By Patrick A. Heller - Liberty Coin Service
Commentary on Precious Metals Prepared for CoinWeek.com
Even though gold and silver prices are up significantly since the beginning of 2012, that doesn’t necessarily mean that this trend will continue. Buyers and sellers modify their decisions as prices change.
When you look at who is and who isn’t actively buying or selling gold and silver right now, that can give you significant clues as to where prices head in the near term.
Ever since the price of gold surpassed $1,000 for the first time in 2008, there has been significant liquidation and recycling of “scrap” gold such as jewelry and industrial products. In many instances, people who lost jobs or experienced other financial setbacks have sold assets to generate cash flow. Investment demand in the past three years has been so strong that prices continued to rise despite the increase in recycling supplies. From now into the future, however, the amount of scrap gold that could be liquidated will be smaller than it would have been because of all the gold already recycled.
The story is similar for silver. During the 1979-1980 precious metals boom, many companies acquired equipment to recycle metals. Even though prices later fell so low that it was no longer economical to acquire such equipment, it was still profitable to continue to use existing machines since the acquisition costs had already been paid. As a result, silver recycling continued at a steady pace even when prices were far lower during the past few decades.
Therefore, there is less silver available for recycling today and in the future than there would have been. Another factor to consider is that the use of silver in photography (including x-rays) has fallen sharply in the past decade or so. This is significant because a high percentage of silver used in photography is recycled. As the amount of silver used in photography has fallen, so has the amount of silver that could be recycled.
With higher prices, there would be a strong incentive for mining companies to expand production. However, it’s not quite that simple. From discovery of a mine site until full production used to take an average of about three years. With increasing environmental and other regulations, it now takes an average of about ten years to go into full scale operation.
Increasing regulations have also impacted the ability of existing mines to operate. In January, the government shut down operations at the Lucky Friday mine in Idaho, producer of about 0.5% of the world’s newly mined silver supply. Even though the mine had passed twice-a-year federal safety inspections, it was closed because of alleged problems with its state of the art mine shaft supports. The owner of the mine stated that it will take a full year to fix the alleged safety issues before the mine can resume operation.
Overall, silver mine output has been rising over the years even as global gold mine output mostly declined. Still, silver supply is just not increasing enough to match the rise in demand.
For decades, the central banks were net sellers of gold every year. That changed a couple of years ago to central banks now being net buyers of gold. The swing from being a net supplier to a net buyer has affected the supply/demand equation by about 40 million ounces a year. This is a huge impact when you consider that worldwide annual mine output may be only 70 million ounces.
Above ground inventories of physical gold and silver have dwindled over the past few decades, with supplies of both metals becoming tighter every year. Last year I received several reports of would-be buyers of multi-million dollar amounts of physical gold or silver who wanted to take immediate delivery but were unable to find sellers willing to accept their orders.
While the supply side of gold and silver is constrained, I think the largest impact on the prices of both will come from a surge in buying demand. Even though there has been an increase in demand for the two metals for industrial and investment purposes, the market has not yet experienced a sustained rush to buy physical gold and silver.
For instance, when gold and silver prices fell sharply in late 2008, there were significant delays in purchasing almost every form of bullion-priced physical gold and silver. At the most extreme, new orders for 1 ounce size silver rounds and ingots were taking three months for delivery after the buyers had paid for them. Today, in the US almost every bullion coin and bar is available for live or short term delivery. Premiums are close to as low as they have been over the past couple of years.
The recent weekly Commitment of Traders Report issued by the COMEX show that speculators have not jumped into the market. This means that the price increases have occurred without this source of demand.
China and India are the world’s two largest nations for consumption of gold and silver. What happens in those countries has a major impact on prices.
The Chinese government has been very aggressive at purchasing physical gold and silver for itself and also encouraging its citizens to accumulate precious metals. It is expanding the venues which would make it convenient for people to acquire gold and silver. There are regular stories of Chinese citizens who are unable to purchase physical precious metals because the stores are out of stock or have lines so long that it takes (literally) several hours to get service.
Demand in India is very sensitive to price. When prices fall, demand soars. When prices rise, demand tapers off until there is a sense that the market has established a base from which prices will resume climbing. Right now, buyers in India are mostly sitting on the sidelines since the price of gold broke above $1,700. So, prices rose in the second half of January without extra demand from this nation.
In Europe and the Middle East, there is strong demand for physical gold and, to a lesser extent, silver as safe havens from deteriorating currency values. Demand was especially strong in North America in March and April 2011, but is now lackluster.
Although there have been some investment funds taking positions in gold or silver, this activity has been on a minor scale.
Perhaps the most significant indicator that the rush to buy gold and silver has not started in earnest is the relatively minor importance that the two metals have in world finances. There were times in the first half of the 20th century where the value of gold and silver mining shares and all the circulating gold and silver coins made up more than 20% of global wealth. Today that proportion of worldwide wealth is about 0.5%.
By the way, perhaps a significant indicator of where prices are headed in the near future is a decision by Endeavor Silver to inventory part of its newly mined silver output rather than sell it at current prices. I have heard that other mining companies are discussing this option, where they might only sell enough metal to fund continuing operations. It is highly unusual for mines to choose to defer cash flow in anticipation of much higher prices in the coming months.
The real rush to buy gold and silver will not be underway until there is strong demand from China and India, elsewhere in the Far East, the Middle East, Europe, and across North America. You will also see central banks and investment funds purchasing greater quantities of physical gold and perhaps silver. When fabricators and wholesalers are unable to meet demand for physical metal, prices could skyrocket. We are a long way from this position today. But it is coming and will be here surprisingly soon.
Patrick A. Heller owns Liberty Coin Service and Premier Coins & Collectibles in Lansing, Michigan and writes Liberty’s Outlook, a monthly newsletter on rare coins and precious metals subjects. Past newsletter issues can be viewed at http://www.libertycoinservice.com. Other commentaries are available at Numismaster (http://www.numismaster.com under “News & Articles). His award-winning radio show “Things You ‘Know’ That Just Aren’t So, And Important News You Need To Know” can be heard at 8:45 AM Wednesday and Friday mornings on 1320-AM WILS in Lansing (which streams live and becomes part of the audio and text archives posted at http://www.1320wils.com.