By IANTHE JEANNE DUGAN
May 23, 2008; Page A1
The government rationed food during World War II and gasoline in the 1970s. Now, it's imposing quotas on another precious commodity: 2008 dollar coins known as silver eagles.
The coins, each containing about an ounce of silver, have become so popular among investors seeking alternatives to stocks and real estate that the U.S. Mint can't make them fast enough. In March, the mint stopped taking orders for the bullion coins. Late last month, it began limiting how many coins its 13 authorized buyers world-wide are allowed to purchase.
"This came out of nowhere," says Mark Oliari, owner of Coins 'N Things Inc. in Bridgewater, Mass., one of the biggest buyers of silver eagles. With customers demanding twice as many as they did last year, Mr. Oliari would like to buy 500,000 a week. But the mint will sell him only around 100,000.
The coins have a face value of $1. But the mint sells them for the going price of silver, plus a small premium, to a handful of wholesalers, brokerage companies, precious-metals firms, coin dealers and banks. The dealers mark the coins up a bit more and sell them to the public. Currently, the coins are fetching about $19 apiece, with some sellers seeking more than $20.
For Coins 'N Things alone, the shortage is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales of silver eagles. The firm sells about $1 billion worth of precious metal every year, including silver, gold and platinum coins. Mr. Oliari, a 50-year-old numismatist who has been in the business since 1973, sniffs: "You can't print what I want to say about the mint."
The mint, a bureau of the U.S. Treasury, has offered little explanation beyond a memo last month to its dealers. "The unprecedented demand for American Eagle Silver Bullion Coins necessitates our allocating these coins on a weekly basis until we are able to meet demand," the mint wrote. A spokesman declined to elaborate.
'Poor Man's Gold'
The rare shortage offers a glimpse into the growing love of a commodity known as "poor man's gold." With more silver mined than gold traditionally, silver has always been far cheaper than gold and today has less than 2% of gold's value.
But silver is growing in popularity, and some investors are betting that its value will surge as inventory shrinks. Big investors are loading up on silver eagles, which are the only American silver coins allowed in individual retirement plans. For small investors, they are an accessible way to get into the metal boom.
"Unlike gold, these coins can be bought by regular citizens," says J.R. Roland, a Brownsville, Tenn., judge who recently began buying the coins -- and trading them on eBay. "In these economic hard times, silver coins are a great way to invest."
In March, sales of silver eagles surged more than ninefold from the previous month, to 1.85 million. This year, the mint has sold 6.8 million, representing more than twice last year's pace. Still, numismatists are clamoring for millions more as the price of silver soars. It has more than doubled in the past three years and now trades at around $17 a troy ounce, which is slightly heavier than a traditional ounce.
Linda Wood, a 57-year-old Pittsburgh accountant, scours eBay, coin shops and flea markets in search of silver eagles. One by one, she has accumulated about 300 in the past few months and stores them in a bank safe-deposit box.
Traditional coin collectors may be impressed with the government's written description of silver eagles as "one of the most beautiful coins ever minted." But Ms. Wood isn't in it for aesthetics. She became a silver bug after she and her husband saw the value of their individual retirement accounts decline by $2,500 -- a "significant" chunk. "I just need bullion," she says. "I wouldn't care if the coins were ugly."
Amid the mint caps, shady silver-eagle hawkers are thriving. Some coins are priced at $25 and higher. Mr. Roland says that he had to wait a month after ordering some on eBay recently, because the sellers didn't even have the goods. "I can't wait long, because you never know what's going to happen with the price," he says.
In Manitowoc, Wis., Dan Zirk, owner of Manitowoc Card & Coin, has sold twice as many silver eagles as he did last year. So he has stashed away his remaining handful of 2008 coins, betting the price will rise. "I want $22 apiece," says Mr. Zirk. He says customers, meanwhile, are asking for earlier years and other forms of silver.
The government began producing silver eagles in 1986, basing its design on Adolph Weinman's 1916 "Walking Liberty" half dollar. The front features a flag-draped Lady Liberty striding toward the sunrise, carrying branches of laurel and oak symbolizing civil and military glory. On the reverse, a design by John Mercanti features an eagle with a shield, olive branch, and talon and arrows.
The coins are made at an armored facility in West Point, N.Y., alongside the military academy. Dealers say they heard the mint had run out of planchets -- round metal disks ready to be struck into coins. The disks are used for various coins, and the companies producing the blanks also are busy, limiting the mint's ability to increase production. The mint won't comment on the planchets.
Coins Divvied Up
Each Monday morning now, the mint divides its silver coins into two pools. It divvies up the first equally among authorized purchasers. The second is allocated proportionately, based on the buyer's past purchases. The mint limited purchases once before -- in the late 1990s, when investors loaded up on silver, wrongly anticipating that a failure by the world's computers to adjust to the new millennium would cripple the economy.
Jim Hausman, head of the Gold Center in Springfield, Ill., one of eight companies in the U.S. authorized to buy silver eagles, estimates that the rationing will cut his expected annual sales of four million silver eagles in half.
And the result, he says, is almost un-American. Increasingly, investors are taking a shine to alternatives. The Royal Canadian Mint saw its sales of silver Canadian maple-leaf bullion coins rise 40% last year, to 3.5 million, according to a spokesman.
Some investors expect the craze to end badly. They draw comparisons to what happened to silver in the 1970s. A rich Texas family poured billions of dollars into silver, and prices surged above $50 an ounce in 1980, only to plunge again after government intervention.
"It's akin to what happened when the Hunt brothers tried to corner the silver market," says Wendell Curry, who owns McAllen Gold & Silver Exchange in McAllen, Texas. "The silver hawks are now trying to corner silver American eagles. And it's making it harder for mom and pop to buy these for their grandchildren."
Write to Ianthe Jeanne Dugan at firstname.lastname@example.org