Copper pennies: The safest bet in years… But what has everybody been missing?
For close to a decade now, the copper penny craze has been getting more and more exposure. ( The news that 1 penny is worth over 2 pennies seems to spread fast.) Even in 1982, when the penny was first switched over to zinc construction, investors were hedging their bets by buying dozens of boxes of copper cent pieces. 30 years and over 100% gains later, the rest of the world is catching on.
While the value of the US dollar drops, so too drops the value of the copper penny; at the same time, the value of copper and zinc is going up, up, up! This has lead to the metal value of pre-82 pennies – weighing in at 3.11 grams per copper penny (or 146 copper pennies per pound) – to be worth 2.2¢ each as of today.
But, when talking to a copper penny “hoarder,” I often realize: They have no idea how the second-hand commodities market works! In fact, some copper penny hoarders are so far detached from the scrap copper market that they think copper pennies should have a premium over scrap value!
Just to be clear, I think collecting and saving copper pennies is a phenomenal investment, especially in a SHTF scenario. But you should never BUY copper pennies at a premium, and here is why:
Copper Pennies Are NOT 100% Copper!
In fact, copper pennies made during or before ’62 are 5% tin and zinc, and Copper pennies made after ’62 are 5% zinc! This was done to make the pennies a little more corrosion resistant, and a lot stronger. It wasn’t until 1982 that pennies started getting minted with 97.5% zinc. (Surprisingly, there are many people in the US that don’t know that the modern day penny is zinc. )
- Copper Pennies Are NOT Worth Copper Spot Price!
Every time I discuss hoarding with a penny hoarder, they continuously push copper spot price in my face. What many don’t understand (not all, but many) is that copper pennies are worth nowhere near spot price! Copper spot price is what it costs to buy electrolytically refined pure copper, 25 tonnes at a time! There is not a single refinery in the world that will buy copper pennies for copper spot price. Not one. Buying/selling copper pennies at spot price (or even close to it) is like buying 18k gold at gold spot price. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
Copper Pennies Are NOT Worth Copper Scrap Price!
Even if the copper penny ban were lifted immediately, copper pennies wouldn’t be worth their weight in #1 copper scrap. Why? Well for starters:
• Copper Pennies are 5% zinc! Small amounts of contamination – especially an amount like 5% – calls for a relatively large percentage downgrade for any type of copper scrap. It makes refining the metal more expensive, and that extra cost is going to come out of the seller’s pocket, not the buyer’s!
• Copper Pennies are relatively thin! Scrap copper pennies are a hair under 1/16″ in thickness, which anybody who has sold light copper to a scrap yard knows is not worth as much as thicker walled copper!
• Copper Pennies are hard to buy! If a scrap yard is buying 500 pounds of copper pipes from a plumber, they can simply load them onto a scale and pay you. But if any Joe bring in 500 pounds of copper pennies, the pennies need to first be sifted through for foreign objects (small pieces of steel, balls of lead, etc) to assure that nobody is trying to cheat the scale. This is not too big of a deal… But then the yard would need to check if all the pennies are pre-82! The cheapest, most cost effective method for checking a bag of “supposedly copper” pennies, is to compare its volume to it’s weight. Unfortunately, this is not going to simply be the density of copper because a pile of copper pennies is full of air! Even stacks of rolled copper pennies will still have air (and paper contamination). Both of these hiccups in the buying process are going to make buying copper pennies more of a chore then a treat!
What that means is, unless you are selling more the a few tons of copper pennies, expect to get ~70% of spot price. If you are selling more then that, then something closer to 85%-90% of spot price is in order. (Still worth saving, by any means!)
Copper Pennies Could Get Hoarded By The US Mint (possibly)
As I’ve already mentioned, the US mint is currently hiring consultants to find a new one cent piece alloy and 5 cent piece alloy. That means, they know how much their coins are worth. (Heck, they have for a few decades)
Some coin hoarders are aware that in Canada their mint has been pulling and melting all high value metal coinage for about 6 years. This is part of what was dubbed the Alloy Recovery Program or ARP, and it has made their mint profit!
