Melting U.S. Coins for Profit

“People who melt pennies or nickels to profit from the jump in metals prices could face jail time and pay thousands of dollars in fines, according to new rules out Thursday,” reported USA Today last week.

“Soaring metals prices mean that the value of the metal in pennies and nickels exceeds the face value of the coins. Based on current metals prices, the value of the metal in a nickel is now 6.99 cents, while the penny’s metal is worth 1.12 cents, according to the U.S. Mint…

“‘The nation needs its coinage for commerce,’ U.S. Mint director Ed Moy said in a statement. ‘We don’t want to see our pennies and nickels melted down so a few individuals can take advantage of the American taxpayer. Replacing these coins would be an enormous cost to taxpayers’…

“Under the new rules, it is illegal to melt pennies and nickels. It is also illegal to export the coins for melting. Travelers may legally carry up to $5 in 1- and 5-cent coins out of the USA or ship $100 of the coins abroad ‘for legitimate coinage and numismatic purposes.'”

Note the irony in the mint for being concerned about those who would “take advantage of the American taxpayer,” when the actual production cost for each penny is now up to 1.73 cents, according to the Houston Chronicle. Year in and year out, The U.S. Mint wastes money by coining pennies.

Notice that the Mint produced $78,612,000 worth of pennies at a cost of $135,998,760, thereby wasting $57,386,760 of taxpayer money through November 2006. Worse yet are the continued handling charges (and time wasted) by merchants and banks sorting and counting the damn things.

Following is an e-mail conversation I had with John Rubino at shortly after I wrote “Pennies, Nickels, and Dollars”:

Mish: Oddly enough, it is quite likely that The Mint will bring upon the very conditions it hopes to prevent! Telling people 20 nickels are worth 40% more than a dollar can only invite hoarding.

Rubin Exactly! I told my 9-year-old about the nickel thing today (he’s home from school with a cold) and he immediately got our change jars out and started picking out the nickels.

The Mint had to be crazy to announce that a nickel is worth 7 cents. I got to thinking about this a bit more, and a nickel is really 0.05 dollars plus a call option on the price of copper and nickel (the metals) in the nickel. If that option is ITM (in the money) enough, the mint cannot prevent people from hoarding them, which will in turn drive up the cost of producing them. In fact, the actual price does not even have to get high enough; the mere expectation that metal prices will get high enough could cause hoarding. Of course, the Mint tried to negate that call option by making it illegal to melt the coins, but that will not stop hoarding if the expected or actual price of copper and nickel gets high enough.

All the Mint really accomplished was telling everyone that a nickel is backed up by something useful, even if a dollar is not. Eventually, this is likely to force the mint to debase the nickel by replacing the copper and nickel in the nickel with steel or aluminum.

Recall that the Mint long ago replaced much of the nickel in nickels with copper, just as it removed the silver in silver dollars and replaced the copper in pennies with zinc. That is actually the process I was referring to when I suggested nickels would soon be confiscated.

In the short term, it is likely the value of a nickel drops to a nickel or less because of the falling price of copper. If there were as much nickel in nickels as there used to be, then nickels would be worth even more than today’s copper nickels.

Many of you know that I have been bearish on copper for quite some time. I have been bearish on copper simply because so much of it is used in housing. I expected that symmetrical triangle to break down, and it did. Also note that I was lenient in how I redrew that triangle. The lighter blue line at the base was the lower edge of the previous triangle I was looking at.

We have since then seen a retest of support at the 320 level that seems to have failed, as well as multiple failed tests of the triangle (using previous lines). My target remains the 220 level, but 160-180 is not out of the question. Technically, copper is broken. Can it blast higher anyway? Yes, it can. I just do not think it is likely.

Exactly what are Dr. Copper and Lumber telling us? To me, it is obvious. This economy is in trouble.

Let’s now return to my previous question: “In what time frame will the current (and probably soon-to-be confiscated) nickel be worth more than a dollar?”

Aaron Krowne gave a couple of possible answers to that question on

“If base metal values continue to increase by 5% per year on average, and the dollar continues to depreciate by about the same, then in about 261/2 years, a nickel will be worth a dollar in inherent value. If the rates are 10% per year, then in a bit over 13 years, this milestone will be reached.”

Some might think Aaron is asking too much, others too little, and in the short term, I am still calling for a pullback in copper prices. But what’s to lose by hoarding nickels? Oddly enough, hoarding nickels is a hedge against both hyperinflation and deflation. If hyperinflation kicks in, a nickel might be worth more than a quarter (in metal content) in no time flat. If deflation kicks in as I suspect, cash will be a good thing to have. If you are going to hold cash (change), it may as well be in nickels.


Mike Shedlock ~ “Mish”
for The Markets and Money Australia 

Editor’s Note: Michael Shedlock (Mish) worked in the financial services industry for 20 years at some of the top institutions in the country including Harris Bank, the Bank of Montreal, Bank One, First National Bank of Chicago, and First Data Corp. He is a regular contributor to the free e-letter, Whiskey and Gunpowder, which covers resources, oil, geopolitics, military history, geology and personal freedom.

Mike Shedlock

Michael Shedlock (Mish) worked in the financial services industry for 20 years at some of the top institutions in the country including Harris Bank, the Bank of Montreal, Bank One, First National Bank of Chicago, and First Data Corp. Mish is currently doing economic and investment research for a number of clients and is the co-editor of The Survival Report. In addition, Mish runs one of the more popular stock boards on the Motley Fool, Investment Analysis Clubs/Mishedlo and one of the more popular boards on Silicon Investor as well, Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis.

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who gave the mint law making powers, a rule and a law have different meanings. The mint makes rules, not laws.

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