re-issue only new paper currency, but leave the old coinage in circulation, at the same face value. This is because the sheer logistics of a coinage swap would be daunting. Typically, this leaves the holders of coinage as the unexpected beneficiaries of a 10X, 100X.or even 1,000X gain of the purchasing power of their coins. Governments just assume that most citizens just have a couple of pocketfuls of coins at any given time. So if a currency swap were to happen while you are sitting on a big pile of nickels, then you would make a handsome profit. To "cash in", you could merely spend your saved nickels in the new currency regime.
How To Build Your Pile of Nickels
How can you amass a big pile-o-nickels? Obviously just saving the few that you normally receive as pocket change is insufficient. Here are some possibilities:
1.) If you live in a state with nickel slot machine gambling (such as Nevada or New Jersey), or near an Indian tribal casino with nickel slots, go to a casino frequently and buy $50 in nickels at a time. Do your best to look like a gambler when doing so, by carrying a plastic change bucket with a few nickels in the bottom.
2.) Obtain nickels in rolls from your friendly local bank teller. Most "retail" banks are already accustomed to handing over rolls of coins to private depositors because of collector demand for statehood commemorative quarters and the new presidential dollar coins. Ask for $20 or $30 of nickels in rolls each time that you visit to do your normal banking deposits or withdrawals. It is best to ask for new "wrapped" (fresh Federal Reserve Bank issue) rolls. This way, you might have the chance of getting rolls with valuable minting errors--such as "double die" strikes. These are usually noticed and publicized a few months after the fact, and can be quite valuable. You will also be assured that you are getting full 40 coin rolls. (Getting shorted with 38 or 39 coin rolls is possible with hand-rolled coins.) If the tellers ask why you want so many, you can honestly tell them: "I'm working on a collection for my children." (You need not tell them how large a collection it is!)
3.) If you live in or near an urban area and you operate a business, you can effectively "buy" rolled coinage at face value from your commercial bank. (They generally will not do any business with anyone unless they have an account.) It might be worth your while to on paper start a side business with "Vending Service" in its name, and have business cards and stationary printed up in that name. Have that "DBA" business entity name added to your commercial bank account. At a high-volume commercial bank you could conceivably buy hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of nickels on the pretense of stocking change for a vending business. Depending on your relationship with the bank, they may waive any fees if you ask for a few rolls of coins. Be advised, however, that if you ask for any significant quantity at one time, they will probably charge you a premium. (Down in the small print of your account contract, there is probably wording something like this: "Coin Issued - Per Roll: .03 Currency Issued - Per $ 100: .08" Before you cry "foul", be aware that the Federal Reserve actually charges your bank a small premium when they obtain wrapped rolls of coins. (Most folks have held to the convenient fiction that a paper dollar was the same as a dollar in change. Obviously, it isn't.) In effect, your commercial banker will just be passing along this cost to you. Unless they charge you a heavy fee, then don't worry about it. Ten years from now, when a $2 roll of nickel is worth $16, you'll be laughing about how you obtained $4,000 face value in nickels at just a small fraction over their face value.
4.) If you know someone that has a machine vending business, offer to buy all of their excess nickels once every month or two, by offering a small premium.
5.) If you operate a "mom and pop" retail business with a walk-in clientele, put up a small sign next to your cash register that reads: "WANTED: Rolls of nickels for my collection. I pay $2.25 per 40 coin ($2) roll, regardless of year!" Once the nickel shortage develops (as it inevitably will), you should raise you premium gradually, to keep a steady stream of coin rolls coming in.
An Aside: Nickel Logistics
Nickels are heavy! Storing and transporting them can be a challenge.
In October, 2011, it was reported that Texas hedge fund manager Kyle Bass had invested $1 million to buy 20 million nickels. It was not reported where and how he had them stored. That is a lot of weight!
Some SurvivalBlog readers and I have done some tests:
$300 face value (150 rolls @$2 face value per roll) fits easily fit in a standard U.S. Postal Service Medium Flat Rate Box (This is the USPS "FRB1", with dimensions 11" x 8-1/2" x 5-1/2"). Full of Nickels, it weighs about 68 pounds. They can be mailed from coast to coast for less than $25. Doing so will take a bit of reinforcement. Given enough wraps of strapping tape, a corrugated box will securely transport $300 worth of Nickels. At ULINE you can get a corrugated to fit inside the corrugated Medium Flat Rate Box, to reinforce it. It is item #S-4517. It measures 10"x8"x5". These boxes presently cost 54 cents each in lots of 25.
The standard US .30 caliber ammo can works perfectly for storing rolls of Nickels at home. Each can will hold $188 of nickels in rolls. You can stack the nickel rolls vertically (on end, standing up) four to a row across the width of the ammo can. (Think of it like stacking one shotgun shell on top of another.) Each of the two layers takes 11 rows of 4, plus one odd row of 3. That makes 47 rolls per layer equaling 94 rolls total. This makes for $188 of coins per can. I've read that others have fit as much as $192 in rolled nickels (96 rolls) in a .30 caliber can, by carefully positioning horizontal rows, but this takes a bit more time for precise positioning.
