Mass Inflation Ahead – Save Your Nickels!

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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 $0.0516 in October, 2011. I predict that as inflation resumes – most likely beginning in 2012 – 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.)

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" . I predict that this will be signed into law in 2012 and the U.S. mint will begin producing debased steel nickels in late 2012 or early 2013. 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.

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, zinc (flashed with silver) or possibly even aluminum.

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 I suppose that if someone were to invent an automated density-measuring penny sorting machine, he could make a fortune. As background: The pre-1982 pennies recently had a base metal value of about $0.0295 each.) Starting in 1983, 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 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. But once the old composition pennies and nickels have been driven out of circulation, that is likely to change. In fact, a bill now before congress would remove pre-1982 pennies from the melting ban. 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 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.  The larger .50 caliber cans also work, 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.

Conclusion 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".

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 popular daily web journal for prepared individuals living in uncertain times.

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