What is stopping the US Mint from doing the same thing? They apparently had the unwritten power to ban the melting of pennies and nickels in December 2006. What is to stop them from starting their own ARP? What is stopping congress from passing some type of ARP tomorrow?
There is an estimated 140 billion total US pennies in circulation. Of that, even if 10% are copper, very conservatively, we’re talking about 14 billion copper pennies, which “theoretically” (again, I hate to use spot prices) is $380 million as of today! If you wanted to be more liberal with your estimates, you may find there is over $1.5 billion worth of copper pennies in circulation. (This is not even counting 5-cent pieces!)
Again, I’m not saying it will happen… but it could happen.
Investing in Copper Pennies is NOT a “Risk-less” InvestmentThe US is experiencing stagflation right now, and its dollar is losing value! The US unemployment rate has only dropped 1% since its peak at 10% in late 2009. Inflation is still over 3.5%. An investment in copper pennies, if the melt ban isn’t lifted, is going to be a net loss. A relatively small loss, but a loss none-the-less. (Many agree, however, that potential gains are worth paying a small percentage to inflation if things don’t work out )
Buying Copper Pennies is NOT Equivalent to Buying Regular Copper Bullion
Before you considering buying copper pennies, ask yourself: “Do I want to just buy un-regulated copper bullion?”
Unfortunately, copper pennies are just that – government regulated copper bullion. The government is determining it’s value by imposing a melt ban. Do you really want the US government deciding the value of your copper bullion?
In a penny hoarders’ fantasy, smelters will buy up copper pennies by the ton at spot price. Everybody in the metal industry – everybody – agrees that is not going to happen when the melt ban is lifted. (if the melt ban is lifted). Will they get bought up? YES! Will it be at the same price as any other type of copper scrap? YES! And for the last time, don’t get sucked into the silly idea that copper pennies are “worth their weight in spot-copper.”
Many investors (the ones who are well versed in buying and selling gold and silver bullion anyway) are calling copper pennies “copper bullion.” While, technically, pennies may fall under a very general definition of “bullion,” that same definition also makes copper pipes “copper bullion” as well. In fact, copper pipes are more fitting to get called “copper bullion” as they are not made of 5% zinc,and there isn’t a melt ban on them.
The advantages of calling the copper pennies “bullion” is obvious: metal bullion is worth a premium in the eyes of an investor. (Unfortunately, copper water pipes, which can be picked up at any hardware store, are just as pure as any type of “copper bullion” on the market.)
If you are sorting copper pennies, more power too you! I am as well! But, I have seen some people buy them for more then scrap price. Don’t be that person. Firstly, you shouldn’t be buying copper pennies from anyplace but the bank. Secondly, when you realize that you could have just bought scrap copper , you will feel like a fool.
- This is Not the First Melt Ban On Copper Pennies!
Imagine, for a moment, that it is 1974. Nixon is still in office (3.5 months before the water gate scandal), and copper spot just hit $1.20 per pound! “How can that be?” everybody thought, “Soon that means it will cost more money to make a penny then it is worth!” The Treasury Head quickly released a ban on melting pennies, afraid that if prices rose above $1.50 per pound people would start melting them for quick profits.In the few years that followed, copper pennies were scrutinized by congress, and and plans for aluminum pennies were drafted up! (One rare example still exists!) Unfortunately, interest in making an aluminum penny was shot down by vending machine lobbyist.This small article from 1974 summarizes the feeling at the time. The article clearly states, “The problem is further complicated by ‘hoarders’ and speculators buying up pennies on the assumption it will soon pay to melt them down and sell the copper” 40 years later, and it looks like they were spot on!
If you are collecting copper pennies, or just want to share your input, please comment on this post or add your voice to our scrap metal forum!