The larger .50 caliber cans also work for storing nickels, but when full of coins they are too heavy to carry easily.
If you buy more than a few hundred dollars worth of nickels, do not over-stress your house. Do not store them upstairs or in an attic. Storing the boxes or ammo cans on a concrete slab floor is ideal.
I've already had some ridicule, with e-mails accusing me of "hoarding." So be it. Let me preemptively state that I realize that money tied up in coins will not benefit from the interest that a bank deposit would earn. But foregoing interest is not a major concern. Why? Because I think that it is a fairly safe bet that commodity price inflation will outstrip the prevailing interest rates for at least the next five years. In five years, the circulating nickel as we now know it, will be history, and it will be treated with nearly the same reverence that we now give to pre-'65 silver coinage.
We saw what happened when clad copper dimes, quarters and half dollars were introduced in 1965. We should learn from history. Something comparable will very likely soon to happen with nickels. You, as a SurvivalBlog.com reader, are now armed with that knowledge. You can and should benefit from it, before Uncle Sugar performs his next sleight of hand trick and starts passing off silver-plated steel tokens as "nickels".
Addendum: Canadian Nickels
The situation with Canadian nickels is much more complicated than with U.S. nickels. You'll have a lot of sorting to do, since the composition of those five cent pieces varied widely! Here is a summary:
1922 - 1942 Canadian Nickels were 99.9% nickel.
1942 - 1943 Canadian Nickels were made of "Tombac" brass (88% copper, 12% zinc) and have a melt value of less than a penny.
1944 - 1945 Canadian Nickels were made of chrome-plated steel and have a melt value of less than a penny.
1946 - 1950 12-sided Canadian Nickels were 99.9% nickel and according to Coinflation.com are as of this writing worth $0.076 each
1951 - 1954 Canadian Nickels were made of chrome-plated steel and have a melt value of less than a penny.
1955 - 1962 12-sided Canadian Nickels were 99.9% nickel and according to Coinflation.com are as of this writing worth $0.076 each
1963 - 1981 Canadian Nickels were 99.9% nickel and as of this writing are worth $0.076 each
1982 - 2001 Canadian Nickels were 75% copper, 25% nickel and as of this writing are worth $0.045 each
2000 - present Canadian Nickels are 94.5% steel, 3.5% copper, and 2% nickel (the outer plating) and have a melt value of less than a penny.
December, 2012 Update: Hopefully the Mint's dawdling will give us another year or two to stack up our boxes of nickels. If you read the contractor's report, you'll see that one of the goals of the planned debasement is that is be "seamless", meaning: "Differences and abilities to recognize or process incumbent coins and coins produced from alternative material candidates cannot be distinguished through normal coin processing." That is bureaucratic doublespeak for "Let's make our new worthless tokens look like real coins, even to vending machines."
To the citizenry at large, the real consequence of the debasement is this: The melt value of a stainless steel nickel will be less than half a cent. We will be robbed again folks, just like our parents were, in 1964. Let's not lose sight of the real underlying crime: general currency inflation. There would be no need to debase coins except for continuing, insidious inflation.
The goal of all government mints is to maintain seigniorage --which is making a profit on the coins that they produce. (Where their cost to produce each coin is less than its face value.) The U.S. Mint's current champion of positive seigniorage is the much-maligned Sacagawea/Presidential "golden" dollar coin, which is a Manganese-Brass token with a base metal value of just 6.22 cents--just one cent more then the base metal value of a nickel. No wonder people instinctively hate them. (By the way, I consider putting a "gold" finish on those coins the most heinous bit of legerdemain in the history of the U.S. Mint.)
Governments don't put up with negative seigniorage for very long. Debasement of nickels and pennies is coming, but the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. Let's just be thankful that we'll have a some more time to keep stacking up our nickels.
Update, April, 2013: Referring to this article: Bill Seeks Steel Cents, Nickels, Dimes, and Quarters, it appears that the U.S. Congress may finally act, after years of foot-dragging, on this issue. Stock up!
- James Wesley, Rawles -- Editor of www.SurvivalBlog.com
Permission to forward, repost, or reprint this article is granted, but only in its entirely with attribution and links intact.
Copyright 2009-2013. All Rights Reserved by James Wesley, Rawles - www.SurvivalBlog.com™ Permission to reprint, repost or forward this article in full is granted, but only if it is not edited or excerpted.
About the Author:
James Wesley, Rawles is a former U.S. Army Intelligence officer and a noted author and lecturer on survival and preparedness topics. He is the author of "Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse" and is the editor of SurvivalBlog.com--the very popular daily web journal for prepared individuals living in uncertain